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New Zealand, a land for all seasons

It has suffered one of the most brutal terror attacks in recent history, but under Jacinda Ardern the country is increasingly considered a beacon of sanity in a world of extremism.

Six days after the Christchurch  mosque shootings, the New York Times ran a leader column applauding the New Zealand Labour prime minister’s response to the atrocity under the headline “America Deserves a Leader as Good as Jacinda Ardern”.

Ardern had responded to the massacres on 15 March with dignity, empathy, brisk decision-making and a flair for a resonant line: “We will give him nothing, not even his name.” The ability to guide a nation through trauma is part of the political skillset, though not every leader has it. Think Theresa May at Grenfell Tower. Think Donald Trump.

New Zealand has never been immune to disaster: in 2011 Christchurch itself had a terrible earthquake, which killed 185 people. The country had until now escaped mass casualty terrorism and Ardern was right to imply that its arrival says nothing about the place; terrorists find soft targets just as
water finds a way downhill.

The grief-stricken always excepted, New Zealand is now in recovery. It has many virtues – natural beauty, open spaces, mild climate, mild people – but its smallness (population: five million) and isolation make its ego fragile. The New Zealand Herald website greeted the New York Times paean with a headline only a little less dramatic than those in the immediate aftermath of disaster. The second most prominent story was “Wellington artist designs Time Magazine cover” (it was about the attack, but still).

That’s New Zealand all right. One does sense a little pride in just being noticed. In January, Ikea announced plans to open a store in Auckland, New Zealand’s biggest city. Cue much excitement. In February, the company released a new product in the 52 countries that already have stores: a world map. And guess what was missing from the bottom right-hand corner? “Not again!” sighed the Kiwis.

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And yet it does have the world’s current number one rock star politician (Justin Trudeau is in freefall; Beto O’Rourke is bubbling under). Ardern is still only 38 and has been prime minister just over a year. Raven hair; the most prominent yet perfect set of teeth since Donny Osmond. Making speeches in less sombre moments, she jigs around the podium as though she were a singer herself, though perhaps more a folkie than a rock chick.

She has not always been foot-perfect though. In February, just before the national holiday, Waitangi Day, a TV reporter asked her to name the first article of the 179-year-old document she was celebrating: the Treaty of Waitangi between the British and the Maori chiefs. She had a total brain-fade. Now, Jacinda Ardern is a new parent, which can be distracting (a condition known in our house as pramnesia). Still, imagine how the world would respond if Trump admitted ignorance of the First Amendment. Plus, there are only three articles to the Treaty of Waitangi; in the first the chiefs ceded authority to the Queen.

But Ardern got away with it. That’s a political honeymoon for you. The problem for her is that charismatic young leaders who come peddling hope can fall like Lucifer if they don’t deliver.

At Waitangi, Ardern appeared at dawn for prayers and then served a breakfast barbecue to all comers, “a tradition”, said TVNZ News. A tradition dating back to 2018 actually, as her National Party predecessors John Key and Bill English had boycotted the event in 2016 and 2017 to avoid being monstered by disgruntled Maori. Ardern took the precaution of bringing £150m worth of government largesse to keep them sweet.

It was clear then that she had style. And her country is acquiring it too. A country that normally avoids extreme weather is now being seen as simultaneously hot and cool, a beacon of sanity, the ultimate bolthole for techie billionaires keen to escape Armageddon. Christchurch will not change this. Though Ardern has clamped down on foreign housebuyers, there are a surprising number of American accents about. It was not always thus. New Zealand is also increasingly regarded as having the least-worst race relations of anywhere the British settled, something that the Kiwi response to Christchurch may actually enhance. This is also relatively new.

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The main Waitangi Day celebration in Auckland took place on the Orakei Domain, which was once a Maori settlement and is now a public park – a sore point in itself. It was organised by the Ngati Whatua Orakei clan and began with a lengthy tribal ritual of the kind the Royal Family have enjoyed/endured all their lives. The local councillors, mainly white, sat politely in full sun; the tribal elders mostly had the sense to bring parasols.

Around the Domain were the familiar attractions of an English village fete, with two notable extras. There was an emphasis on health, including a breast screening caravan and stalls advertising Free Spinal Check and Childbirth Info. It was a mix of the altruistic and the capitalistic: Specsavers were also represented. But there was an underlying purpose: Maori are reluctant to submit to invasive medicine: a mix of shyness, traditional taboos and bloody-mindedness. (It is not easy to square this with their fondness for body art.) The health statistics for both Maori and Polynesian islanders are pretty grim. Here was a chance to get through the community’s defences.

The other curiosity was a tent displaying pictures of a modern Maori legend: the Bastion Point protests of the late 1970s, centred on the hill overlooking both this park and the harbour. This whole area once belonged to the Ngati Whatua but most of it was commandeered over the years by the pakeha – the whites. In 1976 the government decided to sell off Bastion Point for upmarket housing. Two days before work was due to start, protesters moved in. They stayed for 507 days before the police and army finally arrived, destroyed the encampment and arrested all protestors.

But the case went before the newly established Waitangi tribunal, set up to resolve the problems caused by the contentious second article of the treaty, which covered, ambiguously, the question of land rights. It took a decade, but the protesters won the case, complete with compensation. Now the clan has a portfolio concentrated on the long-frothy Auckland property market and reckoned to be worth £630m.

“There was a lot of motivation,” said Sharon Hawke, whose father Joe led the protest and, as a teenager, was part of it herself. “We had suffered a loss of language, a loss of land. It didn’t address the 80,000 acres we’d lost in Auckland. But we are now the third biggest landowner in the city behind the Crown and the City Council. It was a good outcome. We are definitely progressing in indigenous rights in this country. We are certainly doing it better than Australia. They are still celebrating Australia Day when the country was invaded. In contrast we’ve gone at a faster pace.”

“What still needs to be done?” I asked. “Have you got a week?” she replied.

Next day the Herald excitedly reported that “a consensus” was forming round the idea of teaching the Treaty of Waitangi in schools. Whatever next? British kids to learn about Magna Carta! American teachers to mention George Washington!

The political historian Barry Gustafson says Waitangi has been taught, but not systematically (and not well, judging by Ardern). “I’ve always advocated teaching it,” he says, “but one of the things they’re going to have to wake up to is that far more people died in fighting between the Maori tribes themselves than between the Maori and the British.

“And the winning tribes didn’t just take the losers’ lands, they took slaves, they engaged in ethnic cleansing, cannibalism and headhunting, the heads being sold to white collectors. There is a ferocious side to the history. The liberals who advocate it may not understand the implications of what they want.” In the town of Rotorua, guides tell visitors with great relish bloodthirsty tales of the great chieftain Hongi Hika. Kids love it.


Marlborough Sounds at the northern end of the South Island

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Bastion Point remains an improbable open space, a Hampsteadish area of big-city heathland for kite-flyers and dog-walkers. Next to it is something even more unexpected: a formal memorial garden with rose bushes, box hedges and a reflecting pool in front of a large obelisk. Under that lies the body of a former prime minister: perhaps the greatest social democratic leader unknown even to most New Statesman readers.

It looks more suited to the Washington Mall than to an understated country such as New Zealand. And the American analogy is appropriate: in 1935 the Labour government, under Michael Joseph “Mickey” Savage, chose to copy Franklin Roosevelt rather than Ramsay MacDonald and opted for Keynesian radicalism instead of fiscal orthodoxy to escape the Depression.

Since Auckland lacks the Colosseum, Sagrada Familia and the Sydney Opera House, the shrine is a regular destination for buses carrying cruise ship passengers. The signboards being pathetic, the tourists can emerge little the wiser about Savage. One I met had trouble remembering this was not Australia.

“He was New Zealand’s Attlee,” says Gustafson, author of Savage’s biography, From the Cradle to the Grave. “He seemed very meek and mild but he set certain goals and set out to achieve them. The basic principle was universality, not targeted help. The benefits were not poverty-related. You got them as a right.”

But he was a decade ahead of Attlee. Gustafson wrote: “In a hurricane of activity, public works were expanded to provide jobs and circulate money.” Wage cuts were reversed; state housing expanded; rents restricted; pensions raised; an almost free health scheme created. Savage supported the Maori and banked their votes for Labour for a generation. He went to London for George VI’s coronation and told a then-dubious Anthony Eden, who was foreign secretary, that Hitler could not be appeased, to the horror of his more deferential counterparts from Britain’s other Dominions.

Savage died in March 1940, at the height of his power and popularity; huge crowds greeted the train carrying his body from Wellington – hence the over-the-top mausoleum. He would probably have been appalled. But the New Zealand that emerged was his creation.

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It was not an entirely attractive country. When I first went there in 1983, it seemed to me irredeemably dull: a place for the old, which I then was not, full of charming memories of the English past such as elm trees and press-Button-A phone boxes. Long-standing laws meant that – except for the local corner stores known as dairies – for decades all the shops were closed on both Saturday and Sunday. (Hence Clement Freud’s joke: “I went to New Zealand. It was closed.”)

Restaurants, and there were very few, closed insanely early. Leisure was a male-dominated monoculture of beer, rugby and gardening. For the visitor, complaint was unthinkable because everyone was so very nice: the local writer Gordon McLauchlan wrote a 1976 bestseller, The Passionless People, calling them “smiling zombies, the living dead but happy enough about it, even smug”.

By then, New Zealand farming had already adapted, having lost its main market when Britain joined Europe. And the country had been riven by the 1981 rugby tour by the apartheid-ruled South Africans, which caused huge protests and long-lasting splits among friends and families. It remains a benchmark in national life.

The major change lay just ahead. In 1984, a new government, led by David Lange, came in and brought with it a kind of hyper-Thatcherism so extreme it almost, but not quite, ended with a flat tax. This process was known as Rogernomics, after the powerful finance minister Roger Douglas.

The weird bit was that the government was a Labour one, taking power after nine years in which the Nationals (the notionally right-wing party then led by “Piggy” Muldoon, who refused to ban the rugby tour) had continued the 50-year-long devotion to dirigisme and Savage’s principles. Labour remained leftish socially, infuriating the Reagan administration by refusing to allow nuclear submarines into New Zealand harbours. Meantime, as Gustafson put it, “Lange virtually demolished our communitarian society.”

Gustafson, who had been active in Labour politics, resigned from the party and actually stood for the Nationals in the 1987 election. He lost, gaining Labour voters but losing the middle class. “Sorry,” one voter told him, “but we’re making so much money.” His satisfaction, when global stock markets crashed two months later, was a grim one.

Bryan Gould, who left for Britain in 1962 and served 16 years as a prominent Westminster Labour MP, came back in 1994. He noticed the difference: “There was less community spirit. In international terms there is still a lot of it around. But we are more tolerant of inequality and excesses than we used to be. All in it together was the prevailing ethos. There used to be people who were known to be well-off. There is now a greater sense that people with money are somehow worth more as people. We used to be an almost literally classless society and I’m not sure that’s still true.”

Not everyone is nostalgic. “For years you practically needed the approval of the prime minister’s office to get a new car,” said TV executive Mike Valintine. “You had to make a special request for overseas funds. The Aussies would joke this was where Morris Minors came to die. Even after that there was a huge tariff on any non-British vehicles. So these crap cars kept coming into the country. The Austin Maxi! The Austin Allegro! All in exchange for our butter. Thanks very much, Britain. Yes, certain people suffered when things changed. Some companies went to the wall. But everyone became more self-reliant.”

Part of New Zealand’s self-image is that the country actually works, in contrast to the obvious comparator, Australia. “We look like we’re able to get things done. We don’t have an upper house, we don’t have a federation,” says Jennifer Curtin, professor of politics at the University of Auckland. “But in infrastructure terms there have been real roadblocks because our local government’s so weak. There’s no automatic grant from central government. The authorities get a rateable base and have to bid if they want more.” It shows. The transport system is terrible (if visitors pine for aggression, they can find it on the roads). The National government unhorsed by Ardern in 2017 was much criticised for its response to the Christchurch earthquake.

But it is different from Australia: New Zealanders do weird things with English vowels: the great shibboleth is fish and chips, rendered as fush and chups. There is also widespread use of the adjective “wee”, reflecting a large influx of Scots. The people, as a whole, are much darker than Aussies. There was a lot of intermarriage, especially between migrant males and Maori women. From the start the pakeha had a different, more respectful, relationship with the existing population compared to the contemptuous one that still prevails in Australia. Waitangi was a pragmatic acceptance of reality, not the submission of the vanquished.

Many large Maori families trace themselves back to Western patriarchs. And all of them spoke one language – with differences of dialect – giving them a unity Australian Aboriginals could not match. It is fashionable for liberal pakeha to toss Maori words into conversation. The history of race relations is not a glorious success story, nor is the present, but it is not unremittingly bleak. In 1907 Archdeacon Philip Walsh wrote a scholarly article entitled “The Passing of the Maori” that recorded the malnutrition, alcoholism and disease, concluding “The Maori has lost heart and abandoned hope.” The race, he added, “is sick unto death”. But he was wrong.

The land too is very un-Australian. Australia always somehow looks like Australia and nowhere else, which is partly to do with the ubiquitous gum trees. The New Zealand landscape has a weird otherness, much explored by its best artists. But it also has a different kind of otherness: it always seems like somewhere else. Do you pine for Suffolk? Sussex? Somerset? It can impersonate them all for a few moments then mutate into somewhere else.

Like a pretentious oenophile, I have found myself sensing undertones of the Swiss Alps, the posher suburbs of Nairobi, St Helena, the surface of the moon and, in geyser-filled Rotorua, a Turkish bath. Yet the country, unlike Australia, is not full of existential terrors. True, it has volcanoes and is prone to occasional earthquakes, though these are not things to worry about every time you set foot in the garden. And it now has terrific restaurants, many of them open after dark.

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New Zealand is not, however, a pristine wilderness. At least 32 bird species vanished when the first humans arrived in about the 13th century; another nine went after the pakeha arrived, some of them victims of the rats who scuttled off Captain Cook’s ship. New Zealand’s unique fauna had evolved to live without predators and were ill-equipped to cope with globalisation. The lakes and rivers are full of pernicious American catfish. There used to be millions of kiwis, the country’s emblem. Now the count is 68,000 and falling.

The late physicist Sir Paul Callaghan inspired a programme called Predator Free 2050, designed to eradicate a wide range of introduced menaces, headed by the rat, stoat and possum. Dogs and cats are exempt, for political rather than ecological reasons. Humans ditto. Callaghan called the project “New Zealand’s moonshot”, which may be an understatement. There are signs of success on the offshore islands, where rangers can impose a zero-tolerance policy. In Kelmarna Gardens, an organic city farm in the Auckland suburb of Ponsonby, the battle is harder.

“Enviromentalists like me get pissed off with New Zealand’s clean, green reputation,” says the garden manager Adrian Roche. “We know we’re as destructive as anyone else in the West. It’s just that our population density is low.” Roche has several specially-designed traps around the place. He has caught about 50 rats in the past year: “Every dead rat’s a good one.” But he looks wistfully at all the surrounding homes and gardens, knowing they are still full of the rats whose forefathers arrived with Cook, happily gorging themselves.

Yet in a world full of despair, if one small country can try to accomplish something so big and brave, perhaps there is hope for us all. Except the mass murderer, who should remain nameless.

Matthew Engel will continue his travels around Europe later this year

This article appears in the 05 April 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit wreckers