Herald on Sunday
Apology for Dawn Raids was the right thing to do
Until this week, some New Zealanders had no idea what Dawn Raids were or why the Prime Minister felt the need to apologise for them.
For other Kiwis, news that there would be an apology to the Pasifika community for the years of cruel and unfair racial profiling brought an eye roll and comments along the lines of “let’s move on” and “let it go”. But for other New Zealanders, the Dawn Raids are a part of their living memory and as real to them today as they were 40-odd years ago.
The Dawn Raids began in Auckland in the 1970s under the Kirk Government. Wellington homes were also raided but it was predominantly Auckland’s Pasifika community who were targeted.
The catalyst was the economic double whammy that hit New Zealand in 1973.
First, Great Britain joined the European Economic Community and that meant we had to compete with European countries for trade deals.
In 1970, the UK took 90 per cent of New Zealand’s butter exports and 75 per cent of our cheese. By the mid-70s it was a fraction of that, and New Zealand’s exporters suffered accordingly as they sought to diversify their markets.
And in 1973, the world experienced the oil shock crisis, when Middle Eastern producers slashed oil production, causing the price of crude oil to soar from US$3 a barrel to US$20 a barrel.
Every industrialised nation, including New Zealand, was hit hard, with higher freight costs, higher costs for goods and wages, and ultimately higher retail prices.
Unemployment began to rise and New Zealand went into recession in 1976.
During the 60s when New Zealand was experiencing a boom time and almost full employment, we needed Pacific Islanders to do the jobs New Zealanders couldn’t, or wouldn’t.
They were welcome to come to this land of milk and honey, earn good money that could be sent home to support their families and to have their children educated in New Zealand schools. Just like all those travellers who had come before them, they left their home countries to come to this one in search of a better life.
During the 60s and 70s, inner-city Auckland suburbs became home to communities of Polynesian families whose lives centred around work, church and family.
But as the recession began to bite, Polynesian workers became targets. “They” were taking our jobs. It was “their” fault times were tough in Kiwi households.
The Norman Kirk-led Government instructed the police to detain people in the street that they suspected of overstaying work permits. They could ask for permits, visas, passports — anything that could prove their right to be here. More exactly, it was people who looked Polynesian who were being detained, despite the fact there were plenty of North Americans and Europeans who were living in New Zealand illegally too.
The stop-and-search grew into dawn raids, with police and dog handlers bursting into the homes of people suspected of harbouring overstayers in the early hours of the morning, catching them at their most vulnerable.
The stories from people who rang in this week were harrowing. And the tension of waiting for a raid would have been almost as bad as the raids.
I can’t even begin to imagine what it was like for families to have to gather together their documentation every night, huddle down in the lounge to sleep, fully clothed, and have a young child, fluent in English, be appointed the spokesperson for the family should the worst happen and the house be raided.
There were indeed people who were here legally — but they might have talked to a fellow church member who had a relative living here who was an overstayer and thus they became suspect too.
Watch the excellent 2005 documentary Dawn Raid, made by Damon Fepulea’i, if you want to get a feel for what the time was like. There’s also an excellent podcast on the Polynesian Panthers. It’s hard to believe it happened here but it did — we have to own our history, the good, the bad and the ugly. I find it hard to believe any reasonable New Zealander would not believe an apology to our Pasifika community was not only necessary, but the right thing to do.