Dawn Raids poster. Picture: teara.govt.nz

Any apology for the 1970s dawn raids on Pacific people needs to be backed by real change on migration and challenging work against racism, writes Dylan Asafo

At this year’s Auckland Arts Festival, the Polynesian Panthers made a call for the government to apologise for the dawn raids of the 1970s. To date, the call for an apology has been supported by members of the wider Pacific community, the Green Party and Young Labour.

But despite this support, some might be asking: what use is an apology for something that happened almost 50 years ago? Or similarly: why should the government put time and resources into making an apology for the mistakes of previous governments, when they clearly have their hands full trying to deal with a housing crisis and an ongoing global pandemic?

The simple answer to questions like this is that the dawn raids aren’t just historical wrongs that can be relegated to the past. Rather, the racist, anti-Pacific campaign of the 1970s has had intergenerational impacts on Pacific communities that continue to harm and oppress us today.

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These intergenerational impacts can be understood when one realises that the dawn raids weren’t just a series of violent deportations and racist policing practices that targeted Pacific immigrants. The dawn raids era involved a full-on political and legal strategy by both Labour and National governments to blame Pacific immigrants for rising unemployment and widespread financial hardship in New Zealand, which was actually brought on by the economic downturn of 1973. 

If you haven’t learned of this strategy already, read up about how the Labour led government used legislation to lure Pacific immigrants into coming to New Zealand to fulfil labour shortages in the 1950s, only to use legislation again to authorise their deportation via the dawn raids in 1974.

Then take a careful look at the blatant racism in National Party’s advertisement for its 1975 election campaign which depicted Pacific immigrants as violent threats to Pakeha, starting fights in pubs and stealing jobs.

Then, consider interviews with racist Pakeha featured in Damon Fepulea’i’s essential 2005 Dawn Raids documentary, where one Pakeha woman remarks (at 5.34): “We’re having trouble accepting the Polynesians fast enough really. You know we can’t educate them, they’re not used to our way of life, they don’t know the language.”

Now ask yourself – what exactly happened to all this racism? Did it just disappear over time? Was there a nationwide reckoning with state-sanctioned racism? Was there some kind of anti-racism education programme in schools and workplaces to help Pakeha, like the woman in the documentary, unlearn her racist views? Or is that racism still with us today, surviving and thriving in other forms?

The hard truth is the latter, where even though the dawn raids eventually came to an end in 1979, the damage to Pacific communities had already been done. As Dr Karlo Mila has noted, the harms from the dawn raids era did not end, but flowed into subsequent decades:

Within a decade, the unemployment rate of Pasifika peoples rose from 6 percent to 29 percent…In the late 1980s, Pasifika peoples were more likely to be participating in the labour market than the rest of the population…By the mid-1990s their participation was well below the average and has remained so ever since….In 1986, Pasifika peoples earned a real median income that was 89 per cent of the national real median income….By 1991 – only five years later – this had dropped to a ratio of 69 per cent of the national real median income…

Today in 2021, we can see that the socioeconomic inequities facing Pasifika have persisted. The Pacific unemployment rate is currently at 8.1 per cent, twice that of Pakeha at 4.3 per cent. Pacific peoples also have higher rates of children living in households that experience material hardship than the national average (28.6 per cent compared to 13.4 per cent). The median wealth of Pasifika households is $15,000, compared to $138,000 for Pakeha.

Furthermore, the end of the dawn raids in 1979 also did nothing to reverse anti-Pacific racism that had already been deeply ingrained in the Pakeha society – comprising of not just civilians, but business leaders, policymakers, judges and politicians past, present and future. As Polynesian Panthers, Dr Melani Anae and Lautofa (Ta) Iuli, with Leilani Tamu, wrote in 2021: “The legacy of this stereotyping since the 1970s is that Pacific peoples are still subject to racist abuse by governments, media, and the New Zealand public in general.”

This “racist abuse” is not just interpersonal, it’s also institutional. It lingers in our broken health system, where Pacific peoples have been consistently underserved and discriminated against resulting in negative health inequities across the board. It thrives in our racist criminal justice system, in which Pacific peoples are still targeted and abused by police, and subject to racist decisions by judges. It’s also in our racist immigration system, which prioritises “skilled” migrants from Western countries over migrants of colour from the Pacific and around the world who aren’t given the same pathways to permanent residency.

Of course, the racism and inequities that Pacific peoples face today cannot be attributed solely to the 1973 economic downturn and the racism of the dawn raids era. The ongoing colonial injustices facing our Māori whanaunga as tangata whenua of Aotearoa and New Zealand’s shameful blackbirding practices in the Pacific make it clear that Pacific peoples and other immigrants of colour weren’t ever going to be treated fairly by a settler-colonial government committed to white supremacy.

Nevertheless, the significant impacts of the dawn raids must still be reckoned with by our current government and society as a whole, and an apology from the government at the very least will open the door for this reckoning.

However, it’s critically important that this apology isn’t just empty words, like Helen Clark’s apology to Samoa in 2002 for the New Zealand administration’s introduction of influenza to Samoa in 1918 (killing 20 per cent of the population) and it’s murder of leaders of the Mau movement for independence in 1929. This apology must be accompanied with actions to address the intergenerational harms the dawn raids era created.

As Polynesian Panthers founder, Will ‘Ilolahia, has stated, one action that must accompany the apology would be the introduction of pathways to permanent residency for the thousands of Pacific peoples currently overstaying in Aotearoa. Last year, ‘Ilolahia  and the Auckland Tongan Advisory group delivered a petition with 11,119 signatures to Parliament, calling on the government “to provide pathways for overstayers under compassionate grounds to gain permanent residency in New Zealand”. The petition was scheduled to go before a Select Committee last month, and it is essential the government, particularly Minister of Immigration Kris Faafoi and Minister of Pacific Peoples Aupito William Sio, ensure that it is acted upon. 

Other important short term actions include mandatory education in New Zealand schools about the dawn raids era and its ongoing impacts (as Green Party MP Teanau Tuiono has advocated), as well as mandatory anti-racism education for police, judges, and politicians (and no, cultural competency or unconscious bias workshops won’t do).

All of these actions will require the government to do anti-racist work that will be challenging, inconvenient and confronting for many, and there will always be loud opposition from those who believe the government has better things to do than be anti-racist. But for Pacific peoples past, present and future, the need for an apology and action is urgent and only grows greater each day.

Dylan Asafo is a lecturer at Auckland Law School, researching the areas of racial justice and Pacific legal issues.

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