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Polynesian Panthers talk social change 30 years on

Polynesian Panthers

Fighting for your rights: Polynesian Panthers talk media and social change 30 years on

By Katie Small

Asia-Pacific Journalism, 6 June 2008

The Polynesian Panther Movement began in the early 70s in response to oppression Pacific Islanders faced from a society with a strongly mono-cultural perspective. Katie Small looks at what has changed – and what has stayed the same – since the Panthers started their struggle.

POLYNESIAN PANTHERS: (l-r) Will ‘Ilolahia, Tigi Ness, Vaughan Sanft and Reverend Mua Strickson-Pua

In their youth, Will ‘Ilolahia, Vaughan Sanft, and Tigilau Ness were active members of the Polynesian Panthers, a movement which strove to improve the lot of Pacific Islanders in New Zealand.

Their generation was one that fought political battles in their teens and twenties to make life better for the future.

“Bastion Point was only 30 years ago. We won a victory so the land is free for all New Zealanders,” says Ness.

Today, ´Ilolahia is a community campaigner and a Tongan media personality. Ness is a well-respected musician. Sanft is a world class executive chef, serving up fine dining to thousands of cruise ship passengers every day.

The three gathered at AUT’s Pacific Media Centre on a quiet Thursday evening to talk about changes in Auckland society over the last 30 years.

While the city has changed since the Polynesian Panther Movement (PPM) emerged in the 1970s, the media still focuses too much on negatives, says ‘Ilolahia.

He points to the recent uproar over the $4million cost of the Tongan King’s coronation as an example of the mono-cultural vision of mainstream New Zealand media.

The sum pales in comparison to the amount New Zealand spends on the Governor General, he says, and the media reaction misses the great importance the Tongan King has in the country.

“It’s the people’s coronation,” says ‘Ilolahia, who describes himself as a democratic royalist.

“In some ways I’m glad as a Tongan that we’ve had the royal system for a while, because it keeps us together as a nation.

“Mores like tradition and respect go by the wayside in other cultures,” he says.

Despite ‘Ilolahia’s criticisms about today’s media, its mono-cultural perspective was even stronger in the 1970s than it is today.

The Polynesian Panther Movement aimed to balance stereotypes of Pacific Islanders created by the media, says ‘Ilolahia.

“We wanted positive change,” he explains.

“We were seen as radicals, but we felt we were revolutionaries.”

The Panthers were inspired by civil rights movements in South Africa and the United States, and many of their actions broke boundaries at the time.

The group established homework centres so students could study after school, providing a service which is not uncommon today, but was new in the 1970s.

Similarly, printing and distributing legal advice booklets to inform people of their rights with police was revolutionary in the period.

The group organised prison visits to reach out to people inside who had no-one else, and to transport family members who otherwise would not be able to go.

And they also held demonstrations and protests to defend the rights of Pacific Islanders in New Zealand.

The movement began in the early 1970s; the era of the “Dawn Raids”.

The previous decade, New Zealand had opened its arms to migrants from the Pacific to fill labour shortages.

When the economy tightened, immigration authorities rapidly changed their relaxed attitude and started deporting people who had overstayed their visas.

While British immigrants also overstayed, it was Pacific Islanders who police targeted most.

Special police “taskforces” would surround a house in the early hours of the morning, bang on the door, and demand to search the premises for overstayers.

In the street, police asked brown-skinned people – Maori and Pacific Islanders alike – for proof that they were in New Zealand legally.

Many Pacific Islanders describe the time as frightening and stressful.

Vaughan Sanft says he joined the Polynesian Panther Movement because he “realised there was a need to do something”.

The group started small, says Sanft, and “got to be something quite big”.

The first generation New Zealand Tongan says his parents were wary of the group, a hurdle he shared with many others in the group.

He kept quiet about his activities and “tried to keep away from the newspapers”, he laughs.

At this mini-reunion of the Polynesian Panthers, it is not long before the subject of a recent paper on the cost of immigration arises.

The paper “Growing Pains: the valuation and cost of human capital” was written by Massey University’s Greg Clydesdale and caused controversy when it was released last month.

The report argues that Auckland should favour immigration from the UK or Australia over immigration from the Pacific Islands.

But ‘Ilolahia says he welcomes debate on immigration and he was pleased with the level of public response to the report.

He believes criticism of the report in mainstream media, like that made by New Zealand Herald columnist Tapu Misa, is an example of the change that has taken place in Aotearoa over the past thirty years.

“I actually rang [Clydesdale] up and said ‘good on ya, mate’, because he got us talking about it,” ‘Ilolahia says.

Tagata Pasifika producer Stephen Stehlin says he was frustrated that the report was portrayed as being highly significant.

“I wonder about the responsibility of putting that on the front page,” says Stehlin.

He says the report made him feel like an outsider, yet he was born here. But, like ‘Ilolahia, Stehlin says he was pleased that the Pacific community “had the opportunity and the confidence” to engage in debate on the subject.

Migrants are still a vulnerable community in New Zealand says Council of Trade Unions’ migrant workers coordinator Dennis Maga.

Many are being short-changed of sick leave or paid less than minimum wage, he says, yet they are often too scared to turn to unions for help for fear they will lose their immigration status.

Last year the CTU released a booklet aimed at new Pacific Island immigrants which outlines their legal rights at work.

Next week [subs’ note: 11 June], the CTU will launch an international version of the leaflet which they hope to have translated into a number of languages.

“Many new migrants have no idea of their basic rights,” says Maga. Those for whom English is a second language are further disadvantaged, he says.

New Zealand in the 1970s was “quite a different place, quite hostile and quite racist,” says Stehlin, who was a kid at the time.

But while New Zealand has changed, some of the old ways remain.

Ness says it is important that young generations remember what their parents fought for.
“We did things then so that they don’t have to do that again – but we’ve got to keep reminding them.”


Katie Small is a Graduate Diploma in Journalism student in AUT’s School of Communication Studies. This is an Asia-Pacific Journalism assignment.


Growing Pains: The valuation and cost of human capital, Greg Clydesdale

Blind racism gets it all wrong again, Tapu Misa, New Zealand Herald

Lavish coronation planned for Tongan King, Spasifik Magazine

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