Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images. Additional design by Tina Tiller
Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images. Additional design by Tina Tiller

OPINIONPoliticsNovember 16, 2021

How much dawn raid history can the government buy with $5,000?

Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images. Additional design by Tina Tiller
Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images. Additional design by Tina Tiller

At best, the Dawn Raids History Community Fund is a well-intentioned act of reconciliation. At worst, it’s yet another empty political gesture , writes Madeleine Chapman.

Many things can be bought with $5,000. A really nice bed, return flights to somewhere in Europe (on special), or a secondhand car that requires a warrant of fitness every six months. What can’t be bought with $5,000 are historical initiatives that “generate, preserve, raises awareness, and/or pass on Pacific knowledge, experiences, and histories of the dawn raids”.

Minister for Pacific peoples William Aupito Sio announced the Teu le Va – Dawn Raids History Community Fund on Monday, part of the dawn raids apology by the New Zealand government. The fund will provide, well, funding for artists and creators to help tell the stories of individuals and communities impacted by the dawn raids. In essence, to reframe history through the eyes of those most affected.

“Significantly, it allows for a healing process to take place, through storytelling, for those impacted by the dawn raids,” Sio said of the fund. “It also assists to increase understanding and appreciation of the history of Pacific communities in New Zealand; informs educational resources; and ensures Pacific languages, cultures, and identities in New Zealand thrive.”

The objectives are noble and worthy. For decades, the dawn raids were ignored in school curriculums and political discourse. Large portions of Pacific communities chose to pretend it never happened rather than confront a government that tried to force them out of the country one by one.

To share these stories and educate future generations takes a lot of work, physically and emotionally. Panthers, the NZ On Air-funded mini series that screened earlier this year, told a crisp, lightly fictional story of the dawn raid era. It cost $5.5 million to make.

Artists and creators from all art forms are invited to apply for funding for their “historical initiatives” through the Dawn Raids History Community Fund.

The most funding any historical initiative can receive is $5,000.

When Jacinda Ardern lowered herself beneath a fine mat to begin her apology at Auckland Town Hall in August, she demonstrated an acceptance of the impact previous government actions continue to have on Pacific peoples in Aotearoa. The early morning police raids on Pacific homes in search of overstayers broke up families, severed cultural ties, and altered families to this day.

Ardern stood on the stage, apologised and promised action. The actions many Pacific people wanted were repealing the racist Citizenship (Western Samoa) Act 1982 and granting amnesty to the nearly 2,500 Tongan overstayers currently living illegally in New Zealand. The actions Ardern promised were:

  • $2.1 million in academic and vocational scholarships to be available to Pacific communities.
  • $1 million in Manaaki New Zealand short term scholarship training courses for delegates from Sāmoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Fiji.
  • Resources for schools and kura that choose to teach the history of the dawn raids.
  • Support for Pacific artists and/or historians to work with communities to develop a comprehensive historical record of account of the dawn raids period as an additional goodwill gesture of reconciliation.

So what will $5,000 buy you on the way to a comprehensive historical record? I called a producer and asked: what documentary video can I get for $5,000 at market rates? She sighed and thought for a moment before conceding “the product would not be great”. Of course it wouldn’t. Between research, gear hire, crew, post production and talent koha, even the shortest videos would exceed $5,000.

As it happens, the cost of labour is no problem for projects funded through the Dawn Raids History Community Fund. The artists and creators (inevitably Pacific people) who are close to the events, and familiar enough to feel as though they can help, will be doing this work for free because they have to. The list of “what’s not funded” on the application page includes “wages, salaries, infrastructure, fixed assets, travel, and capital expenditure”. In other words, everything.

“Note, applicants may use grants to purchase or hire relevant equipment, such as sound or video recording devices, and provide small amounts of koha to participants.”

Translation: Funding is available but only if you fund most of it yourself.

Applicants are not allowed to have received funding from anywhere else for their project.

What the government has offered here as “an additional goodwill gesture” is a drop in the ocean without any apparent end goal. Are they wanting Pacific people to tell their stories in order to educate future generations, or “inform educational resources”? If so, that’s a public service and public servants are handsomely compensated.

Do they want to “increase understanding and appreciation of the history of Pacific communities in New Zealand”? If that’s the objective, there are far larger funding pools that support this type of work.

Or do they simply want to offer a koha to families most impacted by the raids? If so, why not just give them the money? Why make them apply for it and produce something for the public (encouraged, but not a requirement) in order to receive such a small grant? Because as much as a comprehensive history (oral, written, visual) is vital to the understanding of Pacific communities’ lives in New Zealand, it won’t be achieved through $5,000 equipment-hire grants.

When Ardern announced the actions behind her words onstage at the town hall, there was restrained optimism. The promises weren’t mindblowing, in fact they felt rather pedestrian. But they were something. Lowering oneself beneath a fine mat was a welcomed gesture as it was always only a gesture. But those gestures require supporting actions in order to mean anything.

This community fund, as one of few actions promised, holds a lot of weight in helping to heal historical wounds. While it may seem like a harmless gesture of goodwill to offer small grants to those wanting to tell these tales, the surrounding objectives and expectations leave the scheme flailing somewhere between a gift and an investment.

At best, this fund will serve as an ad hoc reparations scheme in the form of creative grants for those in communities still affected by the dawn raids, allowing some to privately share their painful stories with loved ones and neighbours. At worst, it is just another political gesture, throwing money (but only a little) at a wound and hoping it heals itself. All while expecting a little something – be it an education, an understanding, or a piece of art – in return.

For such a lacklustre gesture to be made in the middle of an outbreak that has disproportionately impacted Māori and Pacific communities, and while both groups lag behind the national vaccination rates, feels a little too obvious.

Fifty years from now, when the government of the day apologises for the inequitable vaccine rollout of 2021, I hope they offer our descendants more than $5,000 to tell them why it hurt.

Keep going!