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Unconventional career path leads to serving Pacific peoples in Aotearoa   

Unconventional career path leads to serving Pacific peoples in Aotearoa   

  • 24 Apr 2023

Following his heart and pursuing areas of interest which are both personally and professionally challenging has meant a less than typical but hugely rewarding public service career for Su’a Thomsen (pictured). 

Born, raised and educated in Samoa, Su’a joined the New Zealand Treasury –  Te Tai Ōhanga in 2018 and is currently the Chief Advisor Pacific Capability, providing advice and support to the Government agency across a wide range of areas. 

As one of very few Pacific public servants working at the Treasury, Su’a brings extensive experience and insights to the mahi produced by the agency, which has a wide-reaching impact in both New Zealand and the Pacific region. 

“While at the Treasury, one of my key learnings is that  economics underpins almost everything we do as a country and as a region,” Su’a says. 

“Treasury is also becoming very conscious of the challenges facing Pacific communities and it is more receptive to changes in how it incorporates Pacific dimensions in its advice and organisational responses.” 

In recent times, its engagement with the Ministry for Pacific Peoples (MPP) has become a priority for the agency, and it continues to work closely with MPP on its All-of-Government Wellbeing Strategy alongside its various senior officials groups. 

Earlier this month (April), Su’a has led and published the Pacific Wellbeing Analytical Paper to inform The Treasury’s Wellbeing Report, tabled to Parliament late 2022. 

“This paper, written with the support of MPP, provides a macro-view of the state of wellbeing for Pacific peoples in New Zealand and highlights the challenges and the resiliency of Pacific communities and families as evident in their responses to external threats such as the pandemic,” Su’a explains. 

His other work at the Treasury includes publishing papers on  Pacific Perspectives on the Living Standards Framework and Pacific Economic Contribution identifying for the first time the economic contribution Pacific peoples make to the New Zealand economy – a watershed moment for New Zealand, Su’a says. 

Su’a is no stranger to hardwork and tautua and learnt this cultural practice at a young age. 

“While attending school in Apia, I also cultivated and worked two acres of banana and taro plantations on family land in Vailima, which I sold at the Apia Market every Saturday,” he says. 

In 1976, Su’a left Samoa for the first time after he was awarded a New Zealand scholarship to study at the Universities of Canterbury and Otago, during which time he was also selected to represent New Zealand Universities Under-21a to play Japan and Romania in rugby union. 

On his return to Samoa, Su’a was appointed by the Prime Minister as the Chair of the Scholarship Committee, to work for the Samoan Ministry of Justice. 

“I returned to New Zealand in 1985 to study again while also working at the Ministry of Justice Office in Auckland and became the first Pacific person to be appointed as a New Zealand Probation Officer. 

“Several years later, I was the first Pacific person to be appointed as District Probation Officer managing the Porirua District Probation Office, and I was later asked to manage the Wellington and Lower Hutt offices as well.  

After leaving field operations, Su’a was the first Pacific person to be appointed to the Policy and Service Development group in the Department of Corrections before moving to work for MPP as Director Policy  in 1999 under the leadership of Fuiamaono Les McCarthy and later  Sir Colin Tuitukutonga.  

“Form there I was appointed Director of the Strategic Policy and Coordination Programme for the Pacific Islands Forum, in Suva, Fiji, where amongst other things I established the Ocean’s Commissioner’s Office in Noumea, New Caledonia, and negotiated with the Japanese Government the establishment of  water desalination and solar energy plants across 14 Pacific countries, worth US$60million. 

“In 2015, I returned to New Zealand as Deputy Chief Executive at MPP, before leaving to undertake consultancy work and later, joining the Treasury in 2018 as Principal Adviser.” 

Su’a admits his career pathway has been “unstructured” but his work choices has focused on areas he is interested and passionate about.   

“My work in the Pacific region for example, focused on ocean conservation and the real impact of climate change to our small island nations, as well as  the protection and preservation of our regional fisheries and marine assets. 

“These are areas I had no real understanding of when I first started and learning the importance of these sectors  to our regional survival was not only challenging and frustrating but also fascinating and rewarding.” 

Working at the Treasury has been another learning curve for Su’a, who looks at life differently knowing economics underpins almost everything we do. 

“Knowing this overarching principle, and identifying the drivers of our economy, has provided a different perspective and understanding on ways to reduce the inequities hindering the achievement of family and community aspirations  - not only for Pacific but for all New Zealanders,” he says. 

Visit the New Zealand Treasury – Te Tai Ōhanga website for more information.