Independence in an outlier society: five Prime Ministers

Paper by Colin James at Political Studies Association conference, 30 August 2007

Independence is a state of mind. By definition, it is a positive state of mind. And in a small, outlier society such as this one, it is also by necessity an outward-looking state of mind.

So formal independence is not independence. New Zealand dawdled to formal independence through Dominion Day to adoption of the Statute of Westminster 60 years ago but even then remained British at heart. Actual independence is only about 30 years old.

Some erroneously date independence from Britain’s abandonment of the parental home to consort with the European Economic Community in 1973. Such a date would suggest independence can be acquired passively. In fact, in 1973 an independent-minded generation was emerging independently of the EEC event and would soon make its mark.

This generation was born in or after the second world war: 1940 onwards. As it came to adulthood in the 1960s it joined its peers in other societies of our sort in what some have called a revolution of values. Cradled in economic security and prosperity and the first generation to have widespread, near-free access to higher education, it demanded, then lived out far beyond the usual adolescent rebellion, a liberation from the moralities of frugality, traditional religion, sexual constraint and nuclear mum-dad-and-kids families. Personal freedom and personal enrichment of all sorts was this generation’s central preoccupation but it also got up movements to fix what it thought was wrong in its world: degradation of the physical environment, racism, war (especially if waged by the new American empire) and women’s subordinate status. Now, as this generation nears old age, it is trying to rig the policy game to ensure it keeps its riches.

In New Zealand this revolutionary generation did something more. It made its country independent. Its parents called Britain Home, with a capital H; to it Britain was much foreign as family. When people of this independence generation went to Britain for an extended stay it was “overseas experience” (OE), not a Homecoming. When they did inventive things with glass and clay and paint and wrote novels and plays and histories and danced and sang and made films, as they did more profusely than their predecessors, they did so as indigenes of their own place, outside the empire, no longer needing to be self-consciously not British. When they turned up in business, they were brash and adventurous and outward-looking. When they turned up in politics, they made a revolution of policy.

It added up to an independence revolution. The ex-British indigenised.

This independence first showed through in the crafts and arts. If a year is needed for future anniversaries, I would nominate 1978, for prewar generation Maurice Gee’s Plumb, the Limbs Dance Company’s first national tour, Vincent Ward’s State of Siege and Jack Body’s Duets and Choruses recording, or 1980 for Greg McGee’s Foreskin’s Lament and Circa Theatre’s bumper year of seven first-run New Zealand plays in its playbill of 10 and glass sculptor Ann Robinson’s emergence as a major artist. In between came Richard Killeen’s first stunning collages; through this time Robyn Kahukiwa’s arresting modern Maori images were winning notice. But any date is arbitrary: there was from the late 1970s an efflorescence of high and popular culture which in due course led on in the 1980s to a re-examination of our history, most strikingly by Jamie Belich in his revisionist New Zealand Wars in 1986. The outpouring was not only, as my inclusion of Gee indicates, that of the war-and-postwar generation and in craft and painting it began earlier; but its larger output ensured the likes of Gee in fiction and Douglas Liburn in serious music were no longer outposts. The emerging generation gave New Zealand its voice.

But these indigenising ex-British found someone already there. Iwi and hapu, reflecting an international reawakening of first peoples, claimed, and to large extent won, rights to respect for spirituality, sacred places, te reo and tikanga and a place in the power structure and in the daily culture and customs of this society. Maori reindigenised. This, too, was driven by the independence generation.

And because — another outlier factor of this society — Maori are relatively more numerous in New Zealand than many other first peoples are in the states they live in that reindigenisation was also a revolution, reshaping Maori society and the wider society and its customs. We are unmistakably becoming more Pacific, no longer in the Pacific, an outlier of Britain, but of the Pacific, still an outlier geographically and culturally, but now in home territory. Any discussion of recent Prime Ministers’ contribution to an independent state of mind must be in the light of this momentous and astonishingly peaceful turn of history, the simultaneous sharper delineation of two races and two cultures and the beginnings of a cross-fertilisation into a distinct new society which will run through the next generation or two. (1)

This will not be fusion. Embedded in the title of tomorrow morning’s session, “Whose independence?” is an assumption that independence from Britain is only part, and maybe a misleading part, of the story of independence; an assumption that in the eyes of some Maori, and maybe an increasing number of Maori, there is another dimension, as yet unrealised: the independence of iwi and hapu and broader Maori organisations from the state, that is, the recovery of iwi and hapu independence obliterated by colonisation and threatened anew by globalisation. Given what happened after Maori engaged with a global power in the nineteenth century, such thinking is understandable.

But is it genuine independence? A society is not made resilient by self-absorption and turning inwards. It is made reclusive. That at most would be independence from the world, which amounts to isolation, a negative. Actual independence is positive: independence in the world. An independent people self-confidently self-identifies. It is outward-looking, open to ideas and influences and opportunities. Had there been no colonisation, I am sure iwi and hapu would have been outward-looking today. In fact, many Maori are.

But inwards-turning Maori are in good historical company. The colonists were also inward-looking for a century or so. The displaced British who settled here and hacked a living fit for a “better Britain”, to borrow Jamie Belich’s felicitous phrase, knew they were an outlier society. Their response, far from Home, was to huddle in the bosom of empire, then under the wing of a powerful protector. Hence the long diffidence about formal independence.

This outlier society is the context for my comments on independence and five Prime Ministers’ contribution. I have two criteria: were/are they outward-looking or inward-looking; and did or do they reflect a general public independent-mindedness?

I start with a famous newspaper photograph of Norman Kirk, Prime Minister from 1972-74, walking hand in hand with a small Maori boy at Waitangi. It would be a stretch to suggest that that indicated a prescience in Kirk of the momentous change in relations between the races that was still a decade away. Kirk’s take on Maori issues was classically social democratic: use the state’s benevolence to reduce socioeconomic inequalities. Nevertheless, he did say that “our laws must take into account the desire of the Maori people to be equal partners in the determination of the country’s destiny [and] pay full heed to the wish of the Maori people to retain their cultural identity”. (2) That was in 1967, 40 years ago, in the parliamentary debate on the Maori Affairs Amendment Bill, which rationalised the ownership of small Maori land holdings and which he opposed. It was the government he initially led which passed (though after his death) the Treaty of Waitangi Act of 1975 setting up the Waitangi Tribunal to report on breaches of the Treaty.

Kirk was a third-generation New Zealander. He insisted the words “New Zealand” were as important as “Labour party” in the party’s official title. (3) The anonymous editor of a small 1969 book of selected excerpts from speeches distilled a “New Zealandism”: “Everything he expresses in his speeches can be related to his New Zealand and his Labour backgrounds� He spoke for a “New Zealand which was no longer an appendage of Britain and which did not wish to become an Australian or an American one.” (4) “All too often,” Kirk said in a speech in Greymouth in November 1968, “we have heard American policy announced in Wellington with a New Zealand accent”. (5)

“We are for New Zealand,” he said in his leader’s address to the Labour party conference that year. “We aim to strive for opportunities for New Zealanders in every field. We demand that New Zealanders should be allowed to run their own affairs.” He aimed “to accelerate New Zealand’s journey towards nationhood.” (6) “Let us proudly cultivate a sense of nationhood and stand up for ourselves in international and political and trade circles, not acting in a spirit of independence merely for the sake of asserting ourselves but to protect our own interests, both political and commercial.” He also talked, in that same year, of “an open-ended commitment to free trade with highly industrialised nations like Japan and Singapore” and added: “[L]et us not be frightened of all this or run for shelter.” (7) An outlier maybe, but without the huddling.

This independent nation of Kirk’s was to be outward-looking, aiming at the betterment of all mankind, making a virtue of its non-threatening outlier smallness to push for change internationally. “We are seeking to create a more just society in New Zealand, so we intend to work toward the same goal in the international community,” he said in 1973. (8) He sent a frigate to Mururoa Atoll to protest at France’s testing of nuclear weapons there and joined an Australian case in the International Court of Justice against France’s tests. (9) He recognised China. Though he kept the Australia New Zealand and United States (Anzus) treaty as a cornerstone of defence policy, (10) he withdrew New Zealand troops from Vietnam, where a United States-led coalition was unsuccessfully trying to stop a Communist takeover.

This self-educated working-class man instituted the Authors Fund. A voracious reader, he understood at some level writers’ contribution to the distinct nation he foretold.

Even today a surprising amount of what Kirk said in those speeches (if one takes out the deficit-budgeted command economy and the social conservatism) has a modern ring. Kirk prefigured the 1980s. (11) He was a generation older than the post-1940 generation that was eventually to establish our independence and he was far too hidebound on social issues for them and impatient with their noisy idealism (he did stop a Springbok tour in 1973 but gave as his reason police warnings of mayhem from protesters). But he, like them, did not think of Britain as Home, capital H or not. He expressed a confidence and an energising sense of nation which drew young idealists to him and into the Labour party. Helen Clark, who chaired the party’s youth advisory council in 1973-74, says that “we felt Kirk spoke for us” on social and foreign policy. (12) For a small time, New Zealand, if it let itself go with Kirk’s rhetoric, could almost forget it was an outlier at the bottom of the world, distant from centres of commerce, culture and power. New Zealand could be a big little nation, as once the earliest settlers had imagined its future: an outlier by definition of its geography, but an outlier in the world, not huddling from the world.

John Henderson has dealt with Sir Wallace Rowling, who succeeded Kirk as Prime Minister for Labour’s remaining 16 months in office, so I shall merely underline that Rowling maintained the anti-nuclear stance, pushing in the United Nations for a nuclear-free South Pacific (in the face of pro-United States Australia’s opposition) and maintaining a ban on nuclear-powered warships even after the United States enacted indemnifying legislation to cover accidents in foreign ports (though the United States did not push for visits (13)) and note that he did not have Kirk’s ease with Maori (14) and, while passing the Treaty of Waitangi legislation, confined its scope to brief to future actions.

Sir Robert Muldoon’s New Zealand was once again the small outlier huddling from the world. Though Kirk’s contemporary, Muldoon’s focus was the circumscribed world of the “ordinary bloke”, with his fears, hopes, pleasures and prejudices. Consequently, while his foreign policy was “independent”, it was geared to this circumscribed world. Muldoon profoundly distrusted intellectuals, including the pointyheads of the foreign ministry, which he demonstrated by making Warren Cooper, a knockabout house painter, foreign minister in 1981. To Muldoon “our foreign affairs is trade”. (15) Defence was Anzus and powerful allies, visits by whose nuclear-powered and armed ships he solicited, thereby provoking clashes with anti-nuclear demonstrators. Fighting apartheid was to Muldoon a South African domestic issue and he promoted the 1981 Springbok tour and confronted protesters on behalf of his ordinary bloke. Actual independence was bubbling up in the theatres and in pub gigs, bookshops, film and art studios, in business and on the streets — and on the back benches of his own party and on the front benches of his opponents’ party. But Muldoon exemplified an older generation’s preoccupations in his offer of a frigate for Britain’s twilight-of-empire war with Argentina. “He willed upon a younger generation with new ideals and ideas the values of his youth,” I have written in another place. (16)

David Lange took New Zealand back out into the world. Lange was not a commanding Prime Minister like Kirk and Muldoon. He was theatre: a superb, engaging presenter for a new political generation’s redefinition of the outlier society’s place in the world. And, as the first Prime Minister who was a member of the independence generation, he reflected its outward-looking positivity.

Lange was the trumpet for the overwhelming Labour party rank-and-file demand for an anti-nuclear policy, an end to Springbok tours, a multilateralist stance in place of one subservient to allies and a generally activist foreign policy. Though it needed Helen Clark, as chair of Parliament’s foreign affairs and defence committee, and Margaret Wilson, as president, to ensure the cabinet, and Lange, did not soften the programme, once he was on board, Lange won international attention to the anti-nuclear stance, most spectacularly by debating a high-profile pro-nuclear American evangelist on television at Oxford University in 1985. That did nothing to soothe the United States’ anger at the policy and its fears that a “New Zealand disease” might spread to other peoples but at home it reinforced the self-confidence of the independence generation, which paraded anti-nuclearism as a badge of a principled big little nation. Lange was also the megaphone for the economic reformers, led by Sir Roger Douglas, who dramatically opened up the economy to the wild forces of world finance and trade. And he was the figurehead of an administration which equally dramatically responded to iwi and hapu demands for redress and claims to, in Kirk’s words above, “be equal partners in the determination of the country’s destiny”. After Lange, there could be no retreat into the arms of a powerful protector. The outlier society was — and is — on its own.

My fourth Prime Minister — others have covered Sir Wallace Rowling, Mike Moore, Jim Bolger and Jenny Shipley and I pass over Sir Geoffrey Palmer, though his contributions to independence in the Constitution Act 1986, his late change to the State-owned Enterprises Act, which gave added leverage to iwi and hapu, and the internationally ground-breaking Resource Management Act, deserve a proper study — is Helen Clark. She comes from the younger end of the independence generation.

Helen Clark’s political career spans the work of independence: the shy young idealist of the Kirk era, the steely back-seat driver of the crucial elements of foreign and defence policy in the Lange era, the commander of an independent foreign policy over the past eight years.

In office Clark embedded the anti-nuclear policy and the accentuation of a multilateralist and activist foreign policy in matters ranging from refugees to climate change. She demonstrated a nationalistic sovereignty when she ended the subsidisation of welfare in Australia for New Zealand emigres with the rationale: “Why on earth would we pay money to people who are turning their backs and leaving the country?” (17) She demonstrated her multilateralism most clearly in her differentiation between the United Nations-mandated Afghanistan intervention, to which she contributed troops, and the United States-led “coalition of the willing” adventure in Iraq, to which she did not even though she knew it would cost her, and New Zealand, in Canberra and Washington. She at times reflected the independence generation’s brashness — or hubris — notably in commenting just after the Iraq invasion that it wouldn’t have happened if Al Gore had been President and in an over-reaction to the recent off-hand remarks by Australia’s Foreign Minister Alexander Downer on her condemnation of Air New Zealand’s ferrying of Australian troops to Kuwait en route to Iraq. Yet she has also maintained and built a good, arguably excellent, working relationship with Australian Prime Minister John Howard and has skilfully set the relationship with the United States on the road to renormalisation. Her record in foreign policy will rank at least alongside Peter Fraser’s and arguably superior to it.

And, it bears underlining, Helen Clark’s is an outward-looking independence. She defended import licensing (quotas) in her maiden speech but embraced free trade in office. Her defence policy, often wrongly called isolationist, has actually been to engage more abroad, re-equipping ground troops as peacemakers and peacekeepers (though understaffing the military). She has made climate change policy an element of her foreign policy.

She answered the question: what is an outlier nation to do so as not to be ignored as irrelevant? Her answer: engage; be useful; be noticed for that. Be in the world, even if by geography an outlier. Clark’s independence is unmistakably outward looking.

And be distinct. At home Clark has proven her credentials as a member of the independence generation by backing the arts, pop and high culture and heritage from the big battles to the small museums. New Zealand’s is no longer an offshoot culture. It is distinct and it is Pacific and becoming more so.

After Clark, for all her cosiness with British politicians, Britain is more foreign than family.

Which leads me to my fifth Prime Minister: John Key. No anniversary is complete without a peer into the future, however speculative.

Key is of the post-independence generation. His generation takes independence as an unremarkable given.

Key’s generation, even if not Key himself, is more culturally Pacific than Clark’s but also more confidently able to reconnect with the British/European side of its heritage after the necessary distancing during the independence decades. Its members are more educated than the independence generation and more footloose, especially to bigger outlier Australia outside the front door.

Those who choose to stay here still live in an outlier country, as have all generations going back 10 centuries, and globalisation of capital, money and people, if anything, accentuates that outlier quality. And symbols of colony linger. Clark’s generation did belatedly repatriate the highest court four years ago but it has bequeathed to Key’s generation an English Queen as head of state, a flag with Britain’s flag on it, a name that ties us to a flat bit of northern Europe and a national anthem that prays for God to save us instead of standing tall on our own feet. We are still a wingless, flightless bird.

How will Key the returned expatriate, still playing catchup to some of the cultural changes, deal with all that? His external policy essentially mimics Clark’s, with some fine-tuning. Some in his party are plotting legislation to disestablish the monarchy on Queen Elizabeth’s death. There are attempts in his party at new thinking on the aspirations of iwi and hapu to bring the two indigenisations into synch.

An assessment of the Key prime ministership (if there is to be one) will be made by the conference that looks back from 2027 over 50 years of actual, as distinct from formal, independence. But we can be sure of this: that it will be an assessment of a Prime Minister of an outlier society: distant from the metropolises � and from danger; distant from markets � and from terror; distant from the great centres of commerce � and from the direct effects of climate change; a Pacific island country; and a nation in the world. Key’s task is not to maintain independence but to make it work.

———————————– Footnotes

1. The generational shift idea is discussed more fully in Colin James, The Quiet Revolution: turbulence and transition in contemporary New Zealand (Bridget Williams Books, Wellington, 1986) and during this decade in speeches and papers at

2. Norman Kirk, MP, Towards Nationhood (New Zealand Books, Palmerston North, 1969), p69

3. Kirk, p37

4. Kirk, p7, p9

5. Kirk, p51 6. Kirk, p37

7. Kirk, p10

8. Kirk, Norman, “Review of Foreign Policy 1973” in New Zealand Foreign Affairs Review, cited in Rod Alley, “The Public Dimension” in Bruce Brown, ed, New Zealand in World Affairs, Vol 3, 1972-90 (New Zealand Institute of International Affairs and Victoria University Press, Wellington, 1999), p297, p319 note

9. Templeton, Malcolm, “New Zealand and the development of international law” in Brown, p70. Sir Kenneth Keith, who was part of the all-New Zealand team who argued the case, was appointed to the court in 2006.

10. McGibbon, Ian, “New Zealand’s defence policy from Vietnam to the Gulf” in Brown, p113

11. Barry Gustafron’s excellent exposition of Sir Keith Holyoake’s New Zealandness suggests a man ahead of his generation, his cabinet and his party and serves to underline that true independence must grow up from the bottom and cannot be driven from the top down.

12. Interview with the author, 26 August 2007 but also stated many times in speeches and interviews.

13. McGibbon, p115

14. In 1979 Rowling, then leader of the Opposition, demoted Matiu Rata, who had been Kirk’s Minister of Maori Affairs, from the front bench, which prompted Rata to resign from the Labour party and form the Mana Motuhake party under Rata’s leadership and began the disengagement of Maori voters which was to result in the loss of Maori seats in the 1990s.

15. Round, Derek, ” ‘Our foreign policy is trade’ “, New Zealand International Review Journal, January/February, 1980.

16. James, Colin, New Territory: the transformation of New Zealand 1984-92 (Bridget Williams Books, Wellington, 1992), p94

17. Dominion, 11 December 2000