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Government apologies

Page 1 – Introduction

Ki te anga whakamua, me hikoi whakamuri – look to the past to move forward.

This article offers a brief overview of New Zealand government apologies, focusing on the 2021 dawn raids apology, before offering classroom-based ideas and activities that are intended for students between Years 7 and 13. Concepts related to the history of government apologies include mana, whakapapa, whanaungatanga, aroha, tūrangawaewae, power, identity, (in)justice, racism, shame and reconciliation.

Attitudes and beliefs can be gleaned through whakataukī and proverbs. Take for instance the saying sticks and stones may break my bones, words will never hurt me. The implication is that words cannot harm and emotions can be repressed with (to borrow another expression) a stiff upper lip. This stands in contrast to the whakataukī, he tao rākau, e taea te karo; he tao kōrero, e kore e taea te karo – the taiaha can be pushed aside but words cut straight to the heart. Similarly, the Samoan saying e pala ma’a, ae lē pala upu means rocks and boulders will crumble, but words and promises last forever. The message is that words matter, they have power.

So what about the word ‘sorry’, uttered by a government as it apologises for a wrong committed in the past? What power does it have to shape feelings, re-establish trust and create the conditions for positive relationships in the future? How significant are government apologies? How can apologies be used with students to explore concepts and perspectives, generate debate and ignite teaching and learning about history?

Overview

Government apologies in Aotearoa New Zealand, and elsewhere, are a recent phenomenon. The first non-Te Tiriti o Waitangi Settlement apology was given by the Helen Clark-led Labour government in 2002 to New Zealand’s Chinese community for a host of discriminatory historical practices, including the Poll Tax. In the same year, the government also apologised to the nation of Samoa in acknowledgement of injustices arising from New Zealand’s administration between 1914 and 1935. Other recent government apologies have been given to Vietnam veterans for the way they were treated after the war, and families affected by the Erebus disaster and the Christchurch mosque attacks.

A negotiated apology

Philosopher Janna Thompson says that government apologies can seem ‘a poor response to the enormity of injustices that were committed’. But she believes they are necessary as a gesture of reconciliation. Whether a government apology can heal relationships and achieve genuine reconciliation depends initially on whether it is negotiated and endorsed by the victim(s). Historian Rachel Buchanan notes that the Parihaka community have rejected apologies when they were given without warning. She argues that non-negotiated apologies have tended to magnify rather than mitigate grievances for the community. Between 1991 and 2018 nine apologies were given to Parihaka, a period she dubs the ‘very long sorry’. When considering the 2021 dawn raids apology, the Polynesian Panthers pursued a government apology and the Minister for Pacific Peoples, Aupito William Sio, sought advice on the matter. The dawn raids apology, therefore, satisfies any ‘negotiated’ criteria. As Melani Anae says, ‘We're really excited the day has come.’ For Will ‘Illolahia the apology is well overdue, and he was ultimately surprised it took the Crown so long to apologise.

Na te waewae e kimi or walking the talk

Combining an apology with actions and tangible effects helps elevate the mana of an apology. When thinking about Treaty Settlements, apologies constitute one of three parts of a settlement package. The other two parts are cultural redress and economic/financial redress. Some economic redress was offered to Chinese New Zealanders in the wake of their government apology in the form of a $5 million heritage fund. In terms of the dawn raids apology Will ‘Illolahia says, ‘I would suggest that the government in their apology for the Dawn Raids provide a pathway for residence for the present overstayers here in Aotearoa.’ For ‘Ilolahia this would uplift the apology from just an ‘I’m sorry.’ Melani Anae’s call for wanting ‘action, not words’ brings into focus the whakataukī, na te waewae e kimi (by the feet it was sought). For Anae, the steps that need to be taken into the future must have an educative focus. ‘The major work that needs to be done is in the education arena. One of our [the Polynesian Panthers’] platforms is educate to liberate, and that's where we think the answer lies in terms of not allowing the terrorism of the Dawn Raids to happen again.’ The sincerity of the apology, the negotiation between the injured party and the apologiser, the acceptance of the apology by those wronged and the actions that emerge all help to create a meaningful apology.

Ki te anga whakamua, me hikoi whakamuri: towards understanding

The New Zealand government’s formal apology for the dawn raids of the 1970s acknowledges Crown racism and the trauma it caused. Aupito William Sio believes the apology will serve to raise a mirror up to New Zealand society and show how racism inflicted hurt on a people who had simply responded to the call to fill labour gaps and wanted to live dignified lives. In this way, apologies can expose history that might otherwise remain marginal or forgotten, consigned to what Buchanan terms ‘the dementia wing of history’. Government apologies thereby invite questions about justice and reconciliation, and they can make possible a future into which new relationships may be formalised. This makes apologies a potentially powerful tool – shining light on the operation of power and challenging the offending party to do better in the future.

Ultimately, apologies may generate ‘new forms of historical consciousness and collective identity’. History professor David W. Blight argues that tragic history has the power to leave us ‘chastened by knowledge, not locked within sin or redemption alone.’ Ki te anga whakamua, me hikoi whakamuri – look to the past in order to move forward. This emphasis on learning and understanding is made explicit in the words of the dawn raids apology: ‘May this opportunity help future generations gain knowledge and understanding that will help them ensure the mistakes of the past are not ever repeated again.’

Teu le vā: mending relationships

The words contained in the dawn raids apology were written on scrolls and gifted to Pacific communities to show how much the words matter. The full apology can be read here. These words will be preserved and passed on from generation to generation. But included in the apology is an acknowledgment that words alone are not enough: ‘in many cultures, including in Pacific cultures, words alone are not sufficient to convey an apology and it is appropriate to include tangible gestures of goodwill and reconciliation.’ There are two ‘tangible gestures’ contained in the apology, relating to history and education.

We [the government] will support the development of an historical account of the Dawn Raids which can be used for education purposes … We will provide $2.1 million in education scholarships and fellowships to Pacific communities in New Zealand … And we will provide $1 million in Manaaki New Zealand Short Term Training Scholarships for young leaders from Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu and Fiji.

Jacinda Ardern with ie tōga

Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

Jacinda Ardern with the ie tōga , part of the ifoga process, the Samoan tradition of asking for forgiveness.

The Samoan gesture of Ifoga (or Faatoesega as some are calling it), which involved the placing of a fine mat over Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, was a powerful moment during the apology ceremony. This gesture relates to vā and the process of reconciliation – it represents the injustices and breach of human rights and demonstrates remorse in seeking forgiveness and healing the vā. As Apulu Reece Autagavaia explains:

In Sāmoan culture we talk about the “va” which roughly translates to relationships. When there’s an offence committed, that is called “soli le va” or trampling on the relationship. While an offence maybe committed by an individual, it reflects on that individual’s family, extended family or village. Therefore, the ifoga is performed by the offender and his family, extended family/village. This is attempting to “teu le va” or mend the relationship.

Vā is a concept that senior history students will be asked to explore in the updated History Achievement Standards. Albert Wendt explains the concept: ‘Vā is the space between, the betweenness, not empty space, not space that separates, but space that relates, that holds separate entities and things together in the Unity-that-is-All, the space that is context, giving meaning to things.’

The past and the present: To what extent are current governments responsible for past grievances?

There are some perspectives that view government apologies as hypocritical, vacuous, exhibitionist, politically expedient, unrealistic, or simply unnecessary. In Australia Prime Minister John Howard could not bring himself to apologise to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders for the forced removal of aboriginal children from their homes. This was left to his successor, Kevin Rudd, who in 2007 fulfilled his party’s pre-election commitment to apologise, although they had taken legal advice that the apology would not entail liability to pay compensation (as did the Helen Clark-led Labour government in 2002 when apologising to Samoa).

In his now infamous Orewa speech in 2004, then National Party leader Don Brash stated: ‘There’s a limit to how much any generation can apologise for the sins of its great grandparents.’ Brash didn’t define these limits but interestingly he evoked the Christian concept of ‘sin’, which is considered the ultimate transgression of harm requiring both ‘redemption’ and ‘forgiveness’. What is the relationship between an apology and forgiveness? Are Crown apologies motivated by an urge to be forgiven?

To reject Brash’s view is to endorse the idea of inter-generational responsibility and the concept of an individual (and group) made up of multiple strands of inheritance that span across generations. Kevin Rudd recognised intergenerational responsibility when he apologised to the stolen generations: ‘As has been said of settler societies elsewhere, we are the bearers of many blessings from our ancestors, and therefore we must also be the bearer of their burdens as well.’ This brings into focus the relationship between the past and the present – and the role of the past in the present. While Brash argues there is (or should be) a ‘tidy detachment’ between past and present, others flatly disagree. Rather, the past seeps into the present (is indeed inescapable) and trauma cuts across generations and requires attending to in the here and now.

As historian Charlotte Macdonald points out, ‘the consequences of history are not dissolved by time. They actually remain present in the lives and communities and contexts of many people.’ Melanie Anae states: ‘The intergenerational trauma that the terror of the Dawn Raids caused has caused a lot of harm and mental health problems for Pacific peoples.’ The belief in an intergenerational subject and responsibility across time invites the question of what other wrongs might the government be asked to apologise for?

Suggested approaches and activities for the classroom

  • A government apology could be used as an ‘ignition’ event from which to gain student interest.
  • Student inquiries could be carried out around a government apology whereby they investigate causation – why is an apology being made, what caused the event for which the apology is being given?
  • Apologies bring into focus the relationship between the past and the present. They allow students to ask questions about consequences and change – what happened in the wake of an apology? Did things change for the group being oppressed? How did they change? For students studying the Polynesian Panthers and the dawn raids as an event, the dawn raids apology can be included as a long term/ongoing consequence of the event.
  • Apologies are a great way to explore the historical relationship specific and general. An apology is a specific event (or, as in the case of the dawn raids, relates to specific actions carried out by the government), and specific events are surrounded by more general forces and attitudes.
  • Students can be encouraged to ask questions related to the significance of government apologies – how important are they and how have they been viewed by individuals and groups? Because government apologies are a recent phenomenon, determining their significance must be done without a full understanding of any change that come in their wake. Other criteria must be called upon.

Other ideas to support teaching and learning

There is a strict criteria Cabinet need to apply when deciding to make an apology. This includes whether a human injustice has been committed and is well documented; victims must be definable as a distinct group; and they must have continued to suffer harm, connected to a past injustice.

  • Thinking about these criteria students could consider what other events the Crown might be called upon to offer an apology for. 

‘That will be a meaningful apology, rather than being just a “I'm sorry”.’

  • Discuss what makes an apology meaningful?
  • Is $3.1 million in education scholarships sufficient?

‘I would suggest that the government in their apology for the Dawn Raids provide a pathway for residence for the present overstayers here in Aotearoa.’

  • What do you think about the apology not including a package around residency for current overstayers?

Past and Present: options for tangible redress in the present/future blur or disrupt any notion of convenient boundaries between the past and present.

  • Whether an overstayer amnesty and a pathway for residency happens in the future is something to discuss and follow with students.
  • So is the ongoing issue of deportation of current overstayers. Between May 2020 and May 2021, 223 raids were conducted at private addresses – 19 of which were between the hours of 6am and 7am.

‘The fact that there are current Pacific Island overstayers living precariously on wages below the living wage, where 46% of Pasifika children live in households where food runs out sometimes or often … require more than an apology to solve.’

  • What actions are needed to solve problems related to poverty and low wages?

Debate

Set up a class debate on the following moots:

  • An apology is the most important thing the government can do to acknowledge the history of the dawn raids. 
  • There is a limit to how much any generation can apologise for the sins of its great grandparents.

Explore the concept of vā

  • What does it look like, sound like, feel like?
  • A well-known Samoan expression is ‘Ia teu le vā.’ Cherish/nurse/care for the Vā, the relationships. How can care for relationships? What can this lead to?

Photo analysis

Minister for Pacific Peoples Aupito William Sio

Robert Kitchin/Stuff Limited

  • What do you see?
  • What emotions are being felt? (use Wheel of emotions)
  • What does a flag / the Union Jack signify (nation, power, masculinity, sport …)?
  • Why do you think this photo was used in the media?

Cartoon analysis

Chris Slane cartoon, 2002

Chris Slane

  • What issue or event does the cartoon deal with?
  • What is the cartoon’s message?
  • Do you agree/disagree with the cartoon’s message? Why?
  • Describe or draw how the cartoon might be different if it had been created by a cartoonist with a different point of view.
  • Do governments prefer to apologise for events in the distant past, rather than admit their own mistakes in recent times?

Exploring perspectives and considering decisions and actions

Government apologies call on students to explore different perspectives and to make judgements about decisions and actions. Below are some important perspectives involved with the apology. Students can use this map of human values to identify the beliefs that sit behind people’s viewpoints.

  • Summarise viewpoints and identify common/strong values.
  • What emotions have been or are being felt? (use Wheel of emotions)
  • Whose perspective do you feel most strongly drawn to and why?
  • What action(s) do you think need to be taken by the government, or others, in the wake of the apology?
  • What is the role of the historian in providing evidence and giving guidance around apologies?

Perspectives

There has been terror in our society that money can't pay for. What is more beneficial for our people in society is pathways to residency for the present overstayers here.

Will ‘Illolahia

We're really excited the day has come [but] we want action, not words. The major work that needs to be done is in the education arena. One of our platforms is educate to liberate, and that's where we think the answer lies in terms of not allowing the terrorism of the Dawn Raids to happen again.

Melani Anae

There is clear evidence the raids were discriminatory and have had a lasting negative impact. An apology can never reverse what happened or undo the damage caused but we can acknowledge it and we can seek to right a wrong.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern

There’s a limit to how much any generation can apologise for the sins of its great grandparents.

Don Brash

Trust was broken. What this apology is about first and foremost is restoring trust, building confidence in the next generation. I do not want my children or any of my nieces and nephews to be shackled by that pain and to be angry about it. I need them to move forward and look to the future as peoples of Aotearoa. [An apology will] help Pacific youth stand up with confidence and pride about their identity as Pacific Peoples of Aotearoa. [An apology] is an opportunity to strengthen our relationship with our Pacific communities in Aotearoa and our Pacific neighbours.

Aupito William Sio, Minister for Pacific Peoples

It will help the wider Pacific community, but specifically Tongan and Samoan communities which were most affected. It will restore a sense that they do belong here in Aotearoa. It wasn't just Pasifika. There were Māori who were impacted, Māori who were picked up off the street and had to prove that they were from here. It's a bit of a hidden story.

Poto Williams, Minister for Police and MP for Christchurch East

The way she [Mum] was treated, she made the decision not to teach me or my brother how to speak Samoan. [Ngobi says she is going back now at the age of 42 to learn Samoan.] Looking back to my mum’s generation, it’s about making those wrongs right.

Terisa Ngobi, MP for Ōtaki

[He says the apology is a step in the right direction, but would like to see difficult parts of New Zealand’s history enshrined in the core history curriculum and amnesty for visa overstayers before he considers it substantive.]

Teanau Tuiono, Green Party List MP

The Dawn Raids served as a slap in the face to Pacific peoples. Pacific people were actively contributing to the building of Aotearoa at that time but due to changing economic conditions, were all of a sudden perceived as a threat to the jobs and livelihoods of other New Zealanders and subsequently mistreated. Our community were forced to live in fear of the authorities, unable to feel safe – even in their own homes. It is a huge relief that our Government is taking the step to formally apologise. An apology acts as an acknowledgement of the wrong that was done and will play a role in healing the trauma caused by this dark part in our history.

Carmel Sepuloni, Minister for Social Development and Employment and MP for Kelston

[Without a current overstayer amnesty an apology will lack] a real meaning ... otherwise Polynesians are still being treated as second-class citizens, just like how we were treated by New Zealand's racist immigration policies of the 1970s.

Kennedy Fakan’aana’a-ki-Fualu, Tongan community worker

If I had my way I would give an amnesty to everybody tomorrow … there’s 14,000 people, they’re living in New Zealand, we want them working, let’s do it.

Brettt O’Riley, The Employers and Manufacturers Association Chief Executive

Ricky Prebble, Educator–Historian

How to cite this page

Using government apologies to teach and learn about history, URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/te-akomanga/contexts-activties/government-apologies-to-teach-learn-history, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated