Inoke Afeaki’s parents weren’t afraid to take risks. When they moved their young family from Tonga to the blue collar Kiwi borough of Petone, it was to give their children an education. Dad Etuate worked long hours as a plumber and builder; mum Losa worked in the old Wills tobacco factory.

“Mum and Dad just gave us an opportunity,” Afeaki says. “They sacrificed their lives – they could have just had easy lives in Tonga. Thanks to them, I’m not afraid to take a step into the unknown.”

The kids didn’t speak much English at first. But Etuate and Losa encouraged their daughter and three sons to do everything possible to give themselves a chance to make good, and to give back to their community. Sports, arts, church and, of course, working to get good school grades. Every Sunday, they went to Etuate’s Catholic church and Losa’s Methodist church; similarly, they learned to value both their Tongan and Kiwi cultures.

Now, big sister Mateki is a successful property investor; brother Lusiano and his wife Selena own 18 Crunch Fitness gyms across Australia. Little brother Stan played for Tonga in the Rugby World Cup, in the team captained by Inoke.

In his 20s, Inoke Afeaki trained for the Wellington Lions during the day; at night he’d fall asleep in the Victoria University library, studying for his science degree in physiology. When rugby’s professional era arrived, he was Hurricane No #001, paid a top tier salary of $85,000 and told that if he played his cards right, he’d be an All Black.

Afeaki’s dreams of representing New Zealand were never realised; eventually in frustration he accepted an offer to play rugby for the Ricoh club in Japan – little knowing that would also deny him the chance to be a New Zealand citizen.

For the past 20 years, Afeaki, who turned 49 last week, has found himself trapped by an inflexible law that requires any citizenship applicant to have lived for the past five years in New Zealand. He’s not alone: immigration lawyers say that rule has caught out other professional sportspeople, academics who work overseas on sabbaticals, international aid workers, and even young people who head off to Australia or the UK for their big OE.

Auckland University law lecturer Dr Anna Hood co-wrote the authoritative paper on New Zealand citizenship. She says there are a number of benefits it provides beyond those accorded to permanent residents, including the ability to hold a New Zealand passport, the ability to represent New Zealand in international sporting competitions, the ability to apply for some educational scholarships and the ability to visit, live and work in Australia.

A citizen is also allowed to stand for Parliament and local government. That’s tripped up people before – in 2002, Peter Dunne’s United Future party elected Indian-born Kelly Chal at No 5 on its list. But just two weeks after the election, officials discovered she wasn’t a New Zealand citizen, and ruled her ineligible.

Running for election to ‘give back’ to his Wellington community, 49-year-old Inoke Afeaki with wife Kanako, and sons Etuate, 13, and Kenichirou, 16. Photo: Supplied

That rule is important to Afeaki – because this week, he announces he is running for election in the Wellington South ward, as a city councillor. He is only able to confirm his plan because, on Friday last week, he received a letter from the Department of Internal Affairs advising him that minister Jan Tinetti had granted him New Zealand citizenship.

“In short,” says Hood, “New Zealand citizenship provides full access to life in Aotearoa New Zealand.”

She is not alone in arguing that New Zealand has “a particularly difficult record” with citizenship for Pasifika peoples.

“There is a need for us to revisit the requirements around citizenship and ensure that they are reflective of the international and inter-connected lives that people lead in the 21st century,” she says.

“We also need to consider our citizenship arrangements for Pasifika peoples in light of the role Aotearoa New Zealand has played in the Pacific over the last 100-plus years.”

“It’s not just with Inoke. I’ve seen it happen with other cousins and, indeed, uncles and aunties who’d spent 30 or 40 years working here and paying taxes. Because of reasons they weren’t aware of when they went to other countries, their entitlement to citizenship and other things like retirement benefits was cut.”
– Tu’inukutavake Barron Afeaki, lawyer

Hood is backed by Tu’inukutavake Barron Afeaki, Inoke’s cousin, who is an Auckland-based constitutional lawyer.

Barron Afeaki wrote a powerful letter of support for his cousin, when Inoke first applied for citizenship in 2018.

“Because of his career choice to become a professional athlete in international rugby clubs and then later as a coach and sports administrator, he does not strictly comply with the current citizenship requirement to reside in New Zealand for five years consecutively,” Barron Afeaki wrote.

Since playing in Japan (back in those days Inoke would play the same season for both Wellington and Ricoh, flying back and forth every week), Afeaki has interspersed life in New Zealand with jobs in the UK, France, Singapore and Tonga. He, his Japanese wife Kanako, and their sons Kenichirou and Etuate, have moved from country to country, but always returned to New Zealand.

“Once I started working overseas, it became harder to come back home,” Afeaki says. 

Some of those roles, such as technical director at Singapore Rugby Union, were big jobs and well paid. Others such as coaching coordinator at Wellington’s Poneke rugby club meant supporting his family on as little as $40,000 a year – but they allowed him to offer young people the same opportunities he’d been given. 

“They really need to look at the type of people that are struggling to get get citizenship. And I was one of them,” Afeaki says. “Do I have some skills that New Zealand would benefit from? I hope so, and I intend to prove it, and then go and do some good work.”

Barron Afeaki: “What I can say is that through his career … Inoke has always been an exemplary proponent of healthy lifestyle, focused on the development of youth leadership and activity in sports. He always gives more than he takes and will be a bonus, not a burden, to New Zealand society.”

But the pleas from Barron Afeaki, and other prominent supporters such as former All Black captain Graham Mourie and top New Zealand diplomat Jonathan Austin, were all unsuccessful. 

Tracey Martin, the internal affairs minister at the time, said she wasn’t satisfied he met citizenship requirements as he hadn’t spent the past five years in New Zealand, nor that there were any exceptional circumstances to justify granting a waiver.

“New Zealand follows a trend for previously highly liberal citizenship regimes to become somewhat more restrictive, while other, highly restrictive regimes become less so.”
– Kate McMillan and Anna Hood

Barron Afeaki remains frustrated at such rigid rules.

“The entitlement has been arbitrarily placed upon people,” he tells Newsroom. “And their circumstances change according to who they marry, where their kids are, where they can earn money, where their cultural and ancestral origins are from, and who they want to serve and why and where.

“It’s not just with Inoke. I’ve seen it happen with other cousins and, indeed, uncles and aunties who’d spent 30 or 40 years working here and paying taxes. Because of reasons they weren’t aware of when they went to other countries, their entitlement to citizenship and other things like retirement benefits was cut.”

Barron Afeaki argues Pasifika peoples such as Samoans, Tongans and Fijians, in particular, are often expected to return home to their island nations for months at a time to fulfil family responsibilities, maintain their ancestral land, or serve cultural duties such as rangatira leadership. “Those are valid reasons to keep land and cultural connections and reciprocal relationships alive in those home countries.”

‘The 5 year rule can bugger people up’

Inoke Afeaki served as a leader in the Tongan communities in New Zealand, and in the islands. As a trustees on the Pacific Peoples Wellbeing Trust, he worked to insulate more than a thousand Pacific homes in the Wellington region. He and the other trustees refused to collect their sitting fees, to ensure all the funding went direct to heating families’ homes.

And in Tonga, he worked with Dame Valerie Adams to get sports clothing to kids who needed it.

He finally returned to New Zealand at the start of 2020 in time to enrol his two sons at Wellington College.

“Inoke’s a leader. He’s a natural leader, but he also works on it,” Barron Afeaki says. “And he works at community, he works at helping youth and helping families. And what an amazing rigmarole he had to go through to become a citizen here. There’s a strong case for greater flexibility.”

Licensed immigration adviser Katy Armstrong agrees. She’s had clients struggle to get citizenship for the same reason, including one who didn’t meet the five-year rule because he’d been working overseas for a New Zealand government agency. 

She supports a minimum period of residency, but says it should be spread over a longer period and not be necessarily contiguous. “The five-year rule can really bugger people up, even if they’ve spent pretty much their whole life here.”

The 2005 law change requires that any applicant already be eligible for permanent resident. In addition, they must have been present in New Zealand for 1350 days in the five years preceding their application, including at least 240 days in each of those years; they must be of good character, have sufficient knowledge of the responsibilities and privileges attaching to New Zealand citizenship, having sufficient knowledge of English, and having an intention to reside in New Zealand going forward.

The amendment was introduced in the years after the 9/11 terror attacks, and minister in the Helen Clark Labour Government were worried that it was too easy to get citizenship. “In the last financial year approximately 21,000 people received a grant of citizenship,” said George Hawkins, who was internal affairs minister at the time, when he introduced the amendment bill to Parliament.

“One of the main purposes in the bill is to increase the standard period of residence in New Zealand for a grant of citizenship from three years to five years. That time frame will provide a sufficient basis for the assessment of applicants’ suitability for citizenship and commitment to New Zealand.” 

But Opposition MP Pansy Wong retorted that Labour was “a fair-weather friend” to migrants. “They brought in this legislation to change the citizenship qualifying period from three years to five years in a hurry, without even planning to front up to those communities and explain why,” she told the House.

With the benefit of more than a decade of hindsight, legal academics Kate McMillan and Anna Hood were able to assess the effect of the law change, in their 2016 paper “Report on Citizenship Law: New Zealand”. 

“University academics who spend six months on sabbatical outside of New Zealand during any five year period, for example, often fall foul of the requirement that they be resident in New Zealand for at least 240 days in each of the previous five years,” they wrote.

The law change made access to citizenship more restrictive than it had been, they wrote. “And in this, New Zealand follows a trend for previously highly liberal citizenship regimes to become somewhat more restrictive, while other, highly restrictive regimes become less so.”

‘Hard man’ promises hard work

Now he’s been granted citizenship, Afeaki is embracing the opportunity that gives him to run for Wellington City Council. He remembers being tasked as the “hard man” for the Hurricanes, taking on the toughest bullies on the other side; now he says he’ll be similarly hard-working and uncompromising in serving the people of Wellington. 

His background, and his work with Pacific Peoples Wellbeing Trust, has heightened his concern about housing. For the past year he’s been working as site logistics controller for McKee Fehl Constructors, on a big project to build 300 social housing units for Kāinga Ora. 

And if he’s elected to council, he hopes to expand Wellington City’s commitment to social housing. “Over time, up to five decades, some countries in Europe have proven that social housing can be the norm for people to get into housing,” he says. “We need to lose the negative connotations. If more people can get into social housing, which will help them save to get on the property better, then  that is better for their health, and better for the economy.

“I left New Zealand when it was three million population; I came back and it was five. So it’s just like Covid, it’s going to be exponential.”
– Inoke Afeaki, council candidate

“If they can start earning and start having a family, then that’s kids to grow the population. We’re at 5 million population, and there’s hardly any money in New Zealand. I think New Zealand’s got to get to the 20 million or 30 million population mark, to really start seeing the scale and money that can keep its own people from running overseas chasing the money in Australia.

“That’s also gonna increase the industry building, which will provide more work. I left New Zealand when it was three million population; I came back and it was five. So it’s just like Covid, it’s going to be exponential.”

Wellington City Council owns more 1900 units at 60-plus locations across the city, and Afeaki believes there’s room to build more to serve a growing population. “I think it’s an important thing. The city needs more people, and then obviously the rates will go down.”

Running for council is a big personal risk; he didn’t like what he saw of politics in Singapore and Tonga and he believes the present Wellington City Council is dysfunctional.

But, just like his parents when they came to New Zealand, he believes in taking a risk for what he believes in. 

Newsroom Pro managing editor Jonathan Milne covers business, politics and the economy.

Leave a comment