Members of the Sāmoan community during proceedings on the Citizenship (Western Sāmoa) Bill on August 31, 1982. (Photo: Gail Jordan, The Dominion Post Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library)

Last week, a private member’s bill proposing the restoration of New Zealand citizenship rights for a group of elderly Sāmoans passed its first reading in parliament.

The bill, put forward by Green MP Teanau Tuiono, aims to repeal the 1982 Citizenship (Western Sāmoa) Act — a law rushed in under the Muldoon government to prevent the automatic recognition of citizen rights for Sāmoans born during New Zealand’s colonial administration of their country.

This followed a Privy Council decision which found that Falema‘i Lesa, a Sāmoan woman who’d been living and working in New Zealand, couldn’t be prosecuted for overstaying because she was, in fact, a New Zealand citizen — by virtue of New Zealand’s own nationality laws and its history with Sāmoa.

New Zealand citizenship was created in 1949. Before that, New Zealanders were simply British subjects. As Sāmoa (then Western Sāmoa) was under the administration of New Zealand, the law that created New Zealand citizenship accounted for this by stating that “a person who was a British subject immediately before the date of the commencement of this Act shall on that date become a New Zealand citizen if he was born in Western Sāmoa”.

That meant people born in Sāmoa before 1949 (and after 1924) were, by law, New Zealand citizens.

The New Zealand government’s refusal to acknowledge this meant that Falema‘i Lesa’s case, taken by her lawyers George Barton and George Rosenberg, went all the way to the Privy Council.   

The speed with which the Privy Council’s 1982 ruling was overturned by the National government (supported by the Labour opposition) reflected the racist anti-Pacific rhetoric of the time — and the fear that around 100,000 Sāmoans with citizen rights would suddenly arrive in New Zealand.

Former National MP Arthur Anae has been advocating for change on this issue for 20 years. On Wednesday night, he was among those in the public gallery at parliament. Here, he explains why he believes the restoration of citizenship rights to Sāmoans directly affected by the 1982 legislation is unlikely. Instead, he’s pushing for compensation. Arthur is speaking to Teuila Fuatai.

 

I used to do a Sāmoan talkback show on Radio 531pi, and people would call in and say: “Look, this was done and our citizen rights were taken away. What can you do about this?”

I did some research and found that, really, what had been done to our people was a complete injustice. It made me angry. I knew the issue needed to be revisited.

So, towards the end of my time as a National MP, I had lawyer George Barton address the National caucus. He explained the need to rectify the situation.

George and I wanted to go back to the 1982 Privy Council decision and enact the findings of that judgment. It was very clear. The decision said that all Sāmoans born between 1924 and 1949 are New Zealanders.

We both believed that was the right thing to do. But our message fell on deaf ears.

Then, in 2003, we went to parliament with a petition of 100,000 signatures from Sāmoa and New Zealand, asking the government to take another look at this whole situation. That also fell on deaf ears.

George Barton and I were then planning to go to the Human Rights Committee at the UN to ask for the matter to be investigated. However, he passed away. And I had no one else to help with the legal aspect of the case.

So I let it lie for a while.

Now, we have another opportunity with Teanau Tuiono’s bill. I believe it’s an opportunity to take this issue to a select committee where we can discuss what’s at stake — and, most importantly, where the voices of the Sāmoan people may be heard.

After two decades on this issue, I’ve seen no real progress till now.

I believe that’s simply due to a lack of political will. And unfortunately, this is connected to the underlying attitude held by a lot of New Zealanders that restoring citizenship rights to Sāmoans will lead to mass migration to New Zealand. More than that, some still fear that it will mean the arrival of thousands of people who’ll be able to access our health and other social services, even though they’ve never contributed as taxpayers.

This was the prevailing attitude in New Zealand when the Privy Council decision came back. It’s what motivated Rob Muldoon and David Lange to get together and sign a deal with the Sāmoan government to effectively overturn what the ruling said.

There was this fear that if the Privy Council decision was upheld, 100,000 Sāmoans living in Sāmoa would arrive in New Zealand, virtually overnight, because they, by right, were also New Zealand citizens. In Sāmoa, there were also concerns around potential depopulation to New Zealand.

Over the years, in New Zealand, I’ve seen that fear prevent the rightful restoration of citizen rights for affected Sāmoans — regardless of who’s in power. I believe it’s why the Labour government in 2003, under Helen Clark, did nothing when we took our petition to parliament.

It’s also why we’re only just getting a chance to debate any potential legislation before parliament now. Even this week, all 49 National MPs opposed moving the bill to select committee stage at its first reading. And while Act and New Zealand First were on board, there’s no guarantee their support will remain.

First, let’s look at who Teanau’s  bill is referring to, which is only Sāmoan citizens born between 1924 and 1949. We understand there’s fewer than 5,000 of these old people still alive, and the youngest is aged 75. The bill, unlike the Privy Council decision, doesn’t deal with the question of citizenship by descent for the children of this group.

In New Zealand, you can acquire citizenship three ways: by birth, grant and descent. Teanau’s bill proposes recognising the New Zealand citizenship rights of Sāmoans born between 1924 and 1949 by grant. Children of citizens by grant are only eligible for New Zealand citizenship if their parent had citizenship when they were born. That means eligibility for citizenship by descent doesn’t apply in this scenario.

So, the bill as it stands takes away that fear around mass migration from Sāmoa. The select committee process also provides an opportunity to set parameters around the grant of citizenship.

But that’s only one hurdle traversed. We still have a lot to overcome.

“What had been done to our people was a complete injustice. It made me angry. I knew the issue needed to be revisited.” — Arthur Anae, former National MP and Auckland City councillor. (Photo: Teuila Fuatai)

I think it’s likely that a significant portion of New Zealand voters will say things like: “This proposed legislation may mean 5,000 people arriving in New Zealand from Sāmoa. These people haven’t contributed any tax over the years, and now they’re going to get the entitlement to superannuation and access to things like health services. This is also an elderly group of people, so they will likely be high users of the health system.”

This is the kind of feedback I’ve seen in the past, and which I believe has always scuttled progress on this issue of citizen rights.

It’s based on false and prejudiced assumptions that see Sāmoans not as contributors to New Zealand society, but as people who come here and take.

And while we know it’s wrong, it’s driven the denial of these citizen rights for 40 years.

Now, as a community, I believe we need to chase what we can win. We shouldn’t chase what we can’t win because then the whole thing will be thrown out.

An alternative solution, which I think is more likely to be passed by this parliament, is that this group of elderly Sāmoan citizens should get their full New Zealand pension and be able to travel between Sāmoa and New Zealand visa-free, as compensation for what happened.

I just don’t believe New Zealand will ever come round to restoring citizen rights — even though there’s been some shift in attitudes.

When I first started advocating on this, the New Zealand government didn’t seem to even understand a wrong had been committed. In 20 years, that’s definitely changed. As shown by Wednesday night’s vote, the understanding has progressed so that many parliamentarians realise a wrong was committed.

The select committee process is an opportunity to really interrogate the roots of the legislation. I also think it’s an opportunity to look at how the legislation impacted the Treaty of Friendship between Sāmoa and New Zealand.

New Zealand effectively bulldozed the Sāmoan government into agreeing to a protocol on the Treaty of Friendship which enabled the passing of the 1982 Citizenship (Western Sāmoa) Act. There was no real consultation with the public, either here or in Sāmoa. Questions must be asked around whether this process was fair and right.

I want these old people to be looked after. They were stripped of their citizenship rights and the opportunity to work and live in New Zealand, even after the Privy Council ruled on the matter. Compensation for that injustice is well overdue.

 

Arthur Anae is a former National MP and Auckland City councillor. He chairs Mau a Samoa i le Sitiseni 2024, a group advocating for compensation for those affected by the 1982 Citizenship (Western Sāmoa) Act.

As told to Teuila Fuatai. Made possible by the Public Interest Journalism Fund.

© E-Tangata, 2024

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