One of the new kids on the block, Anahila Kanongata’a-Suisuiki, has switched a career in social work for a seat in the Beehive. A child of former overstayers, the Tongan-born MP spoke to Newsroom about her colourful background, and life as part of the coalition Government.

Anahila Kanongata’a-Suisuiki refers to herself as Labour’s “super-sub”.

The 48-year-old, who once did a stint as manager of Tonga’s touch rugby team, laughs as she explains the self-prescribed nickname: “Basically, I step in whenever somebody can’t make something – like on Friday, Kiri Tapu-Allan couldn’t make her [Finance and Expenditure] committee, so I went.

“If you can’t make your select committee, then I’m in there,” she says heartily.

Kanongata’a-Suisuiki, who is a member of the health select committee, pinpoints her entrance into politics to 2009 – when things at work took a turn in the wrong direction.

“By then, I was managing a Youth Justice site in Ōtahuhu and Mangere in South Auckland [as a then-Child, Youth and Family manager],” the qualified social worker says.

“And I began to see the changes that came when National came into power. There was this focus around numbers, and we had certain targets that we had to meet. Our Work and Income people, what we called our ‘cousins’ … weren’t very happy about what they were being asked to do. For example, in terms of [youth unemployment], we’d call them something else – we’d actually defer them to ‘Youth Transition’ even though they were still unemployed.”

The numbers-focused approach, which emphasised achievement of “key performance indicators” and seemed to place less value on the wellbeing of people, did not sit well with Kanongata’a-Suisuiki.

There were 16 people that stood for the local Board in Manurewa, and I was number 16 – I came last. But I think that’s the beauty of being new, you don’t think too much of things.

– Anahila Kanongata’a-Suisuiki

“I went online and thought ‘Why is it that we’re always voting for the Labour Party – my parents always voted Labour, and I voted Labour, but I had never really paid it any real attention.”

“I saw their principles and thought, yes that’s me – because social work principles are the same as the Labour Party principles. It’s about social justice, and about respecting everyone’s dignity. I joined the party online. I didn’t know anybody, but I had a strong belief that the government had to change,” the mother-of-five says.

Since then, Kanongata’a-Suisuiki – who came to Auckland as a 10-year-old after her parents received their residency “papers” – has held several roles in the party. Starting out at number 52 on the party list, her first try at being elected for Labour was in the 2011 election.

“I thought I should put my hat in the ring because I bring some experience. I decided to stand, no one asked me,” she says proudly.

The decision also came shortly after an unsuccessful run at the first SuperCity local board elections.

“There were 16 people that stood for the local Board in Manurewa, and I was number 16 – I came last,” Kanongata’a-Suisuiki says with a big smile.

“But I think that’s the beauty of being new, you don’t think too much of things. I stood again in 2014, and it was the same thing … but I came up a few spots on the list. Then I stood again this time, and I was on the list at number 37.

“I’ve lived in a Labour government, and I’ve lived in a National government, and as a public servant I knew that people were better off under a Labour government,” she says of her determination to stick at things.

And Kanongata’a-Suisuiki, who began her 30-year career with Child, Youth and Family – now Oranga Tāmariki – as a mail clerk, isn’t shying away from tackling some of the meatier issues.

“Well, I don’t actually know why they didn’t put me in the social services committee,” she says, reflecting her current health select committee membership.

“But, when I went there [health select committee] on the first day, one of the other members said to me: ‘Gosh, Pacific health is really complex’. 

“And then I thought to myself, Oh yeah, I’m definitely in the right place.”

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