Different Kinds Of Countries and Cities: The Distances Between Them.

Cultures of the Commonwealth The Urban and the Rural No 9, spring 2003, p.25-35.(1)

Keywords: Globalisation & Trade; Literature and Culture;

Geoffrey Blainey titled his seminal history of Australia The Tyranny of Distance, arguing that

In understanding Australia’s history, the idea of distance may be as revealing as say Frederick Jackson Turner’s ‘frontier theory’ is in probing the history of the United States. Distance – or its enemy, efficient transport – is not simply an explanation for much that happened in Australia’s history. Once the problem of distance is understood it also becomes difficult to accept many of the prevailing interpretations of other events in Australia’s history. Distance itself may not explain why they happened, but it forces a search for new applications.(2)

He could have said the same for New Zealand. For if external distance tyrannised Australia, New Zealand was more distant – even from Australia. (The physical distance from Canberra to Wellington is roughly the same as from London to Moscow.)

However the internal distances are different in the two countries, for New Zealand is relatively compact, and even though the terrain can be rugged, its interconnectedness is simple compared with Australia. (Canberra is physically closer to Wellington than to Perth.) Perhaps for an Australian, New Zealand hardly has a countryside. Perhaps its internal smallness made New Zealand a kinder gentler society, compared with the vigorous masculinity of Australia. But for a New Zealander the distinction between country and town is (or was) clear enough.

This difference is only a part of the geographical divisions that New Zealand experienced. The preface to Blainey’s first edition ends pregnantly

‘It may be that distance and transport are revealing mirrors through which to see the rise of every satellite land in the new world, because they keep the land’s vital relationship with the old world in the forefront.’ (italics added) (3)

Distance allowed the new world nations to develop in distinctive ways and yet the countries could never entirely ‘distance’ themselves from the centre (even though the location of the centre changed). The image of mother and daughter countries to characterise Britain and some of its colonies may be useful for the nineteenth century, but mothers die, while countries and culture transform. Today it is not ‘Mother Britain’, but Britain as a cousin to Australia and New Zealand with a common eighteenth century British mother Moreover, the generations have bred other cultures into the family tree, so Aborigines, Asians, Continental Europeans, the Maori and Pacific Islanders mean that Australasia has an increasingly different heritage from ‘Mother Britain’. But so does cousin Britain. Even so, the town and country in New Zealand can not be divorced from metropolis and colony.

At first the colony was only countryside. There are records of cows grazing in Christchurch’s Cathedral Square in the 1850s. It was not unusual for town sections to be sold with a block of grazing land. The town was the centre where the country dwellers congregated, without any other economic or social significance. Its local industry was the servicing of farm (or other resource) industry needs, and a little simple processing before export. It was a port or other transport hub, shipping out produce and bringing in imports for consumption and investment.

Initially the European-based economy was not even sustainable, as it ‘quarried’ whales, seals, fish, timber, and minerals. Even much of the early farming was impermanent as the soil exposed after burning off the bush was washed to the sea . One might speculate – Maori aside – that New Zealand could have ended up a larger version of the Falkland Islands, dependent upon large sheep farms and wool exports (with a little tallow and canned meat). Early in its European history it was a colony of exploitation rather than a colony of permanence.(4)

This limited prospect was transformed in 1882 when the first refrigerated meat was shipped to Britain. Distance became less tyrannical, as the cost of shipping meat and, later, dairy products to the other side of the world, diminished greatly. It was not only freezing technology that made this possible. Steel-hulled, steam-driven ships transported the produce, and telegraph integrated the information between markets. New Zealand developed into a staples economy based on an extraordinarily efficient processing of grass into food and fibre which were shipped to the other side of the world.

The towns, some to become cities, remained essentially farm servicing centres. Some manufacturing even died as it became easier to source from overseas. Others businesses consolidated into the larger (and growing) cities, as a better internal transport and communications infrastructure enabled the reaping of economies of scale. Even so, the cities remained between the countryside which produced the exports and the metropolis which consumed them.

Gradually, the cities began to have a presence of their own. Increasing market size enabled them to replace some importing, while their service sectors grew. Sometime in the middle of the twentieth century – there is no identifiable date as precise as the day the first frozen mutton was exported – the cities began to see themselves as separate from the countryside, both as cultural entities and business centres. Of course there was never a complete separation. Within the city boundaries a lot of commercial activity was centred on the countryside, and additional rural visitors often made the cities’ cultural activity viable.

In some respects the figures in Table 1 underestimate the trajectory of urbanisation of New Zealand, since the cities of the nineteenth century and early twentieth were far more country oriented than today. Even so the pattern is clear. The population has become increasingly urban, and increasingly living in the largest urban centres. During the nineteenth century more than half the population lived in rural centres, by the end of the twentieth century more than half lived in the five largest centres (Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Hamilton, Dunedin). The rise of Hamilton is especially dramatic. In the 1880s, before the dairying boom, the town was struggling with a population near 1000.

Table 1: Percentage in Urban Centres: 1881-2001.(5)
(Note that prior to 1931 the data series excludes Maori).

Year Urban Largest 5
1881 40.1 n.a.
1891 43.4 25.6
1901 44.0 28.9
1911 50.4 31.5
1921 56.2 36.7
1931* 68.0 39.6
1941** 70.0 38.9
1951 73.8 43.3
1961 76.4 44.5
1971 81.5 49.8
1981 85.4 50.9
1991 85.5 52.0
2001 85.7 54.1

* Average 1926 & 1936; ** Average 1936 & 1945.

Table 2, showing the industrial structure of the labour force, tells a similar story. In the nineteenth century those in the primary sector (mainly farmer and miners) dominated those in the secondary sector (mainly manufacturing). There were roughly equal in numbers in the first third of the twentieth century, but from its middle the secondary sector grew more quickly, and by 1981 it was three times the size of the stagnating primary sector employment (now farmers, forestry, fishing and some miners). In an important respect this does not capture the country-city divide, because a significant component of manufacturing was primary product processing (dairy factories and freezing works) located near the farms.

Table 2: Industrial Structure of New Zealand Work-Force: 1851-1981 (Percentage).(6)
(Note that prior to 1931 the data series excludes Maori).

Year Primary Secondary Tertiary
1851 37 24 39
1861 54 11 35
1871 56 13 31
1881 42 23 35
1891 40 25 35
1901 36 28 36
1911 32 28 40
1921 30 27 43
1931* 30 30 40
1941** 25.2 29.9 44.9
1951 19.4 33.9 46.7
1961 15.3 36.0 48.7
1971 12.2 36.7 51.1
1981 11.6 34.0 54.4
1991 10.3 26.6 63.1
2001 8.7 25.4 65.9

* Average 1926 & 1936; ** Average 1936 & 1945.

The history of the political parties repeats the story. Parties did not really exist before the 1890s, with government dependent upon (often fragile) alliances based on personalities and sometimes policy issues. The Liberal Party is essentially a creation of the social transformation following 1882, and its opposition Reform Party developed at the turn of the century. In a country dominated by its countryside they were both essentially farmer parties, the distinction being the Liberals supported the lease-holding of land, Reform the free-holding (although at some stages they were also distinguished on a progressive-conservative axis). The Liberals began with a small workers’ wing, which drifted away to set up its own Labour Party in the 1910s. By then Liberals and Reform were in joint government during the First World War, again joined in a coalition government in 1931 and amalgamated into the today’s National Party in opposition after 1935. Meanwhile Labour slowly grew as a city-based party, although when it came to power in 1935 it still depended upon winning rural seats. Political party specialisation by regional interest was never perfect, for the income dimension was also important. So while the Labour Party was centred on the cities, it also had to win some (poor) rural parliamentary seats (as well as the Maori ones) while National, the party of the countryside, won a few (wealthy) urban seats. The parties interfaced at provincial towns ambiguously located between city and country side.(7)

The economic policy debate began to centre around the issue of protection. From the purely economic perspective, the argument was about the extent to which a tariff or import control would or would not promote economic output; from the political perspective it was the extent to which protection could and should be used to redistribute income (and security) between the export sector (pastoral farmers) and the domestic sector (workers and import substituting manufacturers) – between country and city; from the cultural perspective it was about the destiny of New Zealand.

The cultural challenge was captured by Bill Sutch’s dichotomy of ‘Colony or Nation’, in which he posed two broad strategies for New Zealand: the first to remain a supplier of commodities to the metropolis coupled with a derivative-dependent culture; the second was to have a degree of national independence by not being too heavily dependent upon particular overseas markets and to have a parallel diverse and independent culture.(8) Any dichotomy fails to capture the full complexities and ambiguities, some of which will be teased out shortly. But for immediate purposes this analysis adds the foreign metropolis as a third part to the country-city dichotomy While the geographic distance between New Zealand city and country was short and the other two legs of the triangle long, the perceptual distances were more equal.

As late as 1981 the triangle was evident when the nation split over a rugby tour (‘The Tour’) to New Zealand by from the then apartheid-divided South African Springboks.(9) It was perhaps as close in recent times that New Zealand came to civil war – with families divided on the issue. Nominally it was about whether sport and politics should be separated (as one side put it) or whether a racially selected team was acceptable (as the other side argued). The conflict included demonstrations outside the grounds when the games were played, and protests within. The police took on a military demeanor and some protestors responded in kind One game was called off, another cancelled. In one family I know of the father attended every game he could, while his daughter demonstrated out side (and the mother, more sympathetic to the daughter’s views, nevertheless did her best to keep the peace). The post-event trauma echoed in life and politics for at least a decade until apartheid collapsed.

The conflict reflected all sorts of divisions in New Zealand society but a particularly significant one was the Zeitgeist about one’s relation with the world. The anti-Tour group centred on the cities wanting to prioritise a vigorous anti-apartheid line independent of the weaker stance many other nations had taken, and the pro-Tour group centred in the countryside, following the official British lead, happier to leave aside the complexities of the foreign policy and get on with the game, as at happened when previous racially selected Springbok teams had visited New Zealand. That there was a substantial city-country difference is indicated by the voting in the 1981 election later in the year, when the countryside swung back towards the incumbent National government and the cities moved further towards Labour.(10)

However, the dichotomous world of the Sutchian analysis was dying. His book Colony or Nation was published in 1965 when Britain took around two-thirds of the New Zealand exports. The collapse in wool prices at the end of 1966 (and the ongoing weakening of the price for other pastoral exports throughout the post-war era), reinforced by the entry of Britain into the EEC in 1973, diminished markedly its significance as a New Zealand export market. (Because most New Zealand wool is derived from crossbred sheep, a fall in its price impacts on sheep meat production too.) (11)

Today the British market takes a smaller share of New Zealand exports than Australia, the US, Japan, and China including Hong Kong, with South Korea close behind. (In terms of total exports the European Union is second only to Australia (17.5 percent vs 19.0 percent). However the EU is not generally treated by New Zealanders as a single economy, so that each European country’s market is thought of as separate. Given that in the mid 1960s the EU countries including Britain were taking about 85 percent of New Zealand’s exports (the continent mainly took wool), the decline over the 35 years is equivalent to losing the British market of almost 65 percent of total exports.)

What drove the change was not so much export market diversification, but export product diversification which required the new markets. In terms of both export product composition and export market concentration New Zealand diversified more than any other OECD country in the 1970s, although the exports continued to be dominated by commodities – energy, fish, forestry, horticulture – with some general manufacturing and tourist services. The diversification impacted on the structure of the economy requiring new regulation, which was one of the pressures for the economic reforms of the 1980s. In particular, the very centralised control of the first three decades after the war proved inflexible as the economy diversified.

Socially New Zealand was also changing. The hegemony of a European masculine, middle aged, and ultimately puritanically repressive society was being undermined by the recognition of diversity, most obviously by the feminist revolution and the changing ethnicity. (After the war the Maori shifted from a primarily rural to an increasingly urban location, Pacific Islanders were arriving, as were Asians – themselves a diverse lot.) New Zealand not only became a more tolerant society, but increasing affluence shifted it from a one-style-suits-all department store to a boutique supply of private and public goods and services. (For instance there is now a multitude of radio stations targeting a variety of ages and tastes.)

The sources of overseas culture were diversifying. Films had been sourced from America from the 1920s. After the war the US became increasingly important as a cultural source, while the British share diminished (although some British institutions – notably the BBC – continue to loom large). As early 1941, following the fall of Singapore, New Zealand foreign policy began to shift from the diminishing British ambit to one based on the US and Australia. (However with its Asian preoccupations Australia is much more US aligned than South Pacific-focussed New Zealand. Multinational agencies such as the UN are also a more important element in New Zealand’s overall strategy.) From the 1960s the New Zealand academy began to draw from the US with its graduate students increasingly going there in preference to Britain (and a few going to other academies, such as those in continental Europe and Australia). The economic diversification came last.

Norman Kirk’s term as (a Labour) prime minister from November 1972 to August 1974 (he died in office) accelerated the shift from New Zealand as a British colony to a Pacific nation (although Britain entering the European Union in 1973 contributed too).(12) It is easy to argue that it really involved a change from dependency on one imperial power – Britain – to another – the US. But such is the US dominance of the world in the second half of the twentieth century, that may be true for almost every country.

Rather than pursue the general issue, even through the exemplar of New Zealand, it seems more fruitful to observe that the world of which New Zealand was a part was increasingly different from that of the nineteenth century in which it was founded. The cost of distance was diminishing dramatically, which meant that the colony-nation dichotomy which Sutch proposed and Kirk seemed to resolve was becoming more complex. For if New Zealand, like Australia, was founded on the tyranny of distance, what happens as distance becomes less tyrannical?

While New Zealand’s relation with its external environment changed as effective distance changed, there was also an impact on the internal one. Consider the case of rugby, which was once THE national sport. Today New Zealanders avidly follow a variety of sports, a change partly reflecting the social diversification in other aspects of New Zealand life (the women’s national sport is netball), but also the opportunities global television offers armchair spectators. Even so, rugby remains the most important organised sport, and it could still – as occurred in 1981 over the ‘The Tour’ – split the nation.

In an insightful analysis first written about the time of the Tour, sociologist Geoff Fougere pointed out that there was a sense in which non-Maori New Zealand was organized on a tribal basis, with domains based on the rugby football provinces.(13) The factors which determined the regions included community of interest, geographic integration, (for club teams would not want to travel too far), financial viability, and a size sufficient to be able to compete effectively against others. The regional structure of unions evolved, but the evolution reflected changes in the ‘tribes’ with amalgamation among smaller adjacent ones and divisions in the growing Auckland one.

Today the provincial rugby unions still exist, but overlaying the 28 provinces are now five super-provinces: represented by the Auckland Blues, Waikato Chiefs (also partly based on Auckland), the Wellington Hurricanes, the Canterbury Crusaders, and the Otago Highlanders. Their existence is a result of the Super-12 competition played in early winter between teams from Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand. Various factors are creating this new competition. It would, of course, be impossible had South Africa not abandoned apartheid and rejoined world society. It involves only Southern Hemisphere teams, reflecting its seasonal cycle. But crucial has been the reduction in transport which makes the competition logistically possible and in communication costs with their creation of new profitable mass-markets. They have diminished the effective size of the world, so that the international competition is funded by the global television audience, with gate takings now secondary. (A minor, but illustrative, change is that today even local games tend to be played in the evening because it provides a bigger international TV audience. Because evening conditions are different from the day game, players have had to adapt their style and skills.) There remains a National Provincial Competition, now in three sections with the city teams clustered at the top and the rural ones in the lower divisions. Power in rugby, as in other parts of New Zealand life, is today located in the financial dominance of the cities.

The technology and market processes transforming premier rugby are the same as those driving the globalisation of the world economy. They are also transforming our community geography. The small intimate areas which once reflected tribal allegiances are being replaced by grander city-based super-provinces, although possibly most New Zealanders still have particular rural localities that are precious to them. Significantly, the location is sometimes described by a Maori term: the turangawaewae – the place where one stands (proud and comfortable). The myth of rural New Zealand looms large in the national psyche. But so does the sea for there is so much coast and so much sea beyond – to the nearest neighbours and the metropolises.

But if the physical distances are the same (or altered insofar as the balance between the metropolises are altered), the cost of distance diminishes, albeit more for persons and information, than for goods. Many New Zealanders read the London and New York Times on their internet screens before the local subscribers obtain their hard copies. The millionaire owner of New Zealand’s international rugby league club (its team, the Warriors, plays in an Australian competition) lives in Britain, after having lived in New Zealand until recently, but flies the halfway round the world to see them play major games. The trip of just over 24 hours is probably not much more demanding than that made by a nineteenth century country squire travelling to town.

At one level the transformation for a New Zealander is no different from anywhere else: there are useful parallels to be explored with the Scots and Irish (and perhaps even some of the English provincials) in relation to England and the Canadians and the Australians in relation to the US. Yet the transformation is also unique to each. New Zealand has its own geography, vegetation and climate. Its English speaking history is now a solid two centuries old, and is being steadily recalled and written up; the Maori have been there for 1000 years and have evolved a creative synthesis of their traditional way of life with Western culture; there is the increasing importance of Pacific Island and Asians (and not uninfluential minorities of others with European heritages, most prominently Jews). Already there is a melding of these cultural strands. Inter-marriage is not unimportant – over half the children born in 2050 are expected to be part Polynesian.

Moreover, New Zealand’s geopolitical interests are very different – even from Australia – and its economy is likely to remain distinctively different. All these factors suggest that New Zealand culture could remain vigorous and, to some extent independent, in the way that Sutch hoped, especially as while effective distance may diminish, it will remain for New Zealand significant compared to most countries.

For despite the dominance of the US, the world is increasingly polycentric, so that Sutch’s colony – a country subservient to a single power – seems less likely. On the other hand, his yearned for possibility of a totally independent nation seems as unlikely in a multilateral world with its network of obligations and interconnections.

What Sutch feared most was the cultural cringe, the situation where New Zealanders so lacked confidence in themselves, their standards of achievement would be set in the offshore metropolis with an outcome which was insipid colonial imitation. This may not be true in most arts, but in other intellectual pursuits – notably economics – the cringe dominates: far too much economic policy uncritically uses the US as a model.

Perhaps the colony or nation options are not as finely balanced as Sutch thought in 1965 although their meaning has to be updated for world where effective distance is smaller and continuing to diminish.

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1. I am grateful for Francine Toleron for comments on an earlier draft.
2. Geoffrey Blainey, The Tyranny of Distance, Sun books, rev ed 1983, p.ix.
3. ibid, p.x.
4. Brian Easton, In Stormy Seas: The Post-war New Zealand Economy, University of Otago Press, 1997.
5. Population Censuses. Until 1921 urban was based on cities and boroughs. From 1926 urban was is based on urban areas and towns with over 1000 population.
6. Brendan Thompson, ‘Industrial Structure of the Workforce’, The Population of New Zealand, Country Monograph Series, United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, United Nations, 1985. Also Brian Easton, ‘Brendan Thompson’s New Zealand Work Force Series’, Series’, Labour Employment and Work in New Zealand: Proceedings of the Seventh Conference, Department of Geography VUW, 1997, p.277-285. 1991 and 2001 spliced from Population Census.
7. Robert Chapman, Keith Jackson, & Austin Mitchell, New Zealand Politics in Action: The 1960 General Election, Oxford University Press, 1963. Also Brian Easton, The Political Economy of Robert Chapman, 2002.
8. Bill Sutch, Colony or Nation, Sydney University Press, 1966.
9. Geoff Chapple, 1981: The Tour, Reed, 1984; Trevor Richards, Dancing On Our Bones, Bridget Williams Books, 1999.
10. Alan McRobie, ‘1981: A Win is a Win is a Win’, in Stephen Levine & Alan McRobie, From Muldoon to Lange: New Zealand Elections in the 1980s, MC Enterprises, 2001.
11. Brian Easton, In Stormy Seas: The Post-war New Zealand Economy, University of Otago Press, 1997.
12. Brian Easton, The Nationbuilders, Auckland University Press, 2001.
13. Geoff Fougere, ‘Sport, Culture and Identity: The Case of Rugby Football,’in David Novitz & Bill Willmott.(eds) Culture and Identity in New Zealand, GP Books, 1989.

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