Former Samoan MP Alofa Tu’uau calls on Pacific men to support women in politics
During a virtual LeadershipConnect session, former Samoan MP and WLI Steering Committee co-Chair Ali'imalemanu Alofa Tu’uau shared her journey into politics while calling on Pacific Islands men to support more women into the field.
In one of the program’s fortnightly leadership sessions, qualified accountant Alofa took part in a Q&A session in which she reflected on her own political campaign, why gender quotas are important, and why she believes in mentoring.
Men and women Australia Awards scholars and alumni from the Pacific had the chance to ask Alofa how she convinced men to vote for her, the power of coalition building, and the finance required for political campaigning.
Read the [abridged] conversation, steered by WLI Program Leader Georgina Cope, below.
What was your pathway to politics and what inspired you to become a Member of Parliament?
I had never thought of getting into parliament.
It wasn’t until I would go off into the village in Savai’i where I come from and notice how hardly any major developments had been done in our village, and in our district. This encouraged me to try and get into parliament, which was the last thing I ever wanted to do; to help develop my village.
From my experience working in regional organisations, I thought it may be a way to give back to the community, through parliamentary works, through sharing whatever can be given in order to better or improve the work of the public service, especially in the finance area.
As soon as I got into parliament, I realised that there needed to be more women, because the men really need us to complement their work.
Because … if a law is passed without any view from [women], no opposing view, it’s not complete in my personal opinion.
A lot of us are scared to go into this kind of career, but if you think of it as going to serve; to be of service to your community, then you wouldn’t have that fear.
With the culture in Samoa, we find that when one of us ladies has a point or stands up to speak, especially when there are heated arguments or debates, we tend to feel the tension go down because there is always that respect in our culture.
It’s very encouraging.
Can you talk a little more about this idea of ‘quiet campaigning’? How would you convince your constituents that a vote for you is the right thing over, say, a male candidate?
It might be different for different constituencies based on their needs, but I believe that as a leader, first, you have to lead by example.
You walk the talk and you’re focusing on what your constituency is interested in.
For example, if you find out that what they are really interested in is to have a better water supply, or to improve the school buildings … you’ve also got to have that interest in those kinds of projects for them to decide whether to vote for you to go into parliament.
You talk a lot about the challenges women entering parliament, or any male dominated sphere, face, where there’s a negotiation and balance between personal and professional responsibilities. How do you recognise those two roles, and to what extent was your husband involved in supporting you on your path to leadership?
In my experience, for women to go into parliament they really need 100 per cent support from their husbands and children. Because, if their husbands are not in full support of their going into parliament, things will be very difficult.
Being a Member of Parliament … really involves your friends, your family, your children, as well as your whole extended family.
They all have input in serving the constituency for you to be able to feel like you’re actually doing that service.
[Alofa (second from the left) speaking on an International Women's Day WLI event panel in her capacity as an MP]
Your uncles played a very important role in teaching you about life as an MP and mentoring you. What did you learn and how did they prepare you?
I was always taking the lead in pulling our family together; when we had funerals, weddings, and I think that’s how they were able to be convinced that I could go into parliament.
I think the men in my family who had been doing campaigning for me really did a great job, and that was how I was able to get in [to parliament] in 2016. They were able to convince the people in our constituency, and I did my own parts also, in terms of some of the things our community needed.
The women going into parliament complement the work of the men, but in the campaigning, it’s a partnership kind of work that you are doing together with the men in your family.
[But] I took the lead role in coordinating this because during the campaign you need to be seen to already have the leadership role, so that those men can accept you as a leader.
So, you demonstrate that you have leadership capacity in your own right so the men can support you and campaign for you to take on a political position?
In the first election, yes. In the second [election], I realised ... whenever I spoke in the village, it was like people tended to listen more to what I had to say. And the advice, they tended to follow that.
… I realised just before the  election that people were going for the party rather than the person. Usually, it’s what you do and what you can offer your constituency, but this time, it’s the party.
In my situation, even though I lost … It encourages me to look at the issues and problems and know how I’m going to tackle them next time. I had to look at where I failed to further.
I’m sure I’m going to be in [parliament] again.
You mentor and have supported some other female candidates who have been successful in the elections, how?
I owe this to [Georgina Cope] and Tony [Liston]; I realised the importance of mentoring, and I thought, I will make a contribution and see if I am able to prepare one or two women to run for parliament.
One woman I mentored is now the current Minister of Finance, and one became a member of the HRPP [current ruling] party. Both made it to parliament, and that mentoring was encouraging them; sharing with them the experience I went through … that’s what I’m proud of, even though I was very surprised when the other member [who I mentored] went to the other party.
I was disappointed in a way, but that’s not the whole point of my doing the mentoring program. My contribution is getting more women in leadership. We should be leading by example.
Can you talk about some of the informal rules and hurdles women in parliament should know about?
I still recall being appointed the chairperson of the Finance Committee. You go into that committee meeting full of men and you think you will be chairing. The former members have been there for quite some time … and your role here is to facilitate the discussion.
And I thought, if I don’t take the lead now, leading the committee to where I want it to go, and also leading the government officials who come in for their reports, I will never be able to.
I had to put my foot down and that’s where I set the rules for our committee, and I lead the kind of work that I want to lead.
Being the first time to chair the Finance Committee, I had to make it right. Because if you don’t put on the right image at the start, there will always be that discussion that a woman should not be a chairperson.
You don’t need to be an academic with PhDs, with all due respect … but you need to have a good educational background because sometimes being in parliament, the people can easily tell whether you’re knowledgeable in a subject.
But you don’t need to have a law degree, the people in the legislative assembly will help you with the laws.
During your time in parliament, do you think the criticisms directed towards you were about your position as a woman in parliament, or were they a reflection of your work?
I believe my performance in parliament did not have any criticism at all because when it comes to the finance, I believe I gave it my best. But, going through the social media [criticism] towards me, they were really personal.
It’s always personal, but not really about the work … especially in the time leading up to you entering parliament.
How do you overcome challenges as a female politician?
Joining the men. It’s the only way. We find it easy to join the women, but if you join the men, and they respect you and know that you can do the work, they will really come around and support you.
I really believe leading by example is the best way to portray to the men that you can lead in order for them to support you.
Also, in Samoa we have a culture of respect. Through respecting all men wherever you are … and also work; getting the work done and showing that you can do it. Actions speak louder than words.
Those are the main attitudes I acquired to support me in whatever work I did.
What is the best pathway to becoming a politician and what are the practical steps?
It’s all about relationships; having good relationships with people in your constituency.
You can’t go into parliament just because you feel like it’s a career. People don’t see parliament as a career because you [can] get dropped off in the next five years.
But if you look at it in a way that you want to serve, that you want to help, that’s where you will enjoy your journey.
Helping people, especially when you come back home, you are well educated now with all that knowledge you have. When you see things in your village [that need to change], share that knowledge ... Even if it’s small scale, you can help.
Considering the traditional expectations of women to take care of home and caring responsibilities, what are the ways we can help women who want to enter parliament?
There are duties of being a mother, but with us women, it’s about trying 200 per cent more than the men to get into parliament.
At least half of your role has to be supported by your husband ... you need the full support of your family to share the load.
You have the full support of your husband and family, because that’s where your husband comes in to help with the chores. I pride myself in balancing my time, because even though you’re going to be very, very busy, you still have to play some of those roles.
What’s the one thing you think women politicians have to consider?
I feel myself that the number one thing to address is having funds specifically allocated for women starting their own developments and running more businesses.
Because we all talk about developing women, and there are workshops and things that are done, but there’s never a budget from governments that is specifically for women to actually put into practice what is being taught.
Maybe it’s different in other countries, but that has always been my dream. If I ever got into the finance allocation area and there was ever a budget, I would give women funding so that they actually get hands-on development and can feel that they are contributing, feeling empowered.
Are gender quotas in parliament necessary? Do they improve things, and would you recommend them?
I really believe for us, especially the small island countries that haven’t had any women in parliament, I would really encourage this quota system. [In Samoa] it made a huge difference.
It’s only in this time that we women have had to fight for the sixth seat [in Samoa’s parliament] that it opened up the eyes of all the other women in the country. We really need the support of all the women to voice this concern.
Women and men are given equal rights and equal opportunity to everything. In Samoa there even are more women CEOs than men. There are a lot of [sectors in which] women are taking charge more than men, except parliament. And that’s why my own personal take is about trying to complement rather than compete with the men, because we are still at the very low end [in terms of representation in parliament].
Do you need to have a lot of money to campaign?
You do need to have some money, but not to the extent that you go and look for $100,000 to do your campaign. To have maybe a limit of say $20,000 per participant to spend, that would be a fair playing field for everyone.
I’m really against money being distributed [to constituents] as part of a campaign. I think actions speak louder, and that’s what I try to advocate.
[Alofa (middle) addresses WLI event attendees in her capcity as an MP]
Would you recommend women trying to find a partner or can [single] women from the Pacific face this challenge alone?
If you are single and make it into parliament, I wouldn’t say find a partner, because it’s better off you are alone rather than having a headache. [laughs]
When you were running for parliament, were women’s networks or coalitions beneficial?
Yes. I realised the importance of having those networks in parliament because they also help with the developments in your own village.
When you have networks with other women, they really go out of their way to help you. Unfortunately, it can lean on the negative side, too, depending on where the leader of the women is leaning.
When you have good networks, they can also campaign for you among people who they know in their village. This is why I’m still very interested in our [mentoring] program, and it keeps me uplifted, especially the empowering and preparing of young women to lead and organise.
Is there some sort of forum or caucus for the women MPs in Samoa? What’s the relationship like?
In 2016 when we were all in one party, I know there were some issues regarding women meeting up to decide what to vote for and against; we decided to have our own votes and would discuss who should be speaking on a particular point, then we would all vote together.
I’m not quite sure with the way things are now, with the tight numbers, I’m sure it will come down to a party vote.
Did your previous role contribute to your training to become an MP?
When you work in a regional organisation, you work from 8:00AM in the morning until the following morning at 8:00AM and you’re always on top of your work.
The experience helped, but I wouldn’t say the type of work has really helped. When I entered parliament, the pressure people were putting on me to review and make reports, I found it wasn’t often a lot of pressure, because you’re so used to working long hours.
So, working in regional organisations prepared me well.
If you had one piece of golden advice to the women and men in the room, what would it be?
My advice to all the young women, while you are at university level … think of what you can offer to your country and go that way. Whatever you do, whether it be farmer or wife, do work that you’re good at and work your way up there.
Be at the right place at the right time in order to do that decision making and development for your country and constituency.
And for the men, my advice to the young ones is that you really need to support your sisters, your mothers, your wives, for them to go into parliament. That’s all we need from you, your support. The ladies, they can do the work themselves, but it’s just the support that we need from you.
About Ali'imalemanu Alofa Tu’uau
Alofa is a qualified accountant who has worked in a range of senior management positions in the Pacific. Her roles included Chief Accountant for the Samoa Public Trust Office, Finance Manager for the University of the South Pacific in Fiji, and Finance and Administration Advisor for the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) in Samoa.
Between 2016 and 2021, Alofa represented Alataua West as a member of the Legislative Assembly of Samoa and was the first female Chairperson for the Finance and Expenditure Parliamentary Committee. Alofa lives in Apia but regularly returns to her village on the island of Savai'i. She is committed to inspiring other women to take on leadership roles in the political sphere and in their communities.
LeadershipConnect is a six-month, tailored program of online leadership learning, networking and support for all (male and female) Australia Awards scholars from the Pacific.