Land Of Giants

New Zealand’s nationbuilders aren’t just figures from the distant past. 


Listener: 16 December, 2006. 


Keywords: Political Economy & History; 


Many myths portray one’s ancestors as giants, titans beside whom their descendants, including the myth-tellers, are tiny. Did I fall into that trap in my book The Nationbuilders, about New Zealanders who shaped modern New Zealand from 1932 to 1984? 


My giants were not alone. Since my book there have been biographies of others, including historian John Beagle-hole, educationalist Clarence Beeby, conservationist Charles Fleming, soldier Bernard Freyberg and musician Douglas Lilburn. Among those who await authoritative books are politician Keith Holyoake, writer Elsie Locke, public servant Alister McIntosh, lawyers Robin Cooke and Thaddeus McCarthy and the New Zealand Dairy Board. (There are also new biographies of Apirana Ngata and Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana, although perhaps they and Te Puea, are – as I argued in my book – best thought of as builders of a Maori nation.) 


Where are today’s giants? Nationbuilders after 1984 are harder to identify. Too many blew their talents trying to turn us back into a colony. Others, still alive, may be difficult to recognise. My book included Bruce Jesson, and I would add Michael King for his contribution to Maori and Pakeha understanding of themselves and each other. 


Three recent books illustrate a different sort of nationbuilding. Nola Millar: A Theatrical Life by Sarah Gaitanos portrays the director whose legacy is, according to actor Kate Harcourt, “arguably greater than any other figure in our theatre pantheon”. Nola, also a Listener reviewer for 10 years, was a loveable, and much loved, eccentric, but her vision and charisma helped to lay the foundations for profess-ional theatre in this country. 


While she instigated Toi Whakaari, the New Zealand Drama School (its library commemorates her), she also recruited many ordinary New Zealanders into her productions, taking people off the street and turning them into outstanding actors. (She even found a rugby-practice substitute so Don Selwyn could attend rehearsals.) 


The dedication to my Nationbuilders observes that a nation progresses through the myriad contributions of ordinary people. A chapter on Nola and those she worked with would have nicely illustrated the proposition. She will be there in any second edition. 


There may also be a chapter on the whio, the subject of a splendidly illustrated book, subtitled Saving New Zealand’s Blue Duck, written by David Young. So unique is the whio, it has no known relatives (it only looks, waddles, and sounds like a duck). It cannot be conserved on predator-free islands, as other threatened species have been. The whio needs forested areas with fresh fast-running water, so we can only save it by saving its high-country environment. Hundreds of ordinary New Zealanders – amateurs and professional – inspired by that “duck” contribute to a sustainable nation, just as others did with the theatre. 


Public servant Gerald Hensley’s memoir Final Approaches suggests a reason for the disappearing giants. He writes beautifully – it is a miracle that 40 years of bureaucracy did not destroy his style – and with perception. Neither of the prime ministers he directly served, Rob Muldoon and David Lange – each nationbuilders in their own, odd, ways – can really complain about his portrayals of them: each may be remembered more generously as a result of this memoir. For Hensley never abandons his profession as an independent, professional, competent and discreet public servant, even though some anecdotes will have readers in stitches. 


Yet Hensley’s breed may be at greater risk of extinction than the whio. The influential public servant (there are three in my book: Bill Sutch, Bernard Ashwin and Henry Lang) may be becoming extinct. Today the effective politician is surrounded by political advisers, through whom the public servant has to work. (One Cabinet minister announced that no paper was to go to him unless it had been cleared by his advisers.) Many bewail that change, although Hensley is more sanguine. The demise may be inevitable, given the increasing complexity of governance. 


Successful politicians – say, Jim Bolger or Helen Clark – are leaders of a team (as was Peter Fraser, albeit his were exceptional public servants). 


<>Thus the giants of the past are transmuted into the collectivities of the future – in the theatre, in conservation, in politics or whatever.


<>But, as Bruce and Michael show, there is still a place for the individual.