Four million people in search of an idea

Colin James’s notes for the State of the Nation series at Holy Trinity Cathedral, Parnell, 24 July 2005

No bridge or bus has been blown up. No political leader has been assassinated. No mass popular movement has stormed the parliamentary heights.

Not bad after a couple of revolutions. It augurs well for coping with the next big changes coming down the nation-building highway.

We seem to go in for revolutions in this little backwater. Perhaps it is because we are safely out of sight.

There was an earlier revolution, in 1840 when the British dispossessed iwi of sovereignty and land and imposed an alien culture on them but also gave them access to the benefits of technology, capitalism and human-centred ways of thinking about the world.

The new arrivals were experimenters and so were their descendants: radically innovative social policies of the 1890s, the world’s first comprehensive welfare state in the 1930s and 1940s. Along the way these Anglo-Celts set out to assimilate into the individualistic society of late Christianity the noble savages on whom they had already bestowed subjecthood in the empire of the master-race. While later they swapped assimilation for “integration” — an early form of multiculturalism: interest in, tolerance of and even encouragement for the practice of a minority culture, not just as a curiosity but as having value in its own right — power was defined and held by the majority culture.

But by then the first of our two recent revolutions was beginning to be plotted in the universities: the bicultural revolution, what I have called the “reindigenisation of Aotearoa”: the claim of full citizenship under article 3 of the Treaty of Waitangi and of self-determination and reclamation of taonga under article 2 and, beyond those claims, the assertion a larger say in governance of the country at all levels.

It is astonishing that that ambitious agenda has largely succeeded: in parliamentary lawmaking by both main parties; in the courts in some innovative interpretations amounting to lawmaking; in government practice; and, more recently, in cultural practice. This was unimaginable to all but a few seers 20 years ago. It amounts to a revolution.

And no bridge or bus has been blown up. No politician has been assassinated. No mass movement has emerged in our political system to overturn it.

Moreover, this revolution was going on at the same time as yet another: the indigenisation of the Anglo-Celts.

Initially, the Anglo-Celts set out to make a better Britain: a frontier, outdoors, sports-centred, matey popular culture. Writers self-consciously tried to make a distinct high culture. The landscape shaped some distinct painting. There was a film or two. A romanticised Maoriland added a touch. But down on the quarter-acre section, in the cowshed, on the rugby paddock (as it was then) and in the 6 o’clock swill at the pub, “Home” was the “British” Isles.

Then came the Vietnam generation, the gimme generation, the generation born after the second world war. That generation didn’t call Britain Home. It wrote and sang about and filmed a different place, a place that became in their hands and minds and imaginations unselfconsciously a separate country as they ignited an explosion of vibrant writing, art, craft, film, music and retold our short history in the idiom of a distinct and new society. Those writers and artists and historians possessed a new mentality, the mentality of genuine independence. And they made a revolution, our independence revolution. They were the independence generation.

Now there cannot be a better Britain here because this place is not Britain. There is no empire and there are no outposts, not even here. We have no choice but to make something of this place.

When others of the independence generation took power in business and the government in the 1980s, they tore up the rulebook of public policy and private behaviour. They created a very open, very liberal, post-christian society and an economy to match, mortgaged to its eyeballs.

And no bridge or bus has been blown up. No politician has been assassinated. No headless mass movement has emerged in our political system in protest.

Now we must look ahead. After the revolution decades, is there a generation coming that can make a nation out of this society of tumult?

The immediate task for the next cohort, now on the threshold of power, the cohort in its late thirties/early forties is to try to forge a new consensus on which a solid society, economy and polity can be based.

But as it warms to that task, it does so just as two huge new waves are bearing down.

The first is the smaller, though it won’t seem like that when it rolls in. It will change Maori and the Anglo-Celts.

First, Maori activity and policy on Maori matters are switching from rights to development. The Foreshore and Seabed Act was high tide of the great wave of reindigenisation I talked about earlier, the reassertion of Maori culture and power and the astonishing policy response to that reassertion. There will be some more ripples here and there — note the Maori party, for example, and if there is a government which tries to roll back the rights gains too aggressively, there will be civil unrest — but no big new rights advances, at least for a time. Henceforward the focus of governments will be on educational and economic development.

And that will synchronise with the emergence, now quite rapid, of a middle class of Maori who take the rights gains of the past 20 years as a platform and focus on development. In the much the same way that younger women since the 1980s built on the foundation of rights laid by their mothers, I think we are seeing the beginnings of a younger Maori generation’s shift of emphasis from extending rights claims to building on the gains made so far.

A middle class makes wealth. And it democratises. Over the next 20 to 25 years, I expect traditional governance within iwi to be challenged by this middle class as it grows in size, confidence and age. The large iwi registers — 36,000 now in Ngai Tahu alone — will be vehicles for that change. The traditional culture and structure had to be recovered before development could begin. But tradition is not a future. It is a past on which a future is built. And that is the next stage.

Remember that Maori are also Anglo-Celtic, products of an extensive intermingling of blood and genes. They are heirs to the traditions of Enlightenment thought and the scientific method just as they are to the tradition of whakapapa, the animist connectedness of all people and all things and of past, present and future. The Anglo-Celtic traditions will have some part to play in making Maori richer and all that that enrichment entails.

But cultural influence is not a one-way street.

First, those who will state they have some Maori ethnicity will grow in proportion. Around 15% of all people and around 25% of under-15s are Maori by that measure. So the proportion of Maori will grow. And, if the statistics of choice of electoral roll is a guide, a greater proportion of that greater proportion will feel primarily or to an important degree Maori.

So it will matter to this society and this economy that Maori are confident, have high aspirations and live up to those aspirations. If not, a downward spiral might well set in.

Second, Maori culture is now beginning to influence mainstream culture, not just in tokens but integrally. A growing number of words are now in common usage. Powhiri are now commonplace (and too long and too commonplace). Speeches routinely begin with a few Maori words. Kapa haka and its offshoots are widely practised in schools so all young people know that part of Maori culture. Maori graphic artists and writers are proliferating. Maori and Pacific theatre seems to me to have found its expression. And Maori and Pacific popular music is influential way beyond the numbers. You might say hip-hop is brown. And, of course, sport has gone very brown.

You may have noticed the word “Pacific” in the last couple of sentences. That is deliberate. The gulf that opened seven centuries ago with the great Maori migration from Polynesia is being rebridged in south Auckland and similar places. Polynesia is reassembling there. There is now a recognisable Pacific dimension to our culture. I call that the Pacific-ation of New Zealand.

This Pacific-ation is still in its early stages. But demographics (Pacific people are 7% of the population and 11% of under-15s) and the turnover of generations will embed this Pacific dimension over time. As kapa haka evolves, for example, it will be a specifically New Zealand expression. a definer of our culture � and by “our” I mean all of us.

And that will make this country a Pacific country. Till now we have been in the Pacific but not of the Pacific. I think over the next generation or two we will become of the Pacific, too. That is, we will become Aotearoa.

This will be a momentous change. It will test this uncertain, young society to its core. Will we say in 20 years: no bridges or buses blown up, no politicians assassinated, no headless mass political movement? And after Pacific-ation an even bigger wave is gathering on the horizon.

New Zealanders have for 165 years lived in the North Atlantic sphere of influence. Our dominant ideas, our science and our economic opportunities have been sourced from Europe and the United States. We draw on a very great tradition, the greatest this world has seen: Shakespeare and Goethe, Michelangelo and Picasso, Mozart and Beethoven, Newton and Einstein, Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Hume and Marx.

But now we are moving into the east Asian sphere — or, more accurately, the Chinese sphere.

We sense this already: a free trade agreement is on the go; a high and rising proportion of what we buy in our shops is “made in China”; Chinese students and other ethnic-Chinese are here in very noticeable numbers and Winston Peters has for a decade been making votes out of that.

Less well understood is our growing reliance on Chinese saving. We don’t save. Neither do Americans. The United States Budget and external account deficits are to a large extent made good by Chinese. Our banks borrow from the Americans to lend to us so we can buy imported goods. So we are borrowing from the Chinese.

Project this forward 20 years. Unless we Anglo-Celts and Polynesians decide to learn hard, work hard and save hard, much of our investment will be from China, directly and indirectly. As the Chinese buy us up, they will come here to nurture their investments. Project forward another 20 years to the middle of the century: by then the Chinese presence will be a large feature of life here — unless we change a lot or we decide to forgo the wealth they can bring here.

That Asianisation will put this society under social and political strain, test it to its core. Will we say in 40 years: no bridges or buses blown up, no politicians assassinated, no headless mass political movement?

And there is a deeper change coming, one that will be even more difficult — not just for these North Atlantic outposts in the southwest Pacific, Australia and New Zealand, but for the North Atlantic countries, too. That is that over time our science will begin to come from China. The North Atlantic’s secret power has been in the ideas of science that have made us materially richer, better educated and longer-lived. We will find those sorts of ideas begin to come from China.

There will be other ideas, too: the ideas of political, economic and social ideology and spirituality. We are used to “our” ideas, the legacy of 2500 years of thinking and theologising, from Athens to Chicago. For 200 years “our” ideas have also lighted universities and political movements and policymakers throughout the world because the “developed” world, the North Atlantic, has been dominant economically and strategically.

By the middle of this century, however, Asian ideologies will increasingly push through our protective screens. And we will have to take notice because of the growing numbers of Chinese here and growing Chinese importance — one might call it a recaptured imperial eminence — in the world, economically and strategically. We will be in the Chinese sphere of influence. And if we are to escape that, it will not be back to the North Atlantic but to a precarious place at the intersection of the Chinese and Indian spheres of influence if India becomes an economic and strategic competitor with China.

These will make enormous impacts on our way of life, our perspectives on life and our self-regard. And the “we” will change as Chinese and then Indians come here.

My point in going so far into the future is to set a context for Rod Oram’s questions. That context is one of momentous change to come after the momentous change of the past 25 years. We might think we deserve, or at least need, a period of calm and consolidation. Instead, we will find that “we” will be different.

Rod’s questions were: Nationhood — what does New Zealand mean to us? How will we organise our nation to deliver those goals?

To the first question I will pose a question: is this a nation? As I understand it, a nation is built in one of two main ways: either a “folk” with a shared culture occupies a territory for a long time or the occupants of a territory build a nation around an “idea”. An example of the first is France and of the second the United States.

If the Anglo-Celtic colonisers had never come or remained a small minority Maori might have developed a “folk” nation as they adapted to the modern world — indeed, some Maori call iwi “first nations” in imitation of North American terminology. Alternatively, the Anglo-Celts might in a century or two have also developed a “folk” nation — if Maori had been successfully assimilated and extinguished as a “folk”. But Maori share the Anglo-Celtic cultural heritage and now the colonisers’ culture in turn is being modified by the Maori culture. So perhaps some generations hence there may be a sort of melded “folk” here that somehow draws energy from both the animist and post-christian cultures. That is a step too far for my imagination: those two ways of the seeing the world are too far apart. I think we are going to be two cultures in one territory for quite some time, for all the Pacific-ation I talked of earlier.

So is there an “idea”? If there is, it is to be found somewhere in the concept of the Treaty of Waitangi, two cultures living in parallel and in harmony, each fertilising the other, sharing power — “he iwi tahi tatou”, “we two peoples are one”. The optimist in me thinks that possible, but only after a generation or two. The pessimist points to the vast conceptual gulf between animism and post-christianity, each suspicious and uncomprehending of the other. If the optimist is right, we will have a model to show the world, which would be an astonishing achievement. If the pessimist is right, we face tension and division — and in any case can that “idea” encompass the Chinese (and Indian) influence to come?

Nevertheless, I have more optimistic moments than pessimistic ones. To explain that, I shall return to Rod’s question: How can we “organise” to develop and deliver national goals?

How indeed? We can’t even organise a flag that represents us right now let alone other institutions and a cultural, social and political roadmap. So I retreat from the heights upon which a nation is supposed to dwell, the “we” that is New Zealand (and that will be Aotearoa), to the lowlands, to the “we” that is each of us. Perhaps the small picture, the “we” that is each of us, has a clarity the big picture, the “we” as nation, cannot have.

And in that small picture I see that no bridge or bus has been blown up, that no politician has been assassinated, that no headless populist movement has ravaged the political landscape. If we, the each-of-us small-picture “we”, can hold to that high tolerance and large goodwill, “we” will muddle through in our usual disorganised way, grumbling all the while, a beacon to other diverse societies. Perhaps that unglamorous instinct is our “idea”. Perhaps that is our nation.