A mat is draped over Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern as part of a modified Sāmoan ifoga ceremonial apology. (Photo: RNZ / Marika Khabazi)

The government’s Dawn Raids apology didn’t go nearly far enough, argues Dylan Asafo, a lecturer at Auckland Law School.


This is a critique of the government’s apology for the Dawn Raids.

To be clear, nothing in this critique expresses any criticism of Pacific peoples who felt a sense of healing from the apology, especially our Pacific elders who lived through the Dawn Raids in the 1970s. Nor does anything here criticise any members of our Pacific communities who advocated for the apology or worked hard behind the scenes to make the apology event happen in good faith. 

Rather, this critique is aimed at the people in government who hold institutional power. Or, to put it in another way, the people who had the power and resources to make the apology an opportunity for genuine change for Pacific peoples but chose to waste the opportunity to preserve the racist status quo. 

In my view, these people crafted a fake apology to “respond” to calls for an apology, all without making any real changes to demonstrate an adequate appreciation of what the Dawn Raids did — and is still doing — to our Pacific communities. 

To pull this fake apology off, the “apology statement” needed to carefully frame the impacts of the Dawn Raids as mostly (or purely) mental and psychological, as follows:

“While these events took place almost 50 years ago, the legacy of the Dawn Raids era lives on today in Pacific communities . . . It remains vividly etched in the memory of those who were directly impacted; it lives on in the disruption of trust and faith in authorities, and it lives on in the unresolved grievances of Pacific communities that these events happened and that to this day they have gone unaddressed.”

What is clearly missing from this statement is any acknowledgment of the material and systemic impacts of the Dawn Raids era. 

These impacts not only include the poverty that Pacific families experienced following the deportations of their working whānau. They also include laws and policies that continue to deny Pacific peoples the ability to live their lives with dignity, such as the Citizenship (Western Samoa) Act 1982 which extinguished citizenship rights for Sāmoans born in Sāmoa between 1920–1948 — and the inequitable pathways to permanent residency for Pacific peoples. 

The prime minister also deliberately failed to mention that the racist policing of Māori and Pacific peoples (undeniably strengthened in the Dawn Raids era) endures today — where Māori are almost eight times more likely than Pākehā to be the victims of police violence, with Pacific peoples three times more likely.

Therefore, by carefully describing the Dawn Raids as a one-time thing that only really had psychological impacts, the government’s superficial and inadequate “gestures” for “reconciliation” that followed the apology statement could be seen as reasonable or even generous. 

The “gestures” include “$2.1 million in academic and vocational scholarships to be available to Pacific communities” and “$1 million in Manaaki New Zealand Short Term Scholarship Training Courses for delegates from Sāmoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Fiji”. 

While these scholarships are essential, they miss the point. The Dawn Raids were not just about a lack of educational opportunities for Pacific peoples. They were, and remain, about Pacific peoples being treated like disposable tools of labour for white profit, worthy of police violence and unworthy of citizenship and permanent residency. 

Right now, thousands of Pacific peoples (and other marginalised people of colour) need amnesty for overstaying their temporary visas, and accessible pathways to permanent residency. 

They’ve been denied these pathways because of the enduring racist legacy of the Dawn Raids in our immigration laws (and other interconnected legacies of white supremacy in Aotearoa). 

This is why Pacific community advocates have been calling for this action to accompany the apology months before the apology was made. 

While neither the prime minister nor anyone else in government acknowledged these calls for genuine change, Her Royal Highness Princess Mele Siu’ilikutapu Kalaniuvalu Fotofili honoured these calls by telling the prime minister directly: “The vā could be better and complete, should the government promptly respond to the immigration-related needs of the community.”  

The relatively small amount of funding for these scholarships is also, quite frankly, insulting. By comparison, the government recently provided $5 million of initial funding to help ensure members of Team New Zealand could not be snapped up by rival wealthy syndicates for the next America’s Cup. 

To me, $1 or 2.1 million in scholarships feels more like what was left over after everything the government truly cared about had been taken care of, rather than a genuine offering to advance the position of Pacific peoples in the Pacific Islands and Aotearoa.

The government’s third “gesture” is to provide resources to schools and kura who “choose to teach the history of the Dawn Raids, which would include histories of those directly affected”. 

The keyword here is “choose” — a clear accommodation for racists in the education system who have no interest in helping to ensure that future leaders of the country can learn about the Dawn Raids so that they never happen again. 

The last “gesture” accompanying the apology is to “provide support to enable Pacific artists and/or historians to work with communities to develop a comprehensive historical record of account of the Dawn Raids period as an additional goodwill gesture of reconciliation”. 

While a historical record is important, what is needed is an independent inquiry. This inquiry should then result in a report of recommendations for reform and redress by the government, which would then allow for a true reckoning with the impacts of the Dawn Raids on Pacific peoples.  

Overall, the inadequacies of the government’s “gestures” indicate that the apology came from a government that felt pressured to give an apology — and not a government that was genuinely invested in atoning for its ongoing actions of racist violence. 

In my view, those in power were well aware that the grace and humility of Pacific peoples — and the underlying power imbalances between Pacific communities and the government — would lead to the apology being accepted without any real debate or negotiation. 

Sadly, these people in power included several of our Pacific government ministers and MPs, who have shown (once again) that they are more committed to incremental equality in the settler-colonising state than the full liberation of the most vulnerable in our communities. 

Ultimately, the apology served as an opportunity to continue the facade of a “diverse” and “kind” government while also maintaining the racist immigration and policing structures that oppress Māori, Pacific peoples, and other people of colour every day. 

And therein lies the danger of fake apologies from settler-colonising states. They are never offered to ensure that state-sanctioned violence against Indigenous peoples and other people of colour never happens again. Rather, the real function of these apologies is to strengthen the settler-colonising state and reinforce the faux legitimacy of its white supremacist institutions. 

As Kennedy Warne wrote in regards to the Crown’s apologies to iwi as a part of Treaty settlements:

“One of the problems with apologies is that they can reinforce the power relations that led to the offences in the first place. . . . Settler governments, of course, are rarely willing to exchange power, least of all to previously colonised Indigenous people. . . .

The problem is that, short of recognising the independent and alternative sovereignty of Indigenous people, there can be no guarantee that history won’t repeat itself . . .”

Another danger of fake apologies from settler-colonising states is that they can limit the imaginations of Indigenous and other people of colour as to what is possible and what is deserved. Instead of being able to imagine futures of dignity, joy and liberation for all, fake apologies put pressure on us to be thankful for the crumbs of freedom that those leading the settler-colonising state are willing to give us when it suits them. 

Therefore, the government’s apology for the Dawn Raids should serve as another reminder (to those of us who needed it, including me) that we will never see equity for everyone in Aotearoa under a system in which the Crown dictates power relations and tino rangatiratanga is denied to Māori as tangata whenua of Aotearoa. 

For non-Māori Pacific peoples, this follows that we need to reject fake and tokenistic gestures for “reconciliation” from the government and instead push for constitutional transformation grounded in Te Tiriti o Waitangi. Such transformation would finally provide decolonial justice to our Māori whānaunga and allow for power and resources in Aotearoa to be equitably redistributed. 

Thankfully, plans for constitutional transformation have already been explored in two brilliant reports, Matike Mai and He Puapua, in which experts provide robust ideas about how Aotearoa can finally reach its potential as a fair and just nation for everyone. 

It is when we can collectively push the government to implement these ideas that we will finally be able to “pave a new dawn and a new beginning” for Aotearoa. 


Fuimaono Dylan Asafo is a lecturer at Auckland Law School, University of Auckland, where he specialises in racial justice and Pacific legal issues. He is a Fulbright scholar with a Master of Laws from Harvard University. Dylan was born in Melbourne, Australia, and raised in West Auckland. His family is from the villages of Salani, Satalo, Siumu, Moata’a, and Leufisa in Sāmoa. 

© E-Tangata, 2021

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