A proper dawn raids apology?

Former prime minister Helen Clark once described the “dawn raids” of the 1970s as “shameful”. Now, current leader Jacinda Ardern and Cabinet have decided it is time to put this country’s shame on the record.

Ms Ardern on Monday announced a formal apology would be issued at a ceremony in Auckland on June 26.

Few could disagree with this step. The actions in the 1970s to try to seek out and expel Pacific immigration overstayers were, indeed, shameful. So, too, was the strong support across the country at the time from many of us.

What, then, makes a proper, formal state apology? For, as everyone knows in everyday life, apologies can be shallow. Words can be cheap. Apologies can be virtually meaningless.

First, such government confessions must be well considered and relatively rare. They must be based on strict criteria.

These have been laid out by Ms Ardern as a human injustice having been committed, it being well documented, victims must be an identifiable group and they must continue to suffer harm connected to the past injustice. These criteria have been met.

The special nature is emphasised by only two previous government apologies having met these standards: that for the Chinese poll tax and the apology to Samoa for the injustices arising from New Zealand’s administration of it.

Second, apologies are undermined and can lack sincerity if past wrongs are repeated, even if they take another form and even if they are not as egregious.

The dawn raids might be part of history, but does New Zealand discriminate against particular groups in its immigration and overstayer policies and practices today? Do policies or the inordinate delays often experienced cause inexcusable trauma to individuals and families?

Will we look back one day and be disappointed and surprised, for example, about the way the system enables some employers to exploit workers whose temporary visas tie them to a particular job? Several court cases have exposed shocking behaviour. This is not to fail to recognise the difficult task faced by immigration officials on this country’s behalf. What is the point of rules if they are not enforced or effective? New Zealand cannot be naive or a soft touch.

Third, and contentiously, is the issue of recompense. The impact of any apology can be increased substantially by accompanying deeds.

Advocates for “victims” will, naturally, often seek various forms of “compensation”. They could also stress the ongoing impact of the “wrong”.

There is no doubt the scars of the brutal, demeaning actions from government, immigration and the police under the umbrella term dawn raids run deep and are present today.

They did help perpetuate prejudices and stereotypes and reinforce disadvantage.

But to blame, as has occurred this week, Pacific peoples’ over-representation in various damaging statistics primarily on those actions is incorrect. It is a lot more complex than that.

It was always going to be difficult to transport some Pasifika from their homelands and cultural milieu into a new environment and different culture. Most would adapt remarkably well. Others, however, would not.

Sometimes, it is the dislocated second or third generations that struggle. They might well have lost the secure identity of their roots and the strength that brings.

Ms Ardern, and she is skilled at this, will be measured in what is offered. She has already pointed out, for example, difficulties in a mass amnesty to current Pacific overstayers.

And as she said: “An apology can never reverse what happened ... it can contribute to healing the Pacific peoples of Aotearoa.”

Despite the challenges, Pasifika have made, and continue to make, enormous and varied contributions to New Zealand and its communities.

At the same time as New Zealand apologises for the shame of its actions in the 1970s overstayer crackdown, we can acknowledge and celebrate those contributions.


The overstayers included Europeans, but it was dark skinned people that were targeted. Yes, apology.

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