Helen Clark is the best thing this government has going for it. Following Labour's worst defeat in nearly 70 years in 1996 her miraculous recovery took Labour to office. Her poll ratings have risen from 3% to more than 50% over the last six years. Among Labour's pantheon of premiers she's as talented as Norman Kirk, and might yet reach Peter Fraser's standing. Yes, many have noted that her economic understanding is shaky. So was Kirk's. But she has always seemed strongest when historical context is required of her.
This makes her occasional blunder surprising. What got into her last week when she apologised to Samoa? The Samoans didn't ask for it, and seemed genuinely bemused. The only possible "healing process" needed relates to the 1982 immigration legislation that she opposed vigorously at the time, but now wants to ignore. Inadvertently Helen Clark's advisers have opened her to ridicule.
Let's consider the two events she apologised for. A ship carrying infected people landed in Samoa during the Influenza Epidemic resulting in many deaths. Yes, and it happened here too when the SS Niagara berthed in Auckland on 12 October 1918 to facilitate Prime Minister Massey and his deputy, Sir Joseph Ward, scurrying back to Wellington from an Imperial Conference. Some 8,500 New Zealanders died in what has been called "New Zealand's worst recorded natural disaster". So far as I'm aware, neither Massey, nor Ward, nor any subsequent prime minister, apologised to New Zealanders who lost loved ones. Many victims left small children. Actually, no one seems to have been absolutely certain at the time of the landings about the deadly contagiousness of the disease, let alone the special susceptibilities of Pacific Islanders. After the damage was done, much was learnt from a Royal Commission of Inquiry. Sad as it may be, that was life.
On the second issue, the gunning down of Mau protesters on 28 December 1929, New Zealanders long ago conveyed regrets. Harry Holland, Helen Clark's predecessor as Labour leader, worked hard during his remaining years to atone on our behalf. Between 1944 and 1949, his successor Peter Fraser strove to make up for decades of Kiwi neglect, so much so that we won praise from UN agencies for assisting Samoa to full independence. All this is on the record. Last week's apology and its live broadcast to local churches looks like a smokescreen for more recent neglect of New Zealand-based Samoans. The Herald carried the headline "Clark seeks closure". Really? More appropriate might have been "Clark re-opens old wounds". Given the litigious times we live in, the next step will probably be requests for financial compensation. Bills should go to the Labour Party and charged against campaign expenses.
Apologies to Lake Alice victims, gays, Kiwi prisoners of war, the Chinese who were badly treated in earlier times, and now to Samoa, raise important questions. What obligation is there on our generation to atone for administrative failings in the past? I ask the question seriously because there are many dark aspects of any nation's history. Some of David Lange's ancestors were badly treated during World War One because of their German names. Many Dalmatians, including forebears of well-known winemakers, were interned 1914-19 because we were at war with their Austrian homeland. Fans of Maurice Gee's novel, Live Bodies, know that similar things happened during the Second World War. Several of Helen Clark's constituents were conscientious objectors and suffered during both wars. Does she plan to apologise to their families? And if she does, where does this stop? Must the sins have been committed since 1900? Not so, it seems. Some recent apologies have been about events long before then. Come to think of it, several of my ancestors were obliged to leave Scotland to bolster protestantism in Northern Island after the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Maybe I'm entitled to a Crown apology too?
In reality, apologies are no more than cynical election-year stunts with potentially serious consequences. At best they are patronising, at worst based on false history. They rest on the misguided assumption that past conduct should be judged by today's standards. Wise historians everywhere warn against "presentism". People cannot be held accountable now for ignoring standards of which their ancestors were ignorant. Unless Helen Clark realises this, she invites future generations to judge her own administration. Perhaps there'll eventually be apologies to many of today's 400,000 people whose lives are caught in the welfare trap? Or she'll be criticised for her government's failure to fix Treaty Industry excesses long after the problem was diagnosed and sensible solutions advanced. These days, our politically correct sisters and brothers are trying to hold churchmen accountable for ignoring past wrongs. Shouldn't politicians be subjected personally to the same norms? Without thinking it through, Helen Clark has impulsively opened a huge can of worms.
Michael Bassett, author and former Labour politician, has written about many aspects of New Zealand politics.