Introduction to Stout Research Centre Seminar

on Not In Narrow Seas: The Economic History of Aotearoa New Zealand 21 April, 2021

The most important thing I want to say today is to thank the Stout Centre for its contribution to Not In Narrow Seas. I had the privilege of a Stout Fellowship for a year which was crucial in the writing of the nineteenth-century chapters of the book. I can also thank the Stouties who contributed to the book and are gratefully mentioned individually in the book’s acknowledgments.

Despite my training in science, mathematics and statistics and in economics and other social sciences it was perhaps inevitable that, if I were spared, I would write a history of New Zealand. I had read history since childhood and written on various aspects of it – for instance there are over 300 items on my website, which probably amounts to another book of similar size to this one (although there is overlapping).

But I did not just want to write another history of New Zealand. I was aware of a major gap in almost all our histories, evident to anyone who had been trained in political economy. I put it this way in the book:

Many historians have told the New Zealand story before; but an economist uses a particular lens which, I would argue, helps us to see our nation’s history in a new way. Too often we take the hard economic core of our history for granted, or we give it merely fleeting attention. Sex is notably absent from the Victorian novel; the economy is almost as rare among recent novels and histories. To give an account of a society without paying attention to its economic underpinnings is about as sensible as telling a love story without sex. It can be done, of course, but certain vital facts of life are left out.

So I wanted to write a history in which the economy was an integral part of the whole story. Indeed I wanted an even broader perspective, indicated in the title of Not in Narrow Seas for the history strays from geology to poetry even if it is centred on the economy-society interaction.

You can get a sense of its ambition from the book’s ‘Epilogue’ which sets out 16 themes which are uncommon in other histories of New Zealand but are central to understanding where we came from, how we got here and where we are going. I wont go through them individually – each is elaborated in the epilogue and illustrated throughout the book – but the Stout Centre has kindly produced a handout of the 16 themes for distribution.

I am not saying that these themes do not occasionally appear in other histories of New Zealand, but I doubt that any other has been written which is as conscious of them.

As is perhaps appropriate given the title of the book, the epilogue begins with another poem by Allen Curnow:

And whatever islands may be

Under or over the sea,

It is something different, something

Nobody counted on.

—‘The Unhistoric Story’, Allen Curnow (1941)

(Incidentally, I love that reference to ‘under the sea’. Allen could not have known about the eighth continent, Zealandia, which was only identified while I was writing the book. Poets are sometimes farseeing.)

That poem captures the notion that scholars learn as they write. Setting down what you think does not just codify one’s thinking, but suggests new issues you had not counted on. So I thought I would draw your attention to an issue which is there in the book but is unresolved.

One is struck how the history of New Zealand is what might be called the ‘continuities of development’. Despite shocks there is a progression of change in which each generation is different and yet there is continuity from generation to generation.

The exception may be the shock of the Rogernomics revolution. Chapter 59, ‘The Aftermath of Rogernomics’, asks to what extent Rogernomics was a major disruption to the long term trends in the nation’s economic and social development, putting us on a completely different course. Instead of answering the question definitively, the chapter offers three accounts. Publishers’ readers of the book hated it, because they wanted THE answer. Mine is ‘I don’t know’.

Perhaps nobody today knows. Perhaps we will only know in decades hence. But the question is worth pondering over. The book should help.


Thankyou to the three presenters. One of the objectives of my book – perhaps even the main one – was to set out a framework which would lead to a serious and informed open public discussion on some of the most important issues whch face Aotearoa/New Zealand, using the past to think about the present and even the future. Each of the presentations does this. I am thrilled that perhaps after years of somnolence the public discussion I hoped for is almost underway. Thankyou once more to the Stout, this time for contributing to that possibility.

Had we time, I would comment on each presentation, elaborating and responding. I promise I shall do so privately as soon as I can get the time, and publicly in such venues which may arise. But time is the essence. It will be best if we use the available time left to us to open up the public discussion to the floor.