Peter Dunne is suspicious of the timing of the apology to Pacific peoples over the Dawn Raids

Throughout history there have been many occasions where well developed and formulated plans have been disrupted by completely unrelated and unforeseen interventions that could not have reasonably been planned for.

Military historian Erik Durschmied has catalogued various such events over the last several hundred years – from the onset of rain at a critical time at the Battle of Argincourt in 1415 that affected the outcome, through to an attack of killer bees on British troops during a major battle in East Africa in 1914, or Hitler’s inexplicable decision in 1940 to call a three day pause during the invasion of France which allowed British forces to escape at Dunkirk. Durschmied set out the link between them in his book, “The Hinge Factor”, or how chance and stupidity have changed the course of history.

Labour faced its own “Hinge Factor” moment last week with the out-of-the-blue announcement of Hollywood’s intention to make a film on the Christchurch Mosque attacks, based not on the stories of, or impacts upon, the victims, but on the role of the Prime Minister following the attacks. Not only the local Muslim community but also the Prime Minister appear to have been blindsided completely by both the proposed film, and the focus it was planning.

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To make matters worse, despite calls for the Government to step in and stop the project there is very little the Prime Minister can do about it. Yet, despite the swift and predictable negative public reaction to the planned film and its likely angle, it still took at least 24 hours for there to be any response from the Government.

When it came it was similarly predictable – agreeing with the public concern about the timing and tone of the proposed film, making it clear the Government had little advance knowledge of what was happening and that it was not involved in the project.

What some hailed as further proof of how astutely this Government reads public opinion, others saw as just another shameless example of how it waits till public opinion becomes clear, then presents that opinion as having been its own view all along. Either way, the Government clearly recognised the potential of this project to be Labour’s “Hinge Factor” that could quickly upend its carefully crafted and cherished image as the country’s most open, humble, and empathetic administration.

Given the anger the project has already unleashed, and New Zealanders’ traditional antipathy to leaders who “get too big for their boots”, the last thing Labour would want is a hagiographic film about the Prime Minister and little else on a subject still extremely fresh and raw in the emotions of New Zealanders, to be released just before the next election.

Yet it knows that if the project proceeds, decisions regarding the ultimate timing and release of the film will be out of its hands. Those decisions will be made by the film’s producers seeking to maximise their commercial opportunities, with little regard for domestic political considerations.

Overall, the timing of the announcement could not have been worse for Labour. It came after revelations of the extent of the Government’s controlling approach to its media relations. They showed a government that is anything but the accessible, open, and transparent administration it claims to be.

From weekly Monday morning conferences with major editors to shape the week’s political agenda and their coverage of it, through to controls on the numbers of journalists able to question ministers, and limits on what they can ask, and the huge growth in media staff in ministers’ offices and the wider public service, alongside a more draconian approach than before to the release of information under the Official Information Act – the stark picture emerged of a government that is far more focused on controlling the news and how it is presented than any recent administration.

It had already been noticeable for some time that the Government’s favourite journalists have been allowed to dominate press conferences and their subsequent reportage is invariably soft and sympathetic. What the latest revelations made clear was that this is less about the symbiotic familiarity that has always been there between press gallery journalists and the politicians, and much more about a deliberate focus on those journalists likely to present the Government’s case favourably than has been the case previously.

While earlier governments have always had their favourites, this government – despite its mantra of being the most open and transparent – has moved to a different level, where journalists and commentators suspected of being somewhat less than fully supportive are being deliberately shut out altogether. Inevitably, that means the slant of stories being presented to the public is far more likely to be favourable to the Government. A more compliant media means the Government’s line is unlikely to be seriously challenged.

In this environment, the last thing the Government would want is the prospect of an international film production focusing mainly on the Prime Minister’s role during and following one of our darkest national days, from which many who suffered are still recovering. In the same vein is the Prime Minister’s reaction to a new biography, which she says she was misled over. (In passing, it seems strange given the number of media staff working in her office and the control they exert that this could be the case.) In both cases, the Government has no control over the situation, something it is clearly uncomfortable about and not used to.

So, it is little wonder that to push these irritants into the immediate background to take attention off them the Government has resorted to the time-honoured tactic of diversion. In this instance, the notorious “Dawn Raids” of the 1970s provide the convenient way out. Since the announcement of the film project at the end of last week, there are set to be three separate announcements from ministers about the “Dawn Raids”. First was the announcement there would be an announcement – just like in the lead-up to the housing announcement a few weeks ago. Then came the announcement that there would be a formal apology for what happened, and finally that the wording of the apology would be released later. 

Three separate announcements in a few days about an issue the Government has spoken little about previously smacks too obviously of a determination to move other stories out of attention. And it knew a dutiful media, scared of missing out on stories, could be relied on to swallow the bait.

Now, the “Dawn Raids” were a significant and shameful time in our country’s history that both Labour and National governments of the time were responsible for, and an apology is long and justly overdue to those Pacific Islanders who were victims of the raids and also those Pacific countries who were stigmatised by New Zealand in the process. (The testy public exchanges between then New Zealand Prime Minister Robert Muldoon and his Samoan counterpart Tupuola Efi in 1976 come to mind here.)

But using the apology as a way of moving on from the awkwardness caused by the proposed “They Are Us” film smacks of fresh insensitivity to Pacific peoples. The irony of using the circumstances of resolving historic injustice to one minority to move on from the contemporary sufferings and pain of another minority seems completely to have escaped this most sensitive and empathetic government. But then, their plights run second to the Government’s self-interest.

In the circumstances, Hollywood might therefore wish to consider renaming its proposed film “It’s About Us.”

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