The deputy PM on boosting the Pasifika vote turnout, her go-to cafe order and why she doesn’t want to be prime minister.
Nestled among Titirangi’s native bush and towering trees, down a short steep driveway, with Labour Party hoardings spotting the yard, is the home of deputy prime minister and MP for Kelston, Carmel Sepuloni. She cautiously greets me with an elbow bump, after waking up with a slight headache. She took a swab test, which was negative, but she still wants to play it safe.
Sepuloni’s lounge is cosy and warm, with tall, white shelves on one side filled with family photos, books and Pacific artwork. We chat for a while then she decides to take one more swab for certainty. As we wait for the test result, Sepuloni’s senior press secretary A’eau Kieran Meredith arrives at the door, having flown up from Wellington to accompany the minister on her scheduled appointments for the day, including a trip to the University of Auckland’s engineering school for an announcement on Labour’s economic growth plan.
While we wait, I ask Sepuloni about her malu, a traditional Sāmoan tattoo for women that covers the legs from below the knees to the upper thighs. A momentous occasion for any Sāmoan woman, Sepuloni got hers recently. “It felt like I have always had it,” she says. “It was so special, especially as I did mine around the same time as Terisa [Ngobi, MP for Ōtaki].” I can’t see her malu, and it’s rarely visible on the campaign, as Sepuloni wears a standard “casual” look of blue jeans, a blue-striped oversized shirt and a black blazer. The statement earrings are present too. “I love earrings! It’s one of those things where it doesn’t matter how you feel or how much you’ve eaten in a week, earrings always fit in, so I wear them to show a little bit of my personality. I enjoy wearing Pacific design earrings made by our people.”
A moment later, Sepuloni breathes a sigh of relief, “Phew! It’s negative.” That’s our cue to head outside, towards the silver sedan parked outside at the top of her driveway, with her driver Dave waiting by her side of the car, door opened and ready.
Although a proud west Auckland resident, Sepuloni has fond memories growing up in Waitara in Taranaki. “Even though dad was strict, as many Pacific people would relate to, we had so much freedom back then to walk, bike and skate around the block,” she reflects. “Being a close-knit community, in every street you had someone to play with. It was safe and familiar.” Sepuloni’s mother Beverley is of Polish and English descent, her father Kamisi is Sāmoan and Tongan, and she has two sisters. “I’m the middle child, and so it’s fitting that I got into politics because I’m always fighting for fairness, even in the family,” she laughs.
As we drive through New Lynn, Sepuloni shares that her dad loves to go to the local mall every day for a latte, wearing his Labour Party hoodie. “He says that’s his way of campaigning for me,” she smiles before shifting her focus to her phone to read the press release on the $100 million investment from the Venture Capital Fund to support agritech. As we drive through Avondale I ask Sepuloni how the recent visit to the Avondale markets was with prime minister Chris Hipkins, compared to Hipkins’ disrupted visit to Ōtara a week earlier. “It was good, very busy. We had one anti-vaxxer present who was vocal, but it wasn’t as hectic as his visit out south,” she says. The more volatile nature of the campaign this year isn’t necessarily a surprise to Labour MPs. A year ago, Sepuloni had to get an intercom installed at her office in Glen Eden for safety reasons. “Since the pandemic, there was a lot of tension, so we had to start checking through a security camera all the visitors to the office before letting anyone in, including myself. Just recently I had someone come by the office, telling my staff that he had a meeting with me, but it wasn’t true.”
We are early to the engineering school. Dave the driver jumps out to open Sepuloni’s door, which she seems to find amusing. At a nearby cafe, Sepuloni bumps into a former colleague of hers, Dr Melenaite Taumoepeau, who she used to work with in the Pacific studies department at the University of Auckland. She shares how she spent 10 years at the university, studying a bachelor of education and diploma of primary school teaching before undertaking postgraduate studies while working for five years. “That degree was a good grounding to becoming a politician,” she says. Through her own educational experience and training to become a teacher, she developed more of an understanding for some of the inequities that exist, particularly in the education system. “It further fuelled me to want to be in a position that makes positive change benefiting Aotearoa, including the Pacific community.”
Sepuloni describes her younger self as a “pretty good student”. “I loved primary school! I was one of those kids who would sit up straight, hoping the teachers would choose me to read out loud, whereas so many kids hated that. I did well academically too.” However, high school did have some lows. “I got into a bit of trouble, a lot of truancy, smoking when I shouldn’t be, due to things going on at home,” she says, outlining a similar experience to many students today. “I ended up living with my school principal in my seventh form. Her support led me to go on to university the following year.”
Sepuloni had big career aspirations and was considering law, medicine and anthropology. “I looked at a lot of pathways thinking how exciting it would be and I remember openly telling my friends that I had a huge interest in politics because I’m passionate about social justice and fairness.”
Once outside the engineering school, Sepuloni greets Hipkins with a big hug and follows him as they and their entourage enter the building. There’s a tour around different sections of the school, a demonstration of robot technology for harvesting apples and blueberries and an opportunity to tickle and dance with a robot. The room is cramped with media, political staff members and a handful of security, with university students peeping through the window next door, phones out to record the action. Once the questions wrap up, Hipkins is asked to take photos with the students while Sepuloni ducks out to the corridor to wait for him there.
As we are exiting the school, Hipkins’ press secretary reminds him that he needs to do a social media video. Sepuloni checks to see if she is needed, to which Hipkins politely says no and they exchange goodbyes. Dave is ready with Sepuloni’s door opened, and we head to her office. As we drive along Rata Street in New Lynn, Sepuloni notices one of her hoardings has been knocked down. We talk more about the hoardings, and Sepuloni says she has a group of volunteers who get notified about damage – they fix it in their spare time. “Prices for the timber have gone up, with backing costing around $89 each,” she says. “What a lot of people don’t see is the amount of fundraising we [politicians and volunteers] have to do, so when I see graffiti on a hoarding, it makes me sad.”
We arrive at West Coast Road to have lunch at Fiesta Kitchen, a one-minute walk from her office. Sepuloni orders mince on a slice of five grain toast with poached eggs on the side and an English breakfast tea. “I’m a breakfast person and it’s important for me to have eggs featured in one of my meals for the day because I love my eggs,” she says. “It can be poached, scrambled, boiled – it doesn’t matter, along with some kind of five grain bread, I’m a happy person.” She adds that during the campaign trail, her go-to food is sandwiches. “Unlike the prime minister, I don’t eat many sausage rolls. I know my body was not built for consuming many of those, but I am lucky that when I’m in Auckland, my husband does most of the cooking, so we eat lots of Fijian curries and stews. Good soul food.” I ask her what food she looks forward to most at island functions. “I get excited when I see island-style seafood, particularly octopus with some taro.”
After lunch, we head back to her office to chat. It’s a standard office space, with a meeting room, desks with partitions, a kitchen with the addition of Labour signs and posters scattered around the space. We sit across from each other at a square dining table and I ask if she wants to be the prime minister. “If I’m completely honest, I can’t imagine a harder, more challenging job, especially having worked closely with two prime ministers already,” she says. “I really admire them and I don’t think that is something that I’d want to do full time.”
She’s had a taste of the gig with short stints as acting prime minister during Hipkins’ overseas trips. “It’s tough. It’s relentless and the expectations are high, so I’m not going to sit here and say that I have any aspirations to be the prime minister.” Sepuloni does believe that Aotearoa would vote for a Pasifika prime minister if it was the right person, but she strongly believes it’s important that Aotearoa has a Māori prime minister one day.
Pasifika people are one of the groups with the lowest turnout rate when it comes to voting at the general election. Sepuloni says that so often people don’t have the bandwidth to think outside of the everyday realities and challenges that they are facing. “The daily struggles acts as a barrier to them actually being able to engage with what’s happening politically, so it’s crucial that Pacific people don’t go out and vote alone, take the whole family to exercise their democratic right to vote, which has been fought for over time.” She encourages Pasifika people to look at the political parties carefully and what they are offering their communities. “How much will the said party value Pacific communities and their decision making? What will certain policies mean for Pacific families and communities now as well as in the future? These are the questions I want our people to ask themselves when they’re exercising their power to vote.”
The Pacific community hasn’t had it easy lately. During the height of Covid restrictions and measures, it was South Auckland – where the airport and a number of MIQ facilities were, as well as where a lot of essential workers lived – that bore the brunt of testing and infections. After the much-hyped Dawn Raids apology in 2021, there were dawn detainments reported just this April. And more recently, Act leader David Seymour joked about sending Guy Fawkes into the Ministry for Pacific Peoples.
Despite all this, the Dawn Raids formal apology by the government is one of Sepuloni’s most treasured moments as a Pacific member of parliament. “I know that the apology was genuine, sincere and authentic,” she says. However, she is still disappointed in the more recent developments, saying Immigration New Zealand was out of step with the apology. “Now, what’s happened is that the practice can no longer occur and there’s a review into the case. There is no clear policy yet as it’s taking longer to get the level of advice that the minister for immigration needs to be able to consider properly, so the case and resolution hasn’t been dismissed, we just need the information to be able to make a decision and move forward.”
With two strong Pacific Labour MPs, Aupito William Sio and Poto Williams, having retired recently, Sepuloni says she has felt the gap they left. She laughs as she remembers all the funny memories she has with Sio, including when he denies he’s older than her. “He thinks he’s my brother, but I say you’re more like my uncle. When we are at events, there are times where he may be speaking for longer than he needs to, so I would go stand behind him, put my hand on his shoulder and say, mālō, mālō ‘aupito [thank you in Tongan], which is my way of saying wrap it up,” she laughs.
Sepuloni says the Pacific MPs all have a mutual respect for each other and there’s a lot of banter. Before she was a politician, Poto Williams volunteered for Sepuloni’s political campaigns in Auckland. “She moved to Christchurch post-earthquake because she wanted to help the survivors, not knowing that Lianne Dalziel was going to leave. She rang me saying, I think I’m going to put my name forward, what do you think? And of course I said, do it! And the rest is history.”
Sepuloni has a meeting straight after our chat with the West Auckland trusts to discuss community safety, and later an event with an ethnic community group. “This is actually one of my less busy days,” she says.
This is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.