New Zealand is a social pioneer. We were the first country to give women the vote, we were one of the first countries in the world to instigate a comprehensive welfare state, we are a world leader when it comes to race relations and we led the world in the battle against the proliferation of nuclear weapons testing. We have often taken aggressive ideological stances when it comes to issues of injustice that we believe needs to be addressed on a global scale. Case in point our recent position on Palestinian statehood at the UNSC.
We’ve been able to do this, because of our position in the world, being so far away from the world’s trouble spots, built on migration from Europe, then the Pacific and now recently from Asia, social experimentation is something we can afford to do. But this small size has also required us to try and over compensate in many ways. New Zealand is an insecure country, because we are always referenced in relation to our larger and more well-known neighbour Australia. Tall poppy syndrome is a massive problem in our country as a result.
When Eleanor Catton came out and criticized the New Zealand government this week for what she sees as a failure of the current government to invest in the culture and arts, she hit a nerve among many New Zealanders who felt she was betraying the country. Lots of people have likened her criticisms to an act of “spitting the dummy”. You see, she has a state funded job as a creative writing lecturer at a state-run tertiary education institution. Apparently that means that she, as a beneficiary of the government’s begrudgingly dwindling financial support, is therefore not entitled to have such opinions.
This morning, radio personality Sean Plunket called her “an ungrateful hua” – hua or whore? Irrespective, neither terms were designed to flatter the Booker Prize winning author.
But, this was the real humdinger, the current Prime Minister of New Zealand John Key accused her of not having ‘respect’ for his contemporaries. You see, what Catton said probably dented the ego of the PM a little bit. She said that New Zealand is “dominated by these neo-liberal, profit-obsessed, very shallow, very money-hungry politicians who do not care about culture.” – not exactly a ringing endorsement for the incumbent government.
Well, I guess what they say is true. It’s usually the truth that stings the most.
Having lived abroad for a very long time, I am always struck by the high regard that New Zealand is held in internationally. It’s a credit to all those who have worked for our country in the past that I can go anywhere, introduce myself as from New Zealand and receive a positive reaction from most people in the room – provided that they’re not Australian of course.
What any expat will tell you though is that, the reputation our country enjoys internationally is based on certain factors. The first, and primary factor being our environment. Thanks to Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit franchises, New Zealand’s image of a pristine, nature loving, country prefaces any prospective conversation. This has translated to the high regard that our dairy and food products in general, are held in, we’re seen as the ‘nature’ and ‘natural’ country. Therefore, our agricultural industry produces high quality, close to organic, nutrient rich food products.
The second reason we’re held in high regard is our history of social progressiveness. Those who are interested in the way different societies are organized, group New Zealand with the Scandinavian countries a lot of the time. Where a successful form of collective social welfare and social responsibility has led to a high quality of living and an express goal of attaining an egalitarian tradition.
The third item that precedes me internationally that represents New Zealand is of course the Haka. As a Samoan New Zealander, due to my golden tanned skin :) , it is easy for people who learn that I’m from New Zealand to jump to the conclusion that I am also Maori, which results in excited requests for me to perform the Haka. A situation that usually ends in their disappointment when I tell them in no uncertain terms that I’m Samoan and I’m not about to defile the indigenous people of New Zealand’s cultural expression by performing a dance of theirs for someone else’s personal gratification.
The point that I’m trying to get at, is that New Zealand’s international reputation is a formidable one. When it comes to PR, and selling the country overseas, no one does it better.
I give you the 100% Pure New Zealand tourism campaign, which became the envy of our Ozzie cousins who failed miserably to emulate our example via its “where the bloody hell are ya?” ad campaign – ironically designed by New Zealanders!
But what Catton has alluded to in rather unambiguous terms is something that I have long felt very uncomfortable about.
There is a growing disconnect between New Zealand’s reputation internationally and historically, with the government policies of today.
When Catton said that she was uncomfortable being an ambassador for New Zealand, I completely understood what her dilemma was. She is celebrated as a great product of the country, And anyone who goes overseas from our little corner of the world is expected to put their best foot forward, as you are unexpectedly thrust into the throes of people who expect you to embody certain values. A certain kiwiness, (and apparent love of Rugby) and there not being so many of us out there, there comes a certain expectation that we are meant to be a reflection of our country.
You see, Catton and I are a particular kind of Kiwi. We are old school. We believe in what the country USED to believe in, which is egalitarianism. I am still left in disbelief as to how we have completely abandoned collective responsibility for the fellow kiwi.
The worst example of how we’ve abandoned our sense of collective responsibility has to be the housing crisis in Auckland. The government refuses to act, not because it can’t do anything about it, it’s because a sizable part of the population own all the property, and therefore, are an important voting block. Labour tried to introduce a capital gains tax policy at the last election and National succeeded in demonizing the policy as an attempt to rob the middle class to give to the lazy class. A complete lie that was eaten up by the New Zealand public who now feel no responsibility for the well being of others.
A whole group of New Zealanders will never own their own homes, and neither will their children, who will effectively be renting poor quality homes, in order to fill the coffers of baby boomers and eventually their children too, who believe that they have a right to monopolize resources that only through an accident of birth and timing gave them privilege to. Effectively engraining a new class division in our society. – That’s where it’s all heading people.
In the past, New Zealand governments have taken bold, often unpopular steps to correct problems in our society. However, that tradition has been lost, ever since the reforms of the 1980s and early 90s, governments have taken to implementing populist policies that will get them elected. It is a flaw of democracy, yes, however, in New Zealand, our tradition has always been to stand up to governments who have neglected those who have been given a raw deal by society.
Now, New Zealand is rife with downward envy, neo-liberal politicians who are exploiting this flaw in the New Zealand psyche are in control of the country, and investment has been unapologetically directed at growing wealth, not prosperity for all. The tired old line of ‘trickle down’ economics has failed miserably, but the New Zealand government continues to push this as the benefits flow to all their friends and supporters.
The New Zealand government’s support for the development of the arts has fallen. And Catton’s comments were not lies at all. She was speaking her mind. As she has on many issues on the past. Last year she was quoted in the guardian over comments where she accused the literary community of having a double standard that treated female authors and male authors differenty. Where, often the female author is asked what she feels, but the male author is asked what he thinks.
And the response from the PM was telling. Instead of responding to her criticisms of his government, which related to his government’s policies, he deflected it, turning it into a personal issue. Saying that he is “disappointed that she doesn’t have respect for what we do, because I have tremendous respect for her as a writer.” He went on to say that most New Zealanders don’t share her opinion because they wouldn’t have voted for his government in the large sets of numbers that they did at the last election. – Failed attempt to channel Obama’s SOTU speech there Mr. PM.
The way that the media reported her comments was worse. The New Zealand Herald said that she had “Thrown the book” at New Zealand, Stuff.co.nz’s headline was “Eleanor Catton’s Problem with New Zealand.”
What Eleanor said is not her problem at all, it’s our country’s problem.
New Zealanders can’t take criticism of our country because we believe that we’re the best nation in the world. And in some ways we have good reason to be proud of our country. I am always the first to sing New Zealand’s praises. I love our country.
But I’m unapologetically on Catthon’s side, because I am seriously embarrassed by some, actually, no not some, but a lot of what our government does. And what disappoints me, is that most New Zealanders who live in our country can’t see how much damage this government is actually doing, in the end we won’t be able to cover this up for much longer.
Remember what I mentioned about our reputation internationally? Let’s just focus on those areas and let me demonstrate why Catton’s comments were right.
1. The Environment – New Zealand under the Clark-led government at one stage touted the idea of our country becoming the first carbon neutral country. That was a pipe dream that had no chance of becoming a reality, but the situation today is much worse than back then when the current UNDP head was in charge of our nation. New Zealand today is one of the few OECD countries that DOES NOT produce a regular national report on the environment. Let that sink in for a moment.
This means that our government is able to fudge a lot of the environmental damage that the rapid expansion of the agricultural sector has done. Most of our rivers are too polluted to swim in now, the New Zealand government has rejected numerous proposals for restoring the rivers by outside political parties. The truth is, dairy, a central plank of New Zealand’s economy is by far and away the worst polluter. However, our diplomatic and trade missions around the world are specifically tasked with increasing our foothold in international markets, but let’s be serious. there’s too much demand, and we can’t supply the entire world. So we try to maximise profits by continually trying to increase dairy production at the detriment of our country’s environment. The complete effects of this has been downplayed by a government that doesn’t require mandatory reporting on the status of our environment.
The government aims to cut New Zealand’s carbon emissions 5% by 2020. Funny that, because that’ll take our output to around 1990 levels. Which was the goal of the Kyoto Protocol – merely a plug gap measure really to stop increasing our levels of carbon emissions. It means that actually, we haven’t done anything at all to mitigate climate change.
2. Social Inclusiveness/Social Responsibility – Egalitarian tradition you say? Well no longer, according to the OECD of all the developed countries in the world, we are the most affected by inequality. From 1990 – 2010, our country’s economy should have grown by 44%, however, it has only grown by 28% as a result of the effect of rapidly increasing inequality, giving us the dubious honour of worst affected in the developed world. – How this doesn’t embarrass our government, I will never know!.
And let me just add a qualitiative observation to this. In 1988, my family moved to Manurewa, a town in South Auckland that was relatively middle class at the time. Anyone who lived there will tell you how great Southmall used to be. It was a slick town centre, filled with locally run shops and vibrant locals would frequent the cafe’s, banks, post office, Farmers was there, so was Whitcoulls, DEKA even at one stage. But you look at Southmall now and it’s an unfortunate metaphor for the country’s reality of inequality. The town centre is run down, the neat tiles that used to line the floors of the complex began to crack and has now been replaced with plain cold concrete, there are no stores besides 1 or 2 dollar shops, liquor shops take up the road frontage, and most locals avoid the area at night, as street prostitution has taken over, vagrants and people up to no good often threaten people waiting for public transport, and even I, when at home avoid the place at night, at all costs. The people of my neighbourhood have not had their quality of lives improved over the course of this neo-liberal rockstar economy that the government talks about.
The OECD has recommended that the New Zealand government raise taxes and implement better redistribution policies which were of course rolled back during the massive restructuring that took place when I was a kid. The government ignored the report and has in fact done everything it can to lessen the tax burden of the rich, citing the need for ‘growth’ to develop the economy further. All it has done is exacerbated the gap between the rich and the poor.
3. Race relations – Ahhhhhh the quintessential New Zealand lynch-pin that is used to express our superiority over our Australian neighbours. We are the world leaders in recognizing the rights of our indigenous people. Well, the great thing for New Zealand is that comparisons are all relative. So yes, in comparison to a lot of countries, it looks good for us. Let’s be honest, Australia hasn’t exactly set the bar very high on this point. But what about the status of our indigenous people? It’s one thing to rhetorically support them, but are we really doing what we can to mitigate the effects of colonization? Here’s where we’re going wrong.
1. The education about the Treaty of Waitangi. John Key, the PM of New Zealand said that the settlement of New Zealand was peaceful. Let’s not get into why that is wrong on so many levels, but let’s just take it as a representation of the misunderstanding that Maori face in New Zealand.
2. The poltically motivated demonization of Maori in popular discourse. They are characterized as bludgers, people who leech off of the state, when in actual fact, all those in New Zealand who have developed wealth, especially those who developed it off of farming need to understand that their relatives and predecessors that established their economic base did so off of the pillaging, and theft of Maori land.
3. Government Policy – Under the current government, the socio-economic outcome for Maori in New Zealand has worsened in terms of disparity with Pakeha New Zealand. You can say what you like, but if the social outcomes are not improving in relation to Pakeha New Zealand, then that means that there are still systemic and structural factors that have not been addressed. However, the government is happy to push those issues aside in order to allow for the truly racist undertones of the centre-right in New Zealand to be covered up through widely publicized treaty settlements.
The Maori cause is not being advanced by this government, but we’re more than happy to use Maori culture to promote our country’s image internationally. To use the widely popular phrase on social media at the moment – “Bye Felicia”.
So as you get your claws out and begin to add me to the list of traitors to New Zealand that the media seem to be keeping a close track of, I hope people can understand why I believe that Eleanor Catton did nothing wrong. She is a successful woman whose talent is all hers. She comes from a democratic country, and she has a right to criticize the government if she feels strongly about what the government has done.
Plunkett’s criticsm of her as being an ungrateful hua smacks of insecurity to be honest. I believe that she has been targeted by the media in our country because we’re not so used to seeing women go on the world stage and criticize our government so publicly. It’s the New Zealand version of keeping face, something that Asian cultures are well-known for.
But the thing is, it’s almost a crime these days to mention redistribution and criticize neo-liberal economics because all of John Key’s cronies are in charge of everything, not just the government, but also the media, business, and they are trying to strangle free speech in our country by taking a paternal approach to discussions. Saying that we the poor, are poor because we don’t know much, and we should just listen to them, they’re the experts.
They’re not the experts, they’re criminals who are hoarding New Zealand’s growth and resources for their own benefit. By crafting an image of what we should all aspire to, we are trapped into thinking that they know best.
And it works, because New Zealanders are so insecure about our place in the world now as a result of successive governments who have rejected truely kiwi values in favour of larger personal bank accounts and individual prosperity – enticing everyone else with a false idea, that they too can have that life.
But what they don’t tell you, is capitalism and free enterprise only works to generate wealth for some, and what’s central to the system’s success is its ability to create inequality. Therein lies the greatest contributor to our country’s increasing sense of insecurity.