Sep 14, 2022 Politics
As Oscar Wilde once wrote, “it is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances”. This is never truer than when talking about politicians. I headed to Kingsland to the aptly named Citizen Park to interview Fa‘anānā Efeso Collins, a southern hopeful for the mayoralty of Auckland. I was a little nervous — I hadn’t met him but I had seen him on television and I was impressed by his presence and his wisdom. When he appeared, Efeso blocked the door. He is massive, 6 foot 4, bald and beautifully dressed in a Samoan formal suit. He walked towards me, smiling, for a gigantic handshake, and I thought, “This is going to turn out okay.”
BOB — Do you have a full Samoan tattoo? I once went to an art gallery where over a week a Samoan was on a mat and it looked excruciating, but the result was simply beautiful.
EFESO — No, I don’t have a full tattoo. When I was very young, we were Catholic but I moved with my family to the Pentecostal religion and they forbid markings on the body. I have cheated a little and have a taulima tattoo on my arm which I got at my mother’s funeral service, but I always wear long sleeves to church. They are a beautiful historic and important part of our tradition. We say, “Tattoo your mouth before you tattoo the body.” This means learn the language and the culture first before you move on to the physical body.
BOB — Could you tell me about your religion? It keeps reoccurring whenever your name and your ambition is brought up.
EFESO — My father was a minister in the Assembly of God ministry and while he was away doing the work of the church, his parents raised me. I am one of six children. This is where I learnt the Samoan language — at home none of us were taught Samoan as in those days it wasn’t deemed appropriate. But I understand the culture and I’m grateful for those years with my grandparents. It gave me a good grounding. Then at university when I became the first Polynesian president of the Auckland University Students’ Association, that gave me a real taste of what leadership could and can be.
BOB — What’s your relationship with God like today?
EFESO — It’s deeply personal. I feel it’s part of who I am. In New Zealand both Māori and Pacific people respect religion as part of the political process. Māori are deeply religious, and before meetings there is always a hymn or a blessing and there is always someone ready to bless the food, so it’s not something that is out of character. I do think it’s a stabilising influence — it is something that you project in your voice and your oratory and in your desire to make a difference. I’ve had dark days. When my siblings went to Australia I was left caring for my parents, I was carrying the mortgage, I was about to get married, I was the leader at church and I struggled. I was the young one who went to uni and I was the golden child with high expectations. They were very dark years.
BOB — There’s been a lot of negative chatter about you, from within the council and from your own party. Do you think its racially based? Or do they simply misunderstand you?
EFESO — I don’t think it’s racial, but there is a difficulty in understanding the Polynesian way around leadership and how it is delivered. Yes, I did have a problem when my family came to the Town Hall at my swearing in and I made it clear to the media that we felt marginalised, but my relationship with my council colleagues and with the mayor have always been heartfelt. I don’t know why there was any difficulty with Labour, but they did endorse me. That is what I asked for and that is what they gave me and I will always be forever grateful for that support.
BOB — What do you stand for?
EFESO — I stand for a better Auckland. Better communication. The ability to bring people together and the ability to listen. Auckland is so big now — it’s not the old days where there are lots of different councils. We are such a big community that I feel it’s important to build those bridges and connections. So that the person who lives in Greenhithe can relate to someone who lives in Māngere or in Rodney. Give each other a sense of meaning and place. I think it’s time for a type of leadership that draws people together. I want to be that person and I know I can be that person. I have a passion for leadership and I am committed to a better tomorrow. I like to think first before I speak. And I like to reflect on what makes people tick. I’m into things like meditation, mindfulness, being thoughtful and reflective, being slow to speak. I often think our society is a bit microwave-ish in that everyone wants instant gratification, instant response. I love walking by calm water. I immediately fall into a meditative state and my thoughts are clear. I feel a sense of energy and wellbeing.
BOB — These are beautiful thoughts and I deeply respect them, but do you think your colleagues understand?
EFESO — I think the civil service and the council identity have tried really hard to embrace me, and I feel if anyone should lead the city it should come from within council. We should be a microcosm of Auckland — that’s who we should be reflecting — because there are so many different ethnicities and cultures across our city. When I played rugby, I wasn’t the pretty-boy winger, I was the lock who did the work in the ruck. I see myself doing that now. I am a team player. Like any Samoan, we like company and we like to talk and laugh, and that has been missing at council.
BOB — You are clearly a great orator, you have a superb voice and you know how to use it. Who taught you how to to do that?
EFESO — When I was young at church I was up front under Grandfather Efeso, who I was named after. ‘Efeso’ is the Samoan translation of the biblical ancient city Ephesus where St Paul taught his learnings. My father is also a beautiful orator, and I have to say John Duncan at Tangaroa College saw the potential in me and lifted me. He taught me confidence and encouraged me to be a storyteller and added that to my learning. I am, thanks to John, a natural storyteller. As a Samoan, I was privileged to be taught by Albert Wendt and Witi Ihimaera, two magnificent writers and filmmakers. I really caught the thrill of being taught by masters of my own blood and culture.
BOB — Do you weep?
EFESO — Yes, I am emotional. I think what you are saying, Bob, is that emotions are something that is a strength not a weakness.
BOB — I am. Who do you admire?
EFESO — That’s a hard question, but I think I would say David Lange. I remember cutting ribbons with my family for the Labour Party victory and David came into the room and I was so in awe of him. I saw a man of wisdom and kindness in David Lange. Humble but also strong. I see myself in a role very close to Lange. It’s a role that I feel I can handle, it’s the shepherd role. It’s not weak, it’s courageous. And I know it’s very challenging, and it is tough. David Lange inspired me — I know that you worked with him and you know the good and the bad times that Lange endured.
BOB — So how do you see leadership now? The job is unrelenting — seven days a week, 24 hours a day — believe me, a mayor doesn’t have time off.
EFESO — I know one thing: don’t be angry. It will eat you up. Sure, I have high energy and I need to channel that energy; I need to feel a buzz, and I need to feel I am achieving and can achieve. I think of the job and so I am surrounding myself with good people in this campaign. Max Harris is my adviser and is renowned for having the political smarts, and my campaign is pulled together from right across the community. Pacific and Pālagi, Māori and Rainbow Youth. I am open and free in my political judgements and, to be honest, I am not ashamed to say I made some judgement calls around the Rainbow community. But my bridge-building is really working.
BOB — What makes you happy?
EFESO — My two daughters. I was last to leave home, so I know what it’s like to be in a family environment where I am wanted and needed. Happiness can sometimes be elusive. I met my wife at university and we are a close family. When I am mayor, I will insist that the council can also be a family place, where members of the council can have space to be with their families between meetings. I am going to insist on two dinners with my own family at home every week just to make sure I maintain a connection. And, if I can make it, I certainly want to have break- fast with my kids.
BOB — Let’s talk about policy. You have been endorsed by the Labour Party and this of course is the same road that Phil Goff came down, as did the first super city mayor Len Brown, so this endorsement is major. Now the people of Auckland will need you to deliver policy that matters, that goes beyond the ‘kindness’ of the prime minister. It will need to have teeth and grunt and, Efeso, to use a vulgar term, there will be blood. Are you up for that?
EFESO — I would like to see each councillor have two or three projects or ideas that they are really passionate about, key things that will affect the community and build a consensus around that. I feel, at the moment, there’s an undercurrent of anger and perhaps disappointment and distrust within council, with people voting against things simply because they are angry. I would like to take the time to sit and discuss these issues to reignite a sense of direction. We are not central government — we need to have consensus. We have our work cut out for us regarding congestion — you know I voted against the regional fuel tax but I’m happy to consider congestion charges — but the ultimate goal around congestion is to be more productive, ride sharing, getting on buses and bikes. We need to get people out of their cars because the climate emission is major and there is no getting away from it.
BOB — The CCOs have had seriously bad press lately — are they an issue for you as a future mayor?
EFESO — The Port is a good example. It needs to move and we know from the government’s report that in the next 30 years they will have to move somewhere. It’s a decision we need to make over the next 10 years. I’m really interested in what Ngāti Whātua have to say about it. A discussion needs to happen. What if we had cafés along there and not cars and containers? I think Auckland Transport have done a very poor job at communication. We need to take people on a journey — let’s get the community into a conversation before we start taking out parking and putting in cycle paths. One of my immediate intentions is to look at how Auckland Transport handle their finances and consultation. I think we need to have good internal communication before going external.
BOB — There are just so many people to move from A to B — is the problem that Auckland’s just too bloody big?
EFESO — We need to look at the settings of immigration. We have been through Covid and now if we are inviting people from all over the world to come and live with us and we can’t help the current people who live here, we need to have a conversation with the Crown on how we can resolve that. Otherwise they are just joining a long list of people who are paying over a million dollars for a three-bedroom house in the suburbs. This is a serious problem to me.
BOB — Have you got what it takes?
EFESO — I am instinctive and intuitive and to me that is very important in politics — I feel as if nowadays it has been drained out of us. That’s what local government should be, and when you are local that’s what you do. I’ve not been afraid of working with gangs in South Auckland. I know when I turn up they roll their eyes and think I’m coming to talk to them about Jesus, but I’m coming there to talk about much more, I’m coming to sort it out. That’s what I want to do as mayor. I am committed to being the mayor, but maybe I could also be the shepherd of the city.