Michael Field: On saying sorry – who next? The Banabans?

PM Jacinda Ardern apologises for the Dawn Raids.
"As warm and moving as New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s apology was over the immigration Dawn Raids of the 1970s, it will mostly fade away." Image: Ministry of Pacific Peoples

COMMENT: By Michael Field of The Pacific Newsroom

Apologies are, more or less by custom, the end of things.

Say sorry, and don’t mention it again.

As warm and moving as New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s apology was over the immigration Dawn Raids of the 1970s, it will mostly fade away. At the function, standing under an Auckland Town Hall plaque honouring one of New Zealand’s worst administrators of Samoa (and Tokelau), no one I spoke to, knew who he was.

Auckland Town Hall plaque
The Auckland Town Hall plaque honouring Major-General Sir George Spafford Richardson … “one of New Zealand’s worst administrators of Samoa (and Tokelau)”. Image: Michael Field

And yet nine years ago Prime Minister Helen Clark formally apologised for his actions and others.

Apologies are a bit of a sugar rush; something else is needed.

Which brings me to Australian-based academic Katerina Teaiwa who, during the dawn raid apology, tweeted it was great to hear, and added: “We’ll have to work on some specific recognition and support for Banabans from Kiribati & Fiji whose island was sacrificed for NZ, Aus & UK development/agriculture/farming/food security.”

Understanding what happened to Banaba is vital for Pacific futures; not just for correcting historical wrongs that can be dealt with a glitzy Town Hall confession of guilt.

Tragic story of Banaba
That said, the tragic story of Banaba and New Zealand’s role in it – and in Nauru – justify a formal state apology but Teaiwa is right to suggest a rather more ongoing process.

Banaba is vitally important for a number of reasons.

First there is the brutal business of not only robbing a people of their land, but also of enforced exile to another part of the world. Sea level rise, alone, may well make this more the norm, than unusual. Banabans, how they were treated and their response, offer much to an endangered low lying Pacific.

And as Pacific states move toward the business of seafloor mining, Banaba offers lessons in issues as diverse as “beware strangers offering lavish gifts” to “and where do we live after the strangers have taken all the riches….?”

What is also alarming about the Banaba story (and Nauru’s) is that their corrupt, illegal and deceptive plunder was done to make, in particular, Aotearoa and Australia rich. The soils of Banaba and Nauru contain motherlodes of phosphate which is needed to grow grass for agriculture.

Here is the rub: almost no New Zealanders know the story of Banaba or Nauru. And when pressed, some will say, reflecting colonial propaganda, that “we paid a fair price for the phosphate”.

No ‘fair price’
A simple reply: no we did not. Never did.

An apology to Banaba is necessary but only after Aotearoa and others come to terms with what they did to around a thousand people who, for centuries, have lived peacefully on a beautiful island.

Its stark ruins today should remind us that just saying sorry is mostly not enough.

Michael Field is a co-publisher of The Pacific Newsroom. This article is republished with permission.

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