The Pacific-ation of New Zealand

Colin James’s speech to the Sydney Institute, 3 February 2005

If you say the title of this talk quickly it will resonate with many Australians. Much of the commentary in Australia about New Zealand — apart from an obsession with trivia and curiosities — is about the military and seems to presume New Zealanders are freeloaders or pacifists or both.

I do not intend to traverse those arguments at length this evening. Australians who want to understand the genesis of the New Zealand position should read Hugh White’s contributions to the Otago University Foreign Policy School in 2001 and the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs Inaugural Foreign Policy Lecture in 2002. Tracking back through history instead of taking the Anzus breach in the 1980s as his starting point, Hugh made sense off that apparently sudden rift by contexting it within a difference of strategic perspective stretching back over many decades. Standout examples are New Zealand’s condemnation in the League of Nations of the rape of Abyssinia by Mussolini, its decision to fight with the British in Italy in the second world war instead of with Australia in the Pacific and its great reluctance (under a conservative government) to commit fighting troops in Vietnam (and then only a handful). Hugh did not approve the New Zealand perspective but he did say that if he was a New Zealander (and not just a periodic climber in the Southern Alps) he would support the government’s defence policy for New Zealand. He coined a neat aphorism for the divergence of approach: “Same bed, different nightmares”.

I mention in passing three other contextual factors: New Zealand’s geographical position, which places it far from south-east Asian hotspots (though, of course, its exports heavily depend on Asian shipping lanes being kept open); its small size, which means it must work with others, whatever and wherever the action and means it is more likely therefore to repose its hopes in multilateral institutions; and its high loss of men in both world wars. New Zealand has not felt itself directly threatened, except very briefly in the early 1940s. It has, however, been very active as a peacemaker and peacekeeper in United Nations and coalition forces. Too few Australian commentators have acknowledged New Zealand’s critical contribution in East Timor or acknowledge that in the past decade New Zealand troops have been involved in Yugoslavia, Bougainville, Afghanistan, policing the Gulf and in reconstruction in Iraq, not to mention the Solomons. I have little doubt New Zealand will be there, alongside Australia, when peacemaking and peacekeeping are needed in West Papua. New Zealand and New Zealanders are not pacifists. Nor is the Prime Minister or the current government, as the speedy offer to the United States of military help after September 11 2001 made clear.

That is not to gloss over the severe rundown — by a conservative government — of defence spending in the 1990s by one third in GDP percentage terms and the failure to lift that percentage by the present government. This justifiably concerned Australian policymakers and commentators. It is, I think, no accident that when Australians evoke the spirit of Anzac the NZ is now silent, as it is in Anzus: Australians have too little cause to remember that the original corps on Gallipoli came from two countries, not one. As in Australia, there is in New Zealand a memorial to the war dead in every tiny locality and on honour boards of institutions and clubs. It was a searing experience.

I want to stay on the subject of Gallipoli for a moment because, as among Australians, there has been a remarkable upsurge of New Zealanders making pilgrimages to the Dardenelles each Anzac Day, encouraged, I might add, by the Prime Minister who has sponsored an annual Gallipoli essay competition for teenagers. Young people attend Anzac Day parades in considerable numbers. Large numbers lined the streets of Wellington late last year to mark the arrival from France and interment of the Unknown Warrior.

What does this add up to? Something that might be called national pride, or at least a heightened national awareness — in a society that has been uncertain and almost self-effacing hitherto. It can be seen in recent polls endorsing a new flag to replace the British one that is indistinguishable to outsiders from yours. It is just possible that change will happen in the next parliamentary term.

I don’t want to overstate this. In part the greater confidence may derive from a bouncy economy that for a decade has kept up with Australia’s, possibly done a little better. That bounciness is mainly because the economy is now highly flexible after the radical reforms of 1984-92 despite some mild re-regulation by the Labour-led governments since 1999. In part also it is because high-end protein is in demand and a century of relative decline in the terms of trade may have reversed. There are some very good niche industries, not least in wine but also in aspects of textiles, software and biotech. While there are some worrying distortions — private debt is alarmingly high and so is the balance of payments current account deficit, for example — the economy is better based than for a long time.

But the economy is not a sufficient explanation for this new pride and confidence.

There is now a growing sense of heritage which, as a “young country”, we have lacked until recently. New Zealand is beginning to age a little, to acquire a sense of its past and to value places and events. The national museum, better known by its Maori name, Te Papa, is thronged every day. We at last are beginning to want to know our heritage. We have a history.

And we now also have a voice. That is best known abroad through some fine film-making — not just Lord of the Rings, which has generated tourist interest but which I found excruciatingly boring and stopped watching after the first instalment, but the likes of Whale Rider, a truly indigenous film, superbly scripted and straddling two cultural worlds and a multiple prizewinner abroad. But there is much more than film: in the past 25 years there has been an explosion of writing, the fine arts and crafts, dance and music. I have argued for 15 years or so that this has amounted to New Zealand’s independence revolution, its coming of age.

This coming of age has entailed what, for want of a better word, I have called the “indigenisation” of the ex-British. My parents called Britain home. My generation didn’t. My generation protested in the 1960s, started to make its mark in the arts in the 1970s and took power in business and the government in the 1980s. In New Zealand the 1980s were a dramatic decade: every policy area was reshaped, including aspects of the constitution. The value-set was changed. In part this reflected what was happening in all our sorts of societies, notably the United States, as a prosperous and self-obsessed young generation demanded cultural freedom. But it was particularly intense in New Zealand because it marked not just a break with the previous generation but a break with history, the cutting of the colonial umbilical cord, a re-examination of our history. By the end of the 1980s we no longer selfconsciously expressed our distinction from the mother country; we were unselfconsciously New Zealand. We were indigenised. You know what I mean: Australia did it 20 years before.

This a fraught process because it goes to the heart of “identity”. If the chattering classes’ newspaper columns are anything to go by, you here still periodically worry about “identity”. We haven’t long started. Like you, we don’t have a “folk” basis for this reforged identity, as most nations in the old sense of that word have for their identity, and we don’t have a uniting “idea”, as the United States does, or did. But my generation and the generations younger than mine know we have left behind the imperial identity that sustained us through most of the twentieth century, an identity which, despite our brash assertions of a brave new world, was a “better Britain”, not a non-Britain: we were better than Britain at sport, we didn’t have such a rigid class structure, we had space and sun, we were self-reliant and outdoorsy and down-to-earth and matey and we made up government as we went along. Now we ex-British New Zealanders make our own statements about ourselves; we do not rely for distinction on comparisons with our ethnic parent nation.

If that were all we were doing in New Zealand, indigenising the ex-British, it would be fraught enough — and it has some stages to go through yet. To be fully indigenised we need to be confident and free enough in our independent spirit to reclaim our British history and heritage. Te Papa’s non-Maori collections do not reach back further than 1840, when the Treaty of Waitangi, in effect ceding sovereignty, was signed between Maori chiefs and British representatives. It is as if for non-Maori there is no history, as if the ex-British and all the other immigrants came from nowhere.

But, fraught as the indigenisation of the ex-British is on its own account, it is complicated by a second “indigenisation”. That is the “reindigenisation” of Aotearoa (the Maori name for New Zealand). These two indigenisations have been going on simultaneously, intersecting and intensifying the process.

That “reindigenisation” is not exclusive to New Zealand. Indigenous peoples round the world are claiming recognition and redress. You know a little of that, I think, in Aborigines’ growing assertiveness.

But I have the impression indigenous rights are a side-issue in Australia, a minority interest. In New Zealand indigenous rights are inescapably part of national life. That is because New Zealand’s “aborigines”, the Maori, are numerous and getting more numerous. They make up a sixth of the population now and the under-25s are around a quarter which means an already large minority will become larger. Add in their Pacific island Polynesian cousins and the numbers are a fifth now and nearly a third of the under-25s. Those numbers have huge implications for economic performance and social cohesion. New Zealand has no choice but to come to terms with the “reindigenisation”.

So assertion by Maori of their place in the society and the power structure is undeniable. It has forced profound changes in policy and our way of life and those changes are irreversible. Over the past 20 years people with as little as an eighth or a sixteenth Maori ancestry have claimed their heritage and this practice is becoming more common — it gives turangawaewae, a “place to stand”. Rob McLeod, who chairs the Business Roundtable, a big business organisation, wears his (light-skinned) Maori descent as a badge. Ten years ago, perhaps even five years ago, he would not have.

Of course, miscegenation has blurred the ethnic boundaries between Maori and non-Maori. All Maori have some non-Maori blood, mostly ex-British, so they are part of the primary indigenisation. And twenty-first materialism runs deep through the whole of our society. Maori like DVDs and Kentucky Fried as much as the rest.

But don’t mistake this for a simple assimilation into a British-derived value-system. Too many Maori over too long a time have reclaimed Maori heritage and regenerated the culture and too many governments over too long a time have responded to their claims for a distinctive place in the culture, society and power structure for us to revert to the cosy homogeneity of the 1950s.

A programme of redress for breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi, most notably over land taken illegally or duplicitously, has resulted in some large settlements with tribes and has also delivered nearly two-fifths of the fishing resource and one-fifth of the shellfish resource to Maori ownership — though it has ruled out claims for oil, gas and minerals and the radio spectrum.

Maori have claimed, and largely won recognition for, a wide range of “taonga” — loosely translated as “treasures” � which the Treaty explicitly purports to protect. These include preservation of the language, Maori sacred sites and Maori “knowledge”, such as herbal remedies.

In effect this has given a special place in public policy to Maori culture and spirituality. It is an animist culture that sees all things, animate and inanimate, as connected and sees the past and future as part of the present — you could hardly find a more diametric opposite to the post-christian mainstream culture. In a wide range of legislation Maori must be consulted before decisions are fixed. This has led to a road being rerouted to avoid disturbing a taniwha, or spirit. It has led to more costs for developers and to some bad feeling.

Maori have also won, initially under conservative governments, a role in delivering education, health and some other government services through tribal organisations and agencies, on the grounds that they may be more culturally appropriate and so more effective. There have been some scandals over misappropriated money or unsafe practices but also some impressive success stories.

Putting all that together has encouraged some Maori intelligentsia and leaders to assert a parallel social and political order with the European and even (a few) to argue for parallel parliaments. This is a step too far for the majority — in fact, much of the rest is, too, though there has also been a remarkable tolerance. But it underlines the fact that New Zealand is bicultural before it is multicultural and that biculturalism is now about power-sharing, not just tolerance of and support for the minority’s cultural activities. It is not a subset of multiculturalism, with which New Zealand is also wrestling and which biculturalism complicates.

But there is a deeper development. Maori culture is beginning to infuse the newly indigenised ex-British culture.

Maori, as I have indicated, have absorbed a great deal of the dominant culture. All speak English, all but a handful as their first language. They all live in a predominantly British-derived society and share the aspirations and contradictions of that society. Even the most ardently traditional Maori are bicultural � and in modern hands Maori arts and crafts are drawing on a wide variety of non-traditional influences, particularly “western” influences. Most Maori want what non-Maori want from the economy. And large numbers of Maori do not practise or even know traditional Maori culture and are indistinguishable from the ex-British except by colour and often not even that.

But now the influence is also working in the other direction. There have always been tokens of Maori culture in the majority culture: place names, the All Blacks’ haka, a few words, a couple of songs young people sing in London pubs to distinguish themselves from Australians. But now it is spreading and deepening.

In 1999 the singing of the Maori version of the national anthem at the rugby world cup triggered uproar among non-Maori. Now the standard way to sing the anthem is the Maori version first, followed by the English version, even at conferences of the conservative National party. The word hui is widely used for a meeting or conference and other words that are mysteries to Australians are sprinkled on the pages of our newspapers and not in italics. Even quite conservative people frequently begin a speech with a few ritual phrases of Maori. Few formal events now do not start with a powhiri, a formal Maori welcome. Almost without noticing it and with little fuss, non-Maori are acquiring some Maori habits and language. No indigenised ex-British in New Zealand can be entirely free of Maori culture. The two indigenisations may often appear in conflict but they are also intertwined.

And this entanglement is going to deepen as the generations pass. If you are under 25 you have been confronted with Maori culture in school; you are, for example, highly likely to have done some kapa haka, traditional Maori song and dance — even the palest-skinned and most conservative schools have their kapa haka groups. At the national schools choral contest in the past couple of years, the boys of Christs College (New Zealand’s Geelong Grammar) have thrown off their jackets at the end of the contest and performed a vigorous haka. Kapa haka is beginning to develop new forms that scandalise Maori traditionalists but it is driven off Maori culture and it will be something very distinctively New Zealand.

Next consider music. The most vibrant driving force in young popular music is coming from Maori and Pacific islanders, especially Pacific islanders. In the theatre Maori and Pacific islanders are emerging as writers and performers in growing numbers. In the graphic arts the same building on Maori tradition is creating new forms that cannot be from anywhere but New Zealand-Aotearoa.

I don’t want to overstate this. It is in its infancy and its influence on mainstream culture will develop only gradually over the next generation or two. The mainstream is still unmistakably British in origin. But I think the influence of Maori and Pacific culture will grow inexorably over the coming generations.

Note that I have in the past couple of references slipped in “Pacific” beside Maori. Samoans and other Polynesians from New Zealand’s tiny former empire to its north-east — the area New Zealanders habitually think of as “the Pacific”, by contrast with the Australian focus on the “arc of instability” in Melanesia — are increasingly making an impact, not just in sport where they are now indispensable, but in popular and fine arts.

And in the process the link with Polynesia, broken with the great Maori migrations eight centuries or so ago, is being reforged. Maori were isolated for six centuries and then dominated by the British for most of the following 200. Now they are being reconnected with their northern heritage, rejoining the Pacific.

And not just Maori. New Zealand as a whole is gradually being Pacificised or Pacificated. We have lived in the Pacific while remaining, most of us, in Britain in our heads. Now we will gradually become Pacific in our heads, too.

You may find this novel. If so, you will not be alone. The Pacific influence is still largely below the national radar. Most New Zealanders have either not registered it or have registered it only subconsciously.

But, with nearly a third of our under-25s of Pacific ethnicity (Maori and the islands), the influence will over time reach through the subconscious into the mainstream of our national life.

It will be a growing distinction between New Zealand and Australia. It will make New Zealand even more incomprehensible to Australians than the Anzus breach did. I have often felt Australians have puzzled about New Zealanders in much the way Henry Higgins did about women in My Fair Lady: “Why can’t a Kiwi be more like an Oz?” The answer lies in the Pacific.