Review of ‘Not in Narrow Seas’ by Gerald McGhie.

New Zealand Journal of International Affairs, November/December, Vol 46, No 6, p.28.

Not in Narrow Seas makes an important contribution to the history of New Zealand centred on the economy. Brian Easton sees the economy as near the heart of any society for, as he argues, ‘it produces the goods and services that sustain the life of everyone within it’. In doing so, economist Easton says in a lengthy epilogue, it also shapes that life, ‘sometimes even in areas that do not involve economic activity’.

Easton covers a large canvas. He focuses on the environment, on technical change and on globalisation, yet does not ignore the diversity of social groups and regional differences. New Zealand histories, he says, tend to begin with the first steps of migrants on these shores. Not only did the shores exist long before, but migrants arrived with cultural baggage accumulated in the generations before migration. So he looks at where the first Maori came from and delves back into the 17th century to understand 19th century British migrants as well as to describe the last 200 years of the Pacific Islands where an increasing proportion of New Zealand’s population comes from.

The Europeans brought the market economy to New Zealand with its inevitable pattern of boom and bust. But by 1845 the whale catch had fallen to a point where it could no longer carry the colony. The question was what would? Wool turned out to be a valuable staple. But it was refrigeration that provided the long-term answer to New Zealand’s economic stability. The first frozen lamb was shipped in 1882, leading to a boom in sheep farming; a dairy boom, also based on refrigerated exports, came a little later. Society changed as towns grew into cities. Politics reflected the change with the rise of the Liberals, the early welfare state and then the Labour Party. Women achieved a more prominent place in public life but boom times under the Liberal Party led to a long period of stagnation as overseas prices fell. Easton’s chapter on the Great Depression, which struck in the early 1930s, provides a useful comment on how it unfolded, how we compared to other countries and gives a summary of the Kiwi experience.

In a wider context and as an indication of New Zealand’s continuing attachment to the imperial centre, the leadership in 1909 donated a battlecruiser to Britain. As the First World War turned into a contest among imperial powers, there was no doubt among most New Zealanders that their country was politically and commercially a part of the British Empire and thus automatically at war. Nevertheless, it was at Gallipoli that New Zealand troops saw themselves as neither Britons nor Australians and, for the first time, fought overseas under the New Zealand flag as a further indication of an emerging New Zealand identity. That identity was brought home with some emphasis when, almost as a reality check, consumer prices rose 67 per cent between 1914 and 1920 and many began to understand that external forces shaped their destiny. While Britain, pre-EEC negotiations, was our major market, the need for trade with other countries was recognised and the role of diplomats in both bilateral and multilateral trade development grew. Although Easton explores many of the complexities and subtleties of New Zealand’s international inter-connectedness, he has little to say about New Zealand’s participation in international trade-based discussions in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, and its successor, the World Trade Organisation.

Easton argues that Britain’s entry into the EEC was not the major turning point that many assumed at the time. Of much more lasting importance, in his view, was the collapse of wool prices in 1966. He questions the oft-repeated myth that New Zealand is an egalitarian country where ‘Jack’s as good as his master’ and analyses Roger Douglas’s input to New Zealand’s economic structure in the 1980s — a legacy which New Zealand is still coming to grips with. The increased power of business represented a fundamental change in the political economy and Easton considers that ‘sometime in the late 1990s the business community began concluding that neoliberalism no longer served its interests’. There was a return to the traditional partnership with government or, as Easton puts it, a revived form of New Zealand Inc. Nevertheless, he notes that what this means in policy terms remains unclear. Some might argue that many in the New Zealand business world are still in thrall to neoliberal thinking.

On the Maori Renaissance Easton concludes that the new MMP system of voting gave Maori much more political the opportunity to achieve more economic strength, though he sees the extent of that new wealth as often exaggerated.

It is difficult to sum up the period leading to the present. Easton does a pretty good job when he says the Clark–Cullen Labour government wanted to reverse the extremism of Rogernomics but had trouble thinking through alternatives to the neo-liberal structure. He sees the Key–English National government’s pro-business approach as mixing pro-business crony capitalism with policy inertia. To bring the narrative up-to-date, Easton expresses the generally understood view that Labour had little expectation of being elected in 2017 and was only ‘partly prepared in policy terms for government’. But New Zealand’s reality remains ever present: a government must continue to negotiate its role in the global economy. On that count the coalition had to come up to speed pretty quickly.

Easton’s book provides an excellent platform for understanding the background to the equation that makes up what he refers to as Aotearoa New Zealand.