Jenny Salesa is looking forward to bringing her wide-ranging experience, including in education and public healthcare, to her new role as an MP. That’s coupled with her determination to achieve better outcomes for the people of Manukau East.
She is passionate about her key priorities for the electorate – improving outcomes in housing, employment, healthcare and education – with housing at the top of the list.
“There is simply not enough affordable housing, to rent or to buy in Manukau East,” said Jenny.
“For most families their weekly income is barely enough to pay the high rents, forcing many families to move with such frequency that it harms their children’s education. They can’t get a state house and there aren’t enough private rentals. Many people are living for longer periods in emergency housing and we don’t know how many more are homeless, because the numbers aren’t being tracked. Housing will be my initial priority – because it is huge for the people of Manukau East.
“We also have to improve educational and employment outcomes for our young people in Manukau East..
“I believe education is the key to addressing unemployment especially for our youth and I believe that it starts with early childhood education. Manukau East has the highest unemployment rate of all electorates and this is particularly high for young people – more than 45 per cent of young people aged 15-19 in my electorate are unemployed. This government is not doing much to address this, housing, child poverty and many other issues for Manukau East and that is just unacceptable to me.”
Jenny spent her early years in Tonga – and is the first Tongan speaking MP to enter the New Zealand Parliament. For much of her childhood her father was the only pharmacist in the Kingdom. They moved to New Zealand when she was 16 because her parents wanted her and her younger brother to have better access to university education.
“It was pretty tough,” she recalls. “Even though we had been considered middle-class back home we arrived with only our suitcases. We moved around, staying with different relatives. My father worked as an interpreter and our mother worked as a machinist in a clothing factory in the day and as a cleaner in the evenings. We used to help her with the cleaning. When we eventually could afford a flat, we had no furniture and we lived out of suitcases for quite a while. My parents made great sacrifices for our education, we owe them a lot.”
After a spell working in a bank, she went on to study law and early childhood education at the University of Auckland. She worked through her student years too and eventually she and her parents managed to buy a house.
“That was in the late 1980s when people in our situation could still afford to work hard and save enough for the deposit,” she said. “If you put us in the same position today there is no way we would be able to buy because the average price of a house in Auckland now is over $700,000”.
“I was also fortunate to be awarded one of the former public sector scholarships. That was a State Services Commission initiative to encourage Māori and Pacific scholars into the public sector. Every holiday was spent doing paid internships in Wellington from 1993-1996. I worked as a policy analyst in the Ministry of Health. Most people from those days will remember me as Jenny Schaaf, my name from my first marriage.”
After university she joined the former regional health authority North Health in Auckland followed by the Ministry of Health in Wellington and then became a senior policy analyst at the Ministry for Pacific Island Affairs.
That included advising Vui Mark Goshe when he was Cabinet Minister of Pacific Island Affairs – ultimately he was to become one of her political mentors.
She then became consultant to then Director of Public Health Dr Colin Tukuitonga before moving to the US with her husband Rhodes Scholar Damon Salesa, now Associate Professor of Pacific Studies and Director of Pacific Strategy at the University of Auckland.
“We moved to the US to build my husband’s career. We got our Green Cards but we never became US citizens,” said Jenny. “The aim was always to return home and give back to New Zealand. “
During their ten years in the US, where their two daughters were born, Jenny’s roles included working as a senior policy advisor for the National Vaccine Advisory Committee and then as health specialist with the Early Childhood Investment Corporation.
It was also in America that her journey into active involvement with politics began.
“Even though I have always voted labour I was not actively involved in the party,” she said. “In America I became active politically and mobilised by Obama’s campaigns and heavily involved in getting the health reform legislation introduced. It was so important to me because I had met so many families and children who could not afford healthcare.
“That was my introduction. I learnt how to door knock, cold call and how to mobilise volunteers and be a good grass roots person. I believe it trained me well for what was to come.”
Following their return to New Zealand three years ago, Jenny became Principal Advisor Pacific for the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) but she was also determined to become actively involved in the Labour Party.
“For me it was no longer enough just to vote for Labour I wanted to keep up that kind of involvement that I’d had in the US. Vui Mark Gosche and my husband both strongly encouraged me and I stood for the local body election for Mt Wellington Licensing Trust.”
The dedicated team of friends and relatives who came together to work on her behalf formed the nucleus of her 100-strong election campaign team and many people urged her to put her name forward as a candidate for Manukau East.
“I didn’t expect to be selected at my first attempt but it was a great honour and, again, the campaigning skills I had learned in America proved invaluable,” said Jenny.