In the Red Zone - Poto Williams


Exactly four years on from the first Christchurch earthquake Poto Williams is sitting in the Red Zone’s Wainoni Methodist Church for a cuppa and a singalong with some 60 or so locals.

‘It’s the silver lining for Christchurch really –the community spirit which lets us be grateful for what we have despite the fact that for some there’s very little.”

It’s that spirit of gratitude – and wanting others to have what she has – that led her to politics and the Labour party she says.

“I have a social justice heart.”

Born in New Zealand to parents who migrated from the Cook Islands in the fifties, she grew up in Auckland where her dad supervised a work gang for a labour hire company. He wasn’t a high earner, but his income was enough to provide a home, put food on the table and set some aside for a rainy day. While the family wasn’t wealthy, they were able to participate in society.

That’s just not possible for many today, she says. ‘”So many people can’t afford the basics – food, power, rent.“

The inequality gap, which she rates the biggest issue New Zealand has to confront, is writ large in Christchurch where four years on there are people double and triple-bunking, living in garages or cars.

“The rest of New Zealand needs to understand what the issues are and that many people are still very distressed. People in need should not be put on the scrapheap.”

The effects are not only for the individual, but for the health dollar and the education dollar she says, citing the example of those suffering respiratory illnesses because they’re living with black mould. Ill-health affects study, future careers and income and flows through to limited choices in many areas. “It’s a national disgrace.”

Having worked in mental health, in disability and in family violence, Poto says she’s seen first-hand the impacts of inequality and social harm from the growing gap between the haves and have-nots.

Government, she says, has a responsibility to provide a backstop for those who need support, to provide for those at the bottom of the heap.

“It’s just not right that people can’t afford to heat their homes, or if they do it costs them hundreds of dollars which they don’t have.”

“that’s not how I want my country to be.”