Of beaches, hobbits and underarm bowlers

Auckland wants to be the world’s “most liveable city” and illustrates that prominently in its plan with a big picture of people ambling on a beach. Wellington airport has been announcing to visitors that they
have arrived at the “Middle of Middle-earth”.

Great images in our two main cities! Are beach lounging and hobbits the essence of our national identity now?

Australians think we are hobbits. Jetstar blamed travellers here for missing flights even when in time to check in by Jetstar’s rules. Talent 2 (a stellar misnomer) blamed teachers and school administrators for Talent 2’s Novopay shambles. State governments tax New Zealanders there, then treat them as a subspecies barred from state assistance.

The “liveable” bit will be on show tomorrow, our alleged national day, when most people will holiday, not revisit our history and heritage and think how to stand tall in the future. (Hobbits are “diminutive humanoids”.)

On that alleged national day we don’t bestow our highest formal national honours. Many think Anzac Day is more of a national day — that is, a military defeat symbolises our national spirit.

Actually, in the absence of a date for the first waka landing, February 6 is the nearest we have to a founding day. It recognises a misjudged, but in the past 25 years revived, initiative in 1840 for a joining of two cultures.

That joining of two cultures is not just the past. It is also our national future as we fill up with migrants from other cultures. But what values and principles of social process underlie the two-culture society to which we expect others to subscribe if that society is to be stable and harmonious?

One starting point could be British academic Timothy Garton Ash’s five intersecting “virtues” which he says combine and balance liberalism and pluralism and should “run through and inform both public policy and personal conduct”: inclusion, clarity, consistency, firmness, and liberality. “Combining freedom and diversity” (Ash’s phrase) rests on strong core values.

It is not for a Prime Minister to redefine national values — that is for broad public consensus out of wide debate (the constitutional review could be a strand). But a Prime Minister can stimulate debate and articulate the outcome. Norman Kirk was last one to come close. We are different now.

Can John Key do that? Not if the tenor of his opening statement to Parliament last week is a guide.

That statement is by tradition a formal outline of the government’s programme. The Governor-General (or Queen if she had dropped in) used to read it. Helen Clark complained the formality blocked her from attacking the opposition, which was not constrained in response.

Key issued a formal written statement but in his speech in the House substituted smart-alec for serious and guffaws for gravitas, as he habitually does in question time. That carry-on demeans his high office — and risks at some point turning off some of his conservative voters (as his legislative leg-roping of councils and denigration of them are doing in some conservative council circles).

This coming Friday-Saturday he has his annual formal meeting with Australia’s Julia Gillard where he is duty-bound to leave the smart-alec at the door and be the national representative — which at his best he is.

There is a lot on the agenda. Not least is announcing something that sounds as if it has enough vim to qualify as marking the thirtieth anniversary of CER, the closer economic relationship. That’s what the two Prime Ministers asked their two Productivity Commissions to come up with.

Actually, the commissions — or, rather, the Australian one — ruled out significant enterprise. No customs union. No mutual recognition of each other’s dividend imputation regimes. The nearest their report in December got was to cut all outstanding tariffs to 5 per cent and waive CER rules of origin for all goods with tariffs of 5 per cent or less.

The commissions also said something should be done about citizenship rights for longtime New Zealand-born residents. Something may be afoot on that.

Key might helpfully add an item: Treasurer Wayne Swan’s articulation of national values on January 25, the day before Australia Day.

In a newspaper article Swan deplored England’s infamous “bodyline” bowling to intimidate (and injure) Australian batsmen in the 1933 cricket series and said that, by contrast, “Aussies are not a ruthless, ‘whatever it takes’ people. We are a plain-speaking lot, who play hard but fair, and expect no less. We play hard but we play within both the letter and the spirit of the rules.”

“Fair”? “Letter and spirit”? Swan overlooked Australia’s captain Greg Chappell’s order to brother Trevor to bowl underarm to stop New Zealand tying a one-day cricket match in 1981.

But if Wellington airport calls us hobbits, why shouldn’t Swan — and the Chappells before him — treat us as such? Perhaps we should stick to strolling on Auckland’s beaches. Who needs a national day?