Building a Nation

Listener October 20, 2001

Keywords: Political Economy & History

That great New Zealand nationalist historian, Keith Sinclair called it the ‘LBW syndrome’. In his day it was ‘Leading-the-Bloody-World’, the attitude that New Zealanders claimed to be the best at everything that mattered. …

… Of course there are some things that we are good at, but often LBW involved judicious selection – rugby but not soccer – or manipulation of the data – our low infant mortality rate omitted the Maori – or even misrepresentation of the actual situation. Today it is still LBW but now we insist that we are lagging, while we carry out the same manipulations. The truth is that in most rankings, we are somewhere in the middle, as one might expect. Sometimes we are a little better than average, sometimes a little worse, occasionally near the top, occasionally near the bottom.

The lagging obsession came out of the leading one. If everyone believed that New Zealand was or should be top of everything, and one wanted some change in policy, then the rhetoric got public traction by arguing that we were lagging. So everyone who wanted a policy change (that is everyone) began to do it, and since typically we were in the middle of any international ranking, it was easy to prove if we ignored every country below us. Before long the uncritical Leading-B-W became an uncritical Lagging-B-W. The nation is now in a trough of despondency because we seem to be doing badly – and the occasional international success simply reminds us that we are doing badly every-bloody-where-else.

So we have lost confidence in being a New Zealander, of our being able to achieve results better than we might reasonably expect given our size, that we – in the jargon – cannot punch above our weight. All we can do, so the insecure argument goes, is adopt the colonial cringe – that our salvation is to imitate some other nation – once it was England, now it is American or Australia – or even to join them.

As someone who grew up in the 1960s I find this defeatism uncomfortable. I was inspired by Bill Sutch’s question of whether we wanted to be a colony of nation – the question posed in a way which gave no doubt what he thought was the answer. Those wonderful – often impromptu – speeches of Norman Kirk articulated the same ambition

Let us have a sense of pride in being New Zealanders. Let us recognise the value of the unique way of life we have built here – a humane, non-violent society, free from the social and economic injustices that plague so many societies. Let us proudly cultivate a sense of nationhood and stand up for ourselves in international 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.

Then you were proud to be a New Zealander, and determined to make it a better New Zealand.

These men did not suffer from the arrogance of the leading-b-w syndrome. Sutch drew lessons from Denmark, Israel, and Sweden. (Today he would add Ireland.) Kirk was passionately interested in the world. There’s was an engagement: learning from others, trying to do better, knowing sometimes – but not always – you even did best.

Yet when my generation took over government in 1984, they abandoned nationbuilding. (Not all of us, I haste to add, just those in power.) No longer was the vision of sturdy independence, but of obsequious and uncritical imitation. Astonishingly, the infatuation was always with the United States of America. Now I have the greatest admiration for many aspects of the US – as did the nationbuilders. But the Treasury paper that depended solely on US economists to provide guidance on the management of publicly owned enterprises was simply absurd. It would be like going to Eskimos for advice on the cultivation of bananas. The sycophantic pattern continues. A recent Business Roundtable publication on ‘equity’ looked only at the US experience, without hardly any reference to the Anglo-European discussion which is far more relevant (and even less reference to the Australasian discussion). Not only was their thinking colonial, but the policies the rogernomes pursued were colonial too – whether it was importing mediocre overseas experts as advisers, selling off New Zealand government businesses to foreign companies, or removing assistance to New Zealand industries and leaving them to deal with the world by themselves without any government assistance. These people seem so enamoured with the US model, that they wanted to covert New Zealand into an idealised version of little America.

Their antagonism to nationbuilding puzzled me, even the more so after The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography asked me to provide the entry for Bernard Ashwin, Secretary of the Treasury from 1939 to 1955, and arguably New Zealand’s greatest public servant, for he is the founder of the modern Treasury and was involved in every major decision between 1932 and 1955. Ashwin was a conservative, and yet he was as much a nationalist of his times as was my generation of the 1960s. That led to two fundamental insights: a commitment to nationhood was not a peculiarity of the political left but held by New Zealanders elsewhere in the political spectrum; and it was not a peculiarity of my generation either.

The more I studied Ashwin, the more I realised what an extraordinary group he was involved with. Out of the carnage of the First World War, out of the wreckage of the Great Depression, a group of servants of the public attempted to build a Jerusalem in our ‘green and pleasant land’. They did so practically, drawing on what theories were available and what experiences of other countries seem relevant. They kept in touch with ordinary New Zealanders and their aspirations, perhaps because the Nationbuilders never forgot they had experienced similar hardships when they were young too.

The pantheon of mid-century nationbuilders is long: Gordon Coates the politician who began it all, Ashwin, prime minister Peter Fraser; James Fletcher founder of a company that helped build New Zealand; Fintan Patrick Walsh who lead the union movement. I could have added others: Clarence Beeby built the nation’s education system; Bernard Ferguson turned a motley group of New Zealanders into a formidable fighting unit; … The potential list is long, but the book is long enough anyway. I did include Douglas Robb who contributed to the founding of the public health system and Greenlane’s world famous heart unit. And of course our writers and artists – like Denis Glover and Colin McCahon – contributed to our unique vision of being a New Zealander.

The nationbuilders were a looser grouping in the postwar era. (At one stage many of the mid-century nationbuilders were all working in the same building, some with offices next to one another.) While Sutch and Kirk were key, so was Henry Lang the second great Secretary of the Treasury. Others were outside the inner confines of government, like Bryan Philpott, who constructed models which quantified Sutch and Lang’s economic ambitions, and Sonja Davies who worked through the union movement for women, for peace, and for New Zealanders.

In his own way Rob Muldoon was a nationbuilder, but unlike the other politicians in the book he was a conservative, trying to hold back New Zealand to the world in which he grew up – one in which the Maori and women were expected to conform to the male model of the past, and which exploited the environment rather than was sensitive to it. The post-1984 elite saw themselves in opposition to Muldoon, and in doing so they set themselves against the nationbuilding tradition to which he belonged. Their negativism meant they did not link up with women, Maori and environmentalists, who broadly rejected the rogernomic policies but wanted to move forward from the twentieth century nationbuilders.

The colonialists failed in terms of even their own limited aims of higher economic growth. Yet many remain in charge of our businesses (where more often than not they are but branch managers for a overseas owned firm), government department, university departments, and political lobby groups. They have added defeatism to their cringe. Their policies failed, therefore New Zealand failed. (After all they said there was no alternative.) They seem to see the only solution to the nation’s woes is to become eventually a state of Australia or the US.

The Nationbuilders would deny that. The prospects for New Zealand must have seemed just as disastrous in the early 1930s. But they rebuilt New Zealand into an economy that even the defeatists claims was among the highest per capita producers in 1950, and which grew at broadly the same rate as the rest of the rich world between 1932 and 1985, before the colonials took over. Today we are told that New Zealand is too far from the rest of the world. But by any sensible economic measure we are closer today than at any in the past. If distance was not an overpowering handicap then, why has it become so now?

Is there an alternative to New Zealand surrendering to the forces of defeatism? The answer to that question is ‘of course’. The difficult questions are which of the nationbuilding strategies is the best, and how are we going to mobilise the political leadership to implement it? We can learn a lot from those who went before us. They were not dismayed by the enormity of the task, but succeeded by application of practical theories and commonsense.

This century’s nationbuilding will have differences from the last. New technologies and new products change possibilities. The world is going through a rapid process of globalisation which is changing our external environment, for bad and for good (defeatism only sees the downsides). And we have to respond to new personal, social, and political demands. The postwar world unleashed the priority of human rights, and affluence has, among other things, meant we can be afford to be more concerned with the environment.

A major challenge is how the Maori fit into the New Zealand nation. I did not find much evidence of Maori as a part of New Zealand twentieth century nationbuilding (although many of the Nationbuilders were sensitive to Maori issues). The lacuna might be explained by recognizing the example of Te Puea building the Tainui nation. Moreover, it is unclear what a Maori nation might be, especially as globalisation is changing the very meaning of ‘nation’ and ‘state’. And if there is to be some sort of Maori sub-nation, then there may also have to be, say, a Samoan one. While the Maori have particular rights and responsibility as tangata whenua, there is a whole challenge of building ethnic diversity and tolerance into the New Zealand nation.

As big a challenge is building a society which recognises and celebrates the different situation of woman. There were some important women in the twentieth century New Zealand’s but they were generally not closely associated with its nationbuilding. It was a ‘white boy’s engineering thing’, and the rest often felt excluded. I illustrate this in the book by looking at the difficulties Sonja Davies faced. Today, it is commonplace to point to the predominance of women in top jobs. Those suffering form the LBW syndrome may want to make a lot of that, but the exact number is an accident, although we can expect a roughly equal gender split in the future. The task of articulating a vision of New Zealand in which men and women share their nationhood has yet to be made. I suspect that partly reflects those crude symbols of New Zealand: war and rugby, which do not grip women as much as they do some men. Yet women can feel as passionately about New Zealand – again Sonja Davies illustrates the point. It is a New Zealand of different symbols, but it is still the New Zealand of the Nationbuilders cared about and struggled for.

We need to avoid the LBW syndrome in either form. Mature nationhood has some of the characteristics of adulthood, when one is comfortable with what one is – warts an all. Of course one tries to achieve better, and sometimes the achievement is among the best – world class. Sometimes one learns one is doing badly in a particular area, and can do better. Let’s stop panicking when we seem to be doing badly, following up the hysteria by ill thought-through proposals, aiming for unrealistic goals. Let’s avoid the obsession of LBW and aim to be very good – world famous in New Zealand – taking pleasure when we excel and a quiet pride when we overachieve.

Can we rebuild our vision of New Zealand (or should I say Aotearoa)? I hope the book will help, by showing we did it in the past, how we did it, reminding us we dont have to be colonial defeatists. One of the worst days in Coates life must have been when he went to the trading banks in 1932 to ask them to ease the monetary pressure on the country. The bankers would not budge. On the way back, Coates – war hero, ex-prime minister, deputy prime minister, and de facto head of the government – perhaps in despair turned to the young Treasury official accompanying him and asked ‘Where do we go now?’ Ashwin did not say there is no alternative. He replied ‘We must found a Reserve Bank.’ Together they began building a nation.

The original article was accompanied by some excellent photos or nation buildersd and nation building