Keynote Address at the Ministry for Pacific Peoples Lalanga Fou Languages and High Tech Fono

  • Hon Aupito William Sio
Pacific Peoples

Talofa lava, malo e lelei, kia orana, taloha ni, fakaalofa lahi atu, ni sa bula vinaka, Talofa, Kia ora, tēnā koutou katoa. Warm Pacific greetings to you all.

I am really pleased I could be here with you today - to share this time with so many great innovators, thinkers and policymakers. Thank you for making the time to be here and for answering the call to come and share your expertise with us. I am looking forward to meeting and chatting with some of you later and hearing about the outstanding work you do.

Over the next two days the work you do will help shape the future of my Ministry. You will help take us another step closer to making the vision we set for Pacific Aotearoa a reality.

This government has laid the foundations with its Pacific vision and put a cornerstone in place with the Budget earlier this year, but what we build together from here you can help decide. Indeed, the expertise you will share with us over the next two days will help us put more of the frameworks in place that will shape the future of languages and Pacific entrepreneurism.

So, here’s my challenge to you.

Over the next two days I want you to work towards agreeing a short statement outlining where we should go next. I want you to capture the conversations you have and the ideas you generate, so that after today every discussion I have with my Ministerial colleagues about the direction we head, your ideas will be there with me.

I will ask that my team send me a copy of what you come up with, so that it can also inform our thinking about the creation of the Pacific languages’ unit and options for a Pacific science, technology and innovation strategy.

One of the reasons I want to set you this challenge is to focus our attention on the fact that we are here to make change happen. To turn a vision into reality. To develop ideas. To share expertise.

And, importantly, we are here to do it together – a partnership between my Ministry team and you, our experts, innovators, and thought leaders. A partnership that - if we get it right - can endure for years to come. And we need it to endure.

Because our Pacific future is already here, and we need to fully realise its potential.

Just consider this for a moment: the median age of Pacific people living in Aotearoa right now is 22 years. Half of all Pacific people living in New Zealand right now are 22 years of age or younger. Isn’t that extraordinary? Particularly when you consider that the median age for New Zealanders descended from Europe is 42 years – an entire generation older.

This begs the obvious question we need to ask ourselves – where, then, will growth in the future come from? Well, it will it will come from Pacific people. More and more of the business, political and community decisions that will shape our lives in future will come from Pacific people, from Pacific thinkers, from Pacific activists, from Pacific innovators.

As a government we want to make it possible for every person, no matter where they come from, to fulfil their purpose and be the best they can be.

We know there is a lot we can do to make this happen – and we are taking this action. From building a more accessible education system; to ensuring people have warm, safe homes; or mitigating the harmful effects of child poverty… Everything we do will, in some way, effect how prosperous our workplaces and communities are in the future.

But we cannot do it alone. You also have a role to play.

After all, the story of Aotearoa New Zealand isn’t written by people in power, but by the people we support and learn from. People like you.

What that means, then, is that we need to work together - government, business, community and the working population.

Why that’s relevant to us here today is because it is by working in partnership that we can think about the ways we develop and organise our high-growth sectors, like technology, so opportunities and prosperity can be shared fairly, both economically and socially.

Making this happen is what lay at the heart of our wellbeing agenda – ensuring every person can lead fulfilling, meaningful and prosperous lives.

We can apply that to the work we are here to do today and tomorrow by thinking about what changes need to be made to open high-tech sectors to a broader portion of the population.

Currently only 2 percent of the technology sector identify as Pacific. Clearly what we need then is to get a better distribution and accessibility of quality jobs and incomes.

Achieving this means encouraging more Pacific people into science, technology and innovation throughout their schooling and working lives – and we are doing that. But we also need to ensure that when Pacific people – and, indeed, non-Pacific people - go on to create cutting-edge technology they do so whilst creating quality jobs for those less skilled than themselves. Otherwise we risk there being a high skilled elite at the top, and low-quality work in the middle and at the bottom.

High-tech sectors need to be ordered so good quality careers are available to people that do not necessarily have technological expertise. There need to be good jobs at every level of the system. This will create a more open and inclusive sector where more people can succeed. 

One of the reasons this is so important for us is because Pacific people, wherever and however they are employed, bring a unique perspective to their work – diverse ethnicities, cultures and languages that can help to shape and reshape the way we do things now and long into the future.

For me this is the space in which our two topics of discussion - language and innovation – interact. Because when we have our own language, we are much more confident in our cultures. And when we have that, we can tell our own stories and, critically, we can think about the future through our own lens. It is these unique Pacific perspectives that can help create space for us to devise new, innovative solutions to the challenges we face.  

We all know that technology is changing not just how we do business, or how we buy products. It is reshaping how we interact, how we form and maintain relationships, and how we address some of the most pressing challenges we face.

Throughout history governments have been a critical part of the story of how innovation happens. The history of technological advance is full of examples where the public sector has taken most of the risks in the innovation process, but with little of the reward. Indeed, it was public money that paid for the research behind the internet, GPS, and the Web.

What these examples teach us is that we will need brave, highly skilled, visionary people – both in government and out – who are willing to explore ideas, create innovations and make discoveries.

Pacific people know the importance of this this better than anyone – for our entire history is founded on the spirit of discovery. We need to draw from this past to reimagine our future.

A core foundation for this future is our wellbeing agenda, which for Pacific peoples is built on four parts:

  • Supporting Pacific businesses to grow, as well as creating opportunities across the economy for more Pacific people to enjoy meaningful, well-paid work;
  • Making sure we are training and supporting more young Pacific people with the skills they need to get these good jobs;
  • Providing better access to affordable homes and healthcare;
  • And connecting more Pacific people to their language, culture and identity. 

Our Budget this year provided a roadmap to deliver this agenda – a roadmap that will guide us all towards a confident, more resilient and more prosperous Pacific community. It was a first step on our journey of turning our Pacific vision into something real.

We at MPP can do our bit, but our vision also requires a step change in how government makes decisions that affect Pacific people. That’s why my officials are working at the most senior levels of government and bringing together representatives from other Ministries to ensure our Pacific vision, Lalanga Fou, is the guide not only for what we do, but for decisions they are making too.  

Every Pacific policy. Every Pacific initiative should help advance at least one of the four goals the community articulated in Lalanga Fou. We are clear about that and that’s what we’re working towards

One of the areas we can have a profound impact is in language and culture. I have already touched on how viewing the world through a Pacific lens can bring benefits to us all.

But to see clearly through that lens we need an understanding of what it is and how language shapes what we see through it. In other words, an understanding of how language shapes our world view.

Right now, our Pacific languages are clinging to existence with great fragility - and they are diminishing by the generation. Our job – the job of those of us here - is to change that. For me, this is one of the defining challenges faced by Pacific communities across Aotearoa New Zealand right now.

I know there will always be those who say it's too difficult; that it’s not useful the economy; or that young generations simply do not want to learn. But they are wrong. Our identity, our sense of belonging, our wellbeing is tied to the ability of our people to express themselves in their own language.

Here, in New Zealand, our lives are shaped primarily by the English language – but with our own Pacific languages, we can do more to ensure our cultures are better reflected in the way society presents itself and talks about who it is. 

For languages are how we share our culture - its history, its present and its future. If our languages are not spoken, then the journey our cultures are taking change too – and the opportunities available for others to understand and learn from our culture diminishes with it. That applies to the technology sector as much as it does to anywhere else.

As societies inevitably change, we need our languages so that we can restore and reinvent our cultures and traditions in ways that are sustainable and ensure they survive in the face of this change and modernisation.

To put it another way, if we do not act, words that future generations of Pacific New Zealanders use to understand where they come from and how they see the world will not be their own.  And they will not be the only ones to lose out. We all will.

That's why our decision in the Budget to allocate $20 million to a new dedicated languages unit in the Ministry for Pacific Peoples is so important.

This new unit will be tasked with working with experts like you and the community to figure out how we best deliver our vision of a New Zealand where all Pacific people can learn and use their language - at home, at work, and in our communities.

Our objective in this isn’t simply to increase the number of Pacific language speakers, but to help our people develop a stronger identity as Pacific New Zealanders. Because when we have our language, we have our story. And when we have our story, we have a sense of place. And when we have a sense of place, we have the confidence we need to thrive.

Importantly, languages do not just tell us something about who we are – they tell us where we are too. Many of us, I’m sure, will have stories about why learning English was a matter of survival for our families when making their home here. Interacting with people, getting a job, filling in forms, opening a bank account – so much of what we must do simply to get by demands that we speak English. English has been internalised as our norm.

Unfortunately, this has diminished the opportunities we have to give proper value to Pacific languages outside the home, family, and church. We can change that - and today I am delighted to announce the launch of a Languages Innovation Fund to support grassroots work that helps revive, grow and celebrate our Pacific languages.

We will first pilot the Fund, which will provide us with the opportunity to test some ideas, approaches, criteria and processes that will help inform and shape how we support innovative community initiatives moving forward. As I speak, we are publishing a webpage where you can find out more about the fund and apply for support.

What this fund is about, is about giving Pacific people greater freedom to shape the future of their own culture and language. Technology is going to be a key part of its.

Our ancestors navigated by the stars for months to reach the Pacific islands we now call home. Of course, now we have a virtual reach that means we can connect with these very same places in seconds.

This change has undoubtedly created opportunities that would have been hard to imagine even a generation ago. But there is another important aspect to this that we need to discuss – and that is the interaction between technological change and the world of work, and in particular, what this may mean for young people. 

Technological change isn’t anything new, of course. Human history has always been shaped by rapid change. Innovations that disrupt the current generation, often seem entirely normal to the next. Perhaps what is different now - compared to other times in history - is the pace of change we are experiencing.

We need to be ready, then, so that an increasingly digitalised and automated world brings greater security and wellbeing for all of us.

Whilst each of us now has a means of communication, connection and influence that outstrips anything we have seen before, these advances have taken place in a system that is also more challenging. It is harder now for a young person to plan a long-term career with any confidence. Work is increasingly precarious; there are more zero-hours or short-term contracts; more self-employed people with erratic incomes.

And for those with stable work, there are many who will feel pressured to dedicate more and more time to their jobs. This can take them away from everything that makes them who they are – from raising their families to enjoying the simple pleasures of leisure time. 

We need to be honest about the fact that some of this detrimental change that many people may feel at the individual and family level is a by-product of technological advance. What we can do though is ensure that technological change does not outstrip the speed with which we are willing to change policies and laws to safeguard the values we hold dear.

Because the work you and future generations pursue will not just be a means to earn money, and provide for your families, important though that it is. It will also be a source of identity and purpose in our lives. We need to make it count for something. In other words, what we do here today and the ideas we have for creating new opportunities are crucial to our collective sense wellbeing.

So, as you start to think about what you will contribute over the next two days, know that you have the power to reshape society – whether through new innovations or language or both.

You know, one of my favourite things to do in this job is to meet with experts like you - to hear from them directly. The reason is simple: because these conversations often generate new ideas; they inspire me, they help remind me of what it means to be a Pacific leader today – what the challenges are, what the hopes and aspirations are.

But, more than this, I always come away with a sense of hope. Today is no exception. For there is so much we are yet to accomplish, and you are the ones making it happen. I look forward to hearing from our speakers and panels about the work we can do together.