The Way We Used To Want It – And, Maybe, Still Do.

GREEN MP TEANAU TUIONO hopes to introduce a Private Members Bill repealing the Citizenship [Western Samoa] Act 1982. The Act, introduced by the National Government of Rob Muldoon, and supported by the Labour Leader of the Opposition, Bill Rowling, prevented Samoans born between 1924 and 1949 from exercising the rights of New Zealand citizenship.

Had the legislation not been passed, the decision of the Privy Council (then New Zealand’s highest court) affirming the New Zealand citizenship of all Samoans born when New Zealand exercised a League of Nations “Mandate” (later becoming a United Nations “trusteeship”) over Samoa, would have stood, and tens-of-thousands of Samoans would have enjoyed free entry to New Zealand.

Yet to be drawn out of the Private Members Bill “lottery”, Tuiono’s proposed legislation would presumably restore the citizenship rights of Samoans born between 1924 and 1949. Obviously, this would encompass a much smaller group of people than was the case in 1982. Samoans born in 1949 would today be 73 years old – coincidentally the average life expectancy of a Samoan citizen.

In much the same way as the formal New Zealand Government apology for the notorious “Dawn Raids” of 1974-76, Tuiono’s PMB would stand as a marker of both condemnation and regret for the racist policies inflicted upon Pasifika by the New Zealand state.

Given that any legislation would, after 40 years, be almost entirely symbolic – i.e. only a handful of Samoans would be in a position to take advantage of their restored New Zealand citizenship – the Greens stand to lose very little by their endorsement of Tuiono’s gesture. Slightly more challenging for the Greens’ would be the following counterfactual.

Let us suppose that Tuiono’s bill passes, and citizenship is restored to Samoans born between 1924 and 1949. Then, let us further suppose, that a new legal case is brought, and that the New Zealand Supreme Court ultimately determines that the Samoan descendants of the New Zealand citizens born between 1924 and 1949 are also New Zealand citizens. Suddenly the number of people affected by Tuiono’s legislation jumps from hardly any, to a just about all of Samoa’s population of roughly 200,000.

In these circumstances, the Greens would be faced with the same political dilemma as Labour’s Bill Rowling in 1982. Should they uphold the law and welcome 200,000 new citizens to Aotearoa-New Zealand, or, should they bow to a deafening racist clamour to close the country’s borders to what would be, in effect, an entire Pacific nation?

Back in 1982, Rowling chose the second option. He calculated that Labour would sustain much less damage, electorally, by throwing in its lot with National, passing the legislation quashing the Privy Council’s judgement with all possible speed, and simply living with the loud moral objections of their Pasifika supporters and the increasingly vociferous anti-racist movements of the time.

Along with, it must be said, the loud objections of Labour’s own youth wing, whose president, Sean Fleigner, released a statement bitterly critical of his own party’s capitulation to the undisguised racism of Pakeha New Zealand. For this gutsy demonstration of moral fortitude, Sean and his fellow Dunedin radicals received a “visit” from the party’s dynamic young president, Jim Anderton, who, no doubt acting on Rowling’s instructions, warned them against any further gestures of public defiance which, in addition to being unsupported by all but a handful of party members, and therefore doomed to fail – were bloody embarrassing to the Leader.

Young New Zealanders in 2022 might be appalled at Labour’s open collaboration with the “racist” Rob Muldoon depicted in the recent television series about the Polynesian Panthers. The very same Rob Muldoon who had been willing to set New Zealander against New Zealander by refusing to ban the Springbok Rugby team from touring New Zealand in July-August 1981. But, what seems outrageous with the benefit of 40 years hindsight, almost always struck the people living at the time quite differently.

The Privy Council’s bombshell decision had been handed down in September 1982 – barely  twelve months after the civil strife that so shocked and dismayed New Zealanders the previous year. In a manner oddly foreshadowing contemporary New Zealanders’ determination to avoid any further lockdowns and just “live with” Covid-19, the Kiwis of 40 years ago wanted no more unpleasantness about racism, and were keen to put all the violent passions of 1981 behind them. Very few voters would have thanked Bill Rowling and Labour for dying in a ditch over the Citizenship [Western Samoa] Bill – and expecting them to do the same.

Labour’s concern for what was in the minds of its (overwhelmingly Pakeha) supporters was no less influential in March 1974 when Norman Kirk set in motion the policies that would culminate in Muldoon’s draconian Dawn Raids of 1976.

Kirk and his government were acutely aware of how deeply unpopular his decision to ban the scheduled 1973 tour of the Springboks was among Labour voters. While the Commonwealth Games held in Christchurch in January-February 1974 had given his government an enormous boost (which wouldn’t have been the case if the Springboks’ tour had gone ahead) Kirk was anxious to reaffirm Labour’s attachment to his country’s longstanding “White New Zealand” immigration policy. With the economy faltering, and mass unemployment threatening, sending the “Islanders” home appealed to his government as the least electorally damaging option.

Difficult though it may be to accept, such openly racist policy-making enjoyed solid bi-partisan support. Following Kirk’s death in August 1974, the anti-Pasifika feeling only intensified. Indeed, between September 1974 and November 1975, when Muldoon’s National Party decisively defeated the Labour Government, New Zealand shifted sharply to the right. Over the following months, the New Zealand electorate expected – and was treated to – some of the most retrograde and vicious policy-making in New Zealand’s political history. The Dawn Raids were just one aspect of White New Zealand’s backlash.

Watching The Panthers television series, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Polynesian Panthers played a critical role in the Dawn Raids drama. The truth is they were never more than a minor irritant to the authorities. In spite of their name, they experienced nothing like the level of repression visited upon the Black Panther Party of the United States – most of whose leaders were either murdered by the Police and the FBI, or incarcerated for lengthy periods.

The Panthers’ obsessive focus on Muldoon, unhelpfully obscures the fact that most New Zealanders were more than happy to limit Pasifika immigration. Politically, the Dawn Raids offered the public dramatic proof that “The Government” was “doing something”. Having demonstrated the requisite “hard line”, Muldoon quietly wound the theatrics down. By 1977 it was all over.

Herein lies the virtue of putting the Greens to the test of an historical counterfactual: to see whether they fully appreciate just how deeply racism remains embedded in the Pakeha population. Socially liberal New Zealanders have either forgotten, or been given the wrong information, about their country’s recent past. Much has changed since the mid-1970s and early 1980s – but an awful lot has remained the same.

It’s easy to say “sorry” when your apology can be made without political cost, and in the absence of a political leader capable of harnessing the popular resentments and prejudices it might inflame. The important thing to remember about Rob Muldoon, and the racist policies with which his name is associated, is that he drew his power from the hundreds-of-thousands of anxious and angry people who voted for him.

That, after all, was his most famous slogan: “New Zealand the way YOU want it.”

White and Right.

Related Posts