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Updated: Aug 4, 2021

It was Prime Minister Helen Clark who started the practice of making apologies to groups who could be nursing grievances and who might think more kindly of her government if she apologized for past government actions. The Chinese settlers who stayed on after the Gold Rushes in the 1860s received an apology for the clear insults visited upon them in the late Nineteenth Century when immigration rules prevented family from joining them. Then Clark apologized for New Zealand’s role in the suppression of the Mau in December 1929 when, as the League of Nations mandated country to oversee Samoa, our police force helped to suppress an uprising in which several Samoans, and one Kiwi police officer were killed.

Jacinda Ardern, as we all know, does symbolic gestures very well and her hugely over-staffed office is always on the lookout for some possibility where their boss can be seen to “be kind”. Someone has fed them a twisted version of the dawn raids that saw many Pacific Islanders overstay their visas and get rounded up in the mid 1970s and sent home. Those islanders most affected were Samoans, Tongans and Fijians. Cook Islanders, Niueans and Tokelauans had been New Zealand citizens since Dick Seddon’s day. They needed no visas and consequently were never overstayers. None was deported.

During the 1960s the number of Pacific Islanders coming to New Zealand gathered speed because there was abundant seasonal work and employment opportunities in factories. Visas were granted with time limits, but until 1974 when the New Zealand economy turned downwards, the Immigration authorities were slow to police them. As local unemployment rose, Fraser Colman, Norman Kirk’s Minister of Immigration and his officers started checking visas. By this time there was a considerable number of overstayers. Many had come from Europe as well. Pacific Islanders were more easily found: they were concentrated in Ponsonby, Grey Lynn, Newton, Arch Hill and Parnell where they stayed with friends and relatives. European and North American overstayers were dispersed across the city and around the country, and consequently much harder to track down. Immigration officers, not surprisingly, directed their initial efforts where they were likely to find multiple overstayers. Officers began turning up at dawn to check visas. They detained overstayers, sending them back to the islands, to Europe or North America. Samoans and Tongans with time-limited visas, were the ones who felt the brunt of the raids. The whole exercise was nothing more than overdue enforcement of the immigration rules. The process picked up speed under Robert Muldoon’s government after 1975. By the end of the decade, most people on temporary visas knew to keep a careful eye on their expiry dates.

At the time of the Dawn Raids as they became known, many people were critical of the suddenness of the crackdown, and some argued that Pasifika seemed to be being unfairly targeted. Interestingly, when searching for opportunities to apologise, Helen Clark’s government didn’t identify the Dawn Raids. But is the story as credible as Jacinda and her associate, Aupito William Sio, claim? Is a formal and unreserved apology warranted? Now the Dawn Raids are portrayed as examples of “racism” for which the present Prime Minister, who hadn’t been born at the time, should apologise.

Pasifika in general were not deported. Those who were New Zealand citizens were always entitled to stay. And they did. Those who came as immigrants and became New Zealand citizens also stayed. What the Prime Minister and most of the media overlook is that all the people who were deported from New Zealand as a result of the Dawn Raids had broken the rules under which they had been admitted to New Zealand. All of them, Pacific Islanders and Europeans, who overstayed their visa entitlement, knew they were breaking the law and risked some kind of enforcement action. Unfortunately, Jacinda’s government is always reluctant to preach personal responsibility for breaking the law. If something goes wrong, someone else, or a system of some kind, is at fault. Even when the law was being enforced by an earlier Labour government led by Norman Kirk whom the Prime Minister has told us she admires.

What this all amounts to is that when our Prime Minister sees an opportunity to employ her formidable ability to “connect” with an audience and to distribute taxpayer money over likely political supporters, she will ignore rules if they don’t suit. She hasn’t told us that it was wrong for Immigration officers to put a time limit on those visas; she isn’t apologizing to the officials who were only doing their job when they rounded up overstayers.

What sort of a message is she passing to future visitors wanting to stay awhile in New Zealand? In future, won’t anyone here on a Work Permit or a Visitor’s Visa legitimately feel aggrieved when it expires if they are rounded up and deported? Most of us know someone to whom that has happened – to their great distress. Jacinda Ardern should give us an answer to these questions.

Update: An interesting footnote. After Jacinda wailed her apology on Sunday for the 1970s dawn raids, it transpires that they are continuing under HER government. There have been 223 raids looking for overstayers this last twelve months, 19 of them conducted at dawn. Who, I wonder, will apologise for her hypocrisy?

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