Tagata Pasifika

The Pacific voice on
New Zealand television
since 1987

Tagata Pasifika

The Pacific voice on
New Zealand television
since 1987

‘Keep humility intact…demonstrate respect for our community’, Gerardine Clifford-Lidstone CEO Ministry for Pacific People

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air
Photo: Pasifika Medical Association Group
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Gladys Hartson | Senior Journalist

Stepping into the role of Secretary for Pacific Peoples and CEO for the Ministry for Pacific Peoples (MPP) has been, as Gerardine Clifford-Lidstone describes it, 30 years in the making. 

After the announcement of her appointment in December last year, the former Director of Public Health was officially welcomed into her new role in Wellington in February. 

As well as her role as CE for MPP, the Secretary for Pacific Peoples is the government’s lead advisor for issues relating to the Pacific community, 

Of Samoan heritage, Gerardine hails from the villages of her Grandmother in Fagaloa and her Grandfather in Asau (raised in Tuaefu, Apia). She comes into the role having worked in the health and the public sector for many years.

After graduating from University, Gerardine was the recipient of a Pacific Public Service scholarship which was aimed at increasing the number of Pacific people in the public service as well as to grow Pacific people in leadership roles.

She began her public service career at the Labour Department in 1992, working in various roles before leaving to head a Pacific social services and health provider in Porirua in 2010.

Of this time Gerardine says, “I thought I was always pretty down with the community because my Mum used to drag me to all these community events when I was a child but I realised how removed you can become when you work in government agencies.

“So going to work out in the community was a real eye opener but also reminded me of how important it is to participate in the community and understand what those needs are at the grass roots level but also to appreciate the strength that comes from the community.”

Gerardine and other Pasifika female MPs at the Mangere Pools Evacuation Centre earlier this year. Photo: Gladys Hartson

In those early years, Gerardine worked to find a balance working in the public sector while continuing to serve the community. In 2010 She moved to the Health Ministry then worked as a consultant before a stint at the Capital and Coast District Health Board. In 2020 she took up the public health role at the Ministry of Health.

“I didn’t think I was a good enough bureaucrat, I thought having had community experience that I would find it too frustrating working in government,” she says.

“But you know, times change, and I guess the environment became a little bit friendlier towards issues for population groups such as those with disability, Pacific, for women and also watching the improvements for Tangata whenua, our whanau.”

Gerardine says taking on the role at MPP pulls together all the different strands of her experience. 

“It reminds me that we’ve got an important role as a government agency, responsibility for good transparent public service but also we only exist here because of the community in those early days, pushing and mobilising and activating for a place that would be their own.

“So I think these are the responsibilities I hold very seriously because I think we can’t move too far away from the community, because they created us.”

Overseeing a staff of more than 140 which includes a mix of fulltime and contract employees with a budget of around $70 million for the Ministry, Gerardine acknowledges the work of her predecessor Laulu Mac Leauanae and former Minister for Pacific Peoples Aupito William Sio to grow the financial base of the organisation. 

“I remember back in the day it was like five million…so making sure that with all that significant growth particularly looking internally whether we’ve got the infrastructure to support such fast growth and so probably over the next six months I’d really just want to consolidate that.”

Gerardine is also conscious of community perceptions of the ministry when it comes to funding. 

“I often hear from the community, ‘oh you’ve got all this money and none of it comes to us’ kind of thing, so just getting greater transparency so that people understand what we’ve got, what we’re using it for and what is available to them.”

A special Ava ceremony was held to welcome Geraradine to her new role as Secretary for Pacific Peoples and CEO for the Ministry for Pacific Peoples. Photo: Aupito Su’a William Sio FB

And she can also see the funny side of things when it comes to perceptions of working at the ministry.

“I’ve heard mixed things, people who would never come to the Ministry they’re like. ‘hell no I would never work at that place’ (chuckles) and then others that aspire to work here,” she says.

“What I’d hope (is), that it’s a place that they feel grounded…when you work in your community, often the thing that drives you … it’s not money, it’s not financial return but it’s actually making a difference and seeing that difference come to fruition.”

With her vast experience in the public service she says the need is still there for Pacific people to aspire to work in the public sector saying, in many instances, behaviour and attitudes within the community is changing.

“I really don’t know what to say to people because when I first started the focus was on qualifications, you had to be qualified and my parents were kind of like, ‘you have to go to University’ and so I followed that track,” she says.

“But through my working career particularly with Pacific people I have just come across so many smart people who have no qualification and can be a little bit disenfranchised by leaders and then I meet Pacific people who are highly qualified and somewhere along the line they lose their humility and they step on your face to get above you.

“If you want to work in the Pacific public service, a strong sense of identity is really important whether you have a qualification -it can be important – but what’s more important is that you come with a willingness to learn and openness that every time you make a mistake you reflect on what happened and you grow from it.

“That you keep your humility intact and show that you demonstrate that you have respect for our community. If you don’t have respect for our community (she laughs), you would be hard pressed to work under my regime.” 

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