Australia’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong caused a stir in London recently when she gave a speech calling on Britain to reckon with its colonial history in the Indo-Pacific. Citing her family’s experience of living under British imperialism in Malaysia, where Wong was born, she noted the personal oppression generations of her relatives endured. Male relatives toiled in “tin mines and plantations for tobacco and timber” while her female ancestors often “worked as domestic servants for British colonists,” Wong said.
With her comments, Wong made a foray into deeply contentious re-evaluations of Britain’s colonial history, which so far have focused on Atlantic slavery and Britain’s Caribbean sugar colonies. These discussions exploded into global view with the “disastrous” Caribbean tour of Prince William and Kate Middleton in March 2022, when the pair faced daily protests. Prince William fell short of issuing an apology that might carry the onerous burden of financial reparations; instead he expressed “profound sorrow” for what had transpired.
His speech did little to improve matters. Instead, the couple was seemingly publicly ambushed by Jamaica’s prime minister, who informed them of his nation’s intention to become a republic, a movement galvanized by the subsequent death of Queen Elizabeth II in September. Jamaica, the former centerpiece of Britain’s Atlantic slave empire, is now aiming to be a republic by 2025. Barbados, the other great component of Britain’s Caribbean slave empire, parted ways with the British Crown in 2021.
Given the acute sensitivities of this topic, why did Australia’s top diplomat wade into these treacherous waters in January 2023, in London no less? Wong acknowledged that “such stories can sometimes feel uncomfortable – for those whose stories they are, and for those who hear them.” But she maintained, “understanding the past enables us to better share the present and the future” and it “gives us the opportunity to find more common ground than if we stayed sheltered in narrower versions of our countries’ histories.”
Wong’s evocation of Britain’s historical shame and her call to reckon with it was made in a speech celebrating Britain’s return to a prominent place in the Indo-Pacific region, having substantially drawn down its regional footprint after Suez Crisis in the 1950s. In September 2021 Britain signaled loudly that it was returning to the region by upscaling its diplomatic and military presence, and also entering into the AUKUS agreement with Australia and the United States in September 2021. Britain also became, as Wong noted in her speech, a foundational member of the 2022 Partners in the Blue Pacific Initiative. The ultimate point Wong was making in her London speech was that reckoning with colonial pasts, in current times, makes for good diplomacy.
New Zealand’s Apology Diplomacy
This correlation between apologies for historical wrongs and diplomatic benefit has long been understood in New Zealand. In June 2012, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Helen Clark delivered an emotional apology to Samoa on the 40th anniversary of the latter’s independence from her country in 1962 – making Samoa the first Pacific nation to shed colonial bonds. In Apia for the occasion, Clark offered “a formal apology to the people of Samoa for the injustices arising from New Zealand’s administration of Samoa in its earlier years, and to express sorrow and regret for those injustices.”
She specifically noted the incompetent handling of the pandemic health crisis in November 1918 that led to “some 22 percent of the Samoan population” perishing, as well the killing of innocent protesters on the streets of Apia in 1929 and the banishment of leaders and stripping of matai (chiefly) titles. Clark’s apology was met with Samoan rituals of forgiveness, not least the exchange of a prized ie toga (fine mat) that denoted a reset of relations going forward.
Clark’s apology settled “unfinished business” that was good for bilateral relationships. It was also good for domestic ones. The Samoan diaspora in New Zealand is considerable, making up very significant Labor Party constituencies. Clark’s apology was the right thing to do, and it came with diplomatic and political gains.
These considerations were no doubt part of the decision for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to issue an “unreserved apology” on August 1, 2021, for the “Dawn Raids.” Occurring in the 1970s, these were police raids on Samoans, as well as Tongans, Tuvaluan, and Fijian people who had overstayed their work visas, in what academic Melani Anae described as “the most blatantly racist attack on Pacific peoples by the New Zealand government.” Ardern took part in a modified ifoga ceremony, the formal Samoan apology and forgiveness ritual, and the government offered over 3 million New Zealand dollars in education and training scholarships.
The political benefits for this apology were muted, however. In the days after the ifoga was performed, the onslaught of the Delta variant of COVID-19 was acutely felt by New Zealand’s Pasifika communities, as was Omicron variant shortly after that. The government was harshly criticized for failures in these health crises that worsened outcomes for its Pacific communities.
The impacts of the pandemic have devastated the Pasifika and Maori communities of Auckland, with crime, truancy, and immiseration exacting a high social toll. The long-term social impacts of the pandemic were nowhere more graphically displayed than in the shocking killing of an Auckland shop owner in late November 2022 in the community adjacent to Ardern’s own Auckland electorate.
While this killing was being reckoned with, Ardern issued another powerful apology to the Maori Ngati Maniapoto iwi (tribe) in the King Country on December 4, 2022. This apology was part of the terms of a settlement, and in it, Ardern acknowledged the violence, killings, theft of lands, and intergenerational deprivations and harms that have resulted from the New Zealand government’s punitive actions toward the Ngati Maniapoto for over 180 years. As restitution, the Ngati Maniapoto will receive “$177 million and a range of other redress.”
Ardern’s apology, though a long time coming, was a “fresh start” for relations. This fresh start will not involve Ardern, who resigned from the prime ministership in January, 2023 with flagging popularity in the hard-hit areas of Auckland, and beyond. These areas were pummeled again by extensive flooding in late January 2023 and then again by the impacts of Cyclone Gabrielle in February. Ardern’s 2021 apology and its implicit pledge that the government will do better by its Pacific communities will now be refracted through these new circumstances.
Fiji’s Attempt to Mend Ties with Kiribati
Elsewhere in the Pacific in 2023, a traditional apology ceremony gained immediate results that will have far-reaching regional implications. Less than one month after being sworn in as Fiji’s prime minister on December 24, 2022, Sitiveni Rabuka traveled to Kiribati to repair relations with the one nation that had refused to return to the Pacific Islands Forum following the mass departure of Micronesian nations in 2021.
In 2022 Rabuka’s predecessor, Frank Bainimarama had crafted the Suva Agreement that addressed the causes for the forum’s rupture, but he had chosen the Kiribati national day to do so, a move that amplified grievances. Rabuka, however, opted to formally apologize through performing the Fijian high ritual of presenting the boka (a tabua or whale’s tooth) to Kiribati’s President Taneti Maamau, who accepted the gift and apology.
Rabuka later underscored the kinship between the two nations that grew out of one of the episodes of British colonialism in the Indo-Pacific Penny Wong may have been referring to in her London speech: the forced removal and relocation of all Banaban islanders to Fiji’s Rabi Island in Cakaudrove, which happens to be Rabuka’s home province. Rabuka’s trip hit all the right notes and he did not have to wait long for Maamau to formally announce Kiribati’s intention to return to the Pacific Islands Forum. The use of the apology, burnished by high rituals, proved to be very effective diplomacy.
The U.S. and Australia’s Mixed Apology Records
In contrast, it is still unclear what the impact is of the joint resolution introduced by the 117th Congress for the U.S. government to formally apologize to the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) for the dark legacy of repeated nuclear tests. The bill was introduced on March 1, 2022, a national day for the RMI that marks the date in 1954 when the Castle Bravo test was detonated. The test was the largest of the “67 thermonuclear tests the United States conducted in the Marshall Islands between 1946 and 1958 and which produced on average approximately 1.7 times the explosive yield of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima every day for 12 years,” as the resolution reads. These tests caused a shocking litany of hardships, including exile from contaminated islands.
The resolution was an act of formal acknowledgment of historical events and wrongs committed by the United States, and an attempt to push the Biden administration to activate renegotiations with the RMI to secure the next iteration of the Compact of Free Association (COFA). Within one month of the resolution, the White House announced the appointment of a presidential envoy to lead these complex negotiations with the RMI, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Republic of Palau. The fruits of those negotiations are yet to be revealed, though MOUs have been signed ahead of the highly-anticipated conclusion of these deals. A formal apology to the RMI for the U.S. nuclear legacy may be part of the new COFA package.
In Australia, the 15th anniversary of the federal government’s formal apology to Australia’s Indigenous Peoples was marked on February 13, 2023. The apology, delivered by then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, was directed to the Stolen Generations – the thousands of Indigenous children removed from their families and communities by government authorities, acts that inflicted “profound grief, suffering, and loss.”
At the time, this apology caused intense political rancor. The previous government had obdurately refused to issue an apology, amplifying the Indigenous community’s collective pain. When the apology was made, some members of the opposition boycotted it. Fifteen years on, one of these members, Peter Dutton – who is now the leader of the opposition – apologized for not apologizing 15 years ago in a notable speech to Parliament. Dutton admitted “he failed to grasp the symbolic significance of the move” in 2008.
The 15-year anniversary of this momentous occasion of historical reckoning comes as Australia is once again at a decision point about how to repair copious wrongs done to Indigenous Australians in the form of a referendum on constitutionally enshrining an Indigenous “Voice to Parliament,” a necessary progression following the 2008 apology. This referendum is being championed by the Anthony Albanese government and is expected to be held later this year. Dutton’s party, scrambling to find political traction after it was decimated at the May 2022 election, has come out against the move.
While details are few about “The Voice,” which is dampening the electorate’s initial enthusiasm for the change, the national debate ahead of the referendum is going to involve months of painful and divisive reflections on Australia’s colonial past, as happened ahead of the 2008 apology.
The Albanese government’s prioritization of dealing with its domestic colonial pasts in ways that will positively impact the nation’s future is an interesting contrast to how it is handling Australia’s history in its former colony of Papua New Guinea. When Albanese became the first Australian leader to address the Papua New Guinea parliament on January 12, 2023, he did not broach the “uncomfortable stories” of mass exploitation and oppression (like indentured and forced labor in mines, plantations, and domestic service, as Penny Wong’s Malaysian family experienced at the hands of the British) that characterized Australia’s colonial engagement with Papua New Guinea for nearly a century, except to say “there have been rough seas and tough times.” It is an interesting position for the Albanese government, given that Wong delivered her provocative speech in London only 19 days later.
While Albanese’s main business in PNG on this trip was to solidify the newly minted bilateral security pact, he did not use the opportunity to address the unfinished business of reckoning with Australia’s history in PNG. As Wong said, “Understanding the past enables us to better share the present and the future.” For Australia, this process must begin with a full and formal apology to the people of Papua New Guinea. Wong’s London speech has put her government on notice to do just that.