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Being a Kiwi

In March 2000, someone called Tracey Wisnewski e-mailed me with the following poser:

"... Thought you might be able to give me your 5 cents worth of knowledge on the subject of kiwi identity, and what we identify ourselves with..."

Well, Tracey, I don' t know if I have much knowledge on the subject. As usual though, I do have an opinion...

The Good Old Days

In the early to late-mid 20th Century, most New Zealanders (Kiwis) seemed to think that we had a fairly standard and recognised national identity. Essential Kiwi attributes included, but were not limited to:

 - Resourcefulness and inventiveness
 - Honesty and loyalty
 - Strong work ethic
 - Competitiveness and good sportsmanship

It's all good, isn't it? Back then we were quite convinced that we were a nation of nice people. After all, we had made a great country from wasted bushland, we'd made peace with the local natives, and we'd helped win two world wars. We'd done well, we thought.

Do It Yourself

Stemming from European pioneer days, we have cultivated an image as an ingenious people who can create anything out of nothing. This is epitomised in the semi-mythical rural character who can shape a piece of #8 wire into a makeshift outhouse. Our national film archives are full of movietone-style news clips about good-old Kiwi blokes who have invented better washing machines using nothing but scrap metal and fencing posts.

By the way, it's interesting that most descriptions of Kiwis from this era appear to be describing males. I don't think I recall many early images of women "do-it-yourselfers". In fact, the Kiwi women's image seemed to default to the accepted Western norm -- that of a happy, devoted wife and mother, who smiled proudly at the achievements of the rest of her family.

I think it must have been around the 1980's when things changed. I don't think it was any one incident, but a number of events which forced a national re-examination of how we saw ourselves. 

The 1981 Springbok tour taught us that we don't always work together, and that we don't all hold to the same hierarchy of values. I think this was a lesson in more than sports versus racism. It made us realise that life ain't so simple anymore, and that we were evolving into a more complex culture.

These times also saw a significant change in Maori-Pakeha relationships. The Bastion Point protests (from 1977 onwards) were a real kick in the pants for Kiwis who thought that Maori had always been "well looked after". Pakehas were startled to discover that many Maori felt bitterly aggrieved, and in fact didn't like Pakehas at all. This demolished our image as a country of racial harmony, an image we've never really recovered.

The stock market crash of 1987 highlighted the increasing tendency toward capitalism in New Zealand. It made us realise that a small proportion of Kiwis were playing with a large amount of money.

Rugby, Racing and Beer

Right up until the mid-nineties, this phrase was still common. We had always been a culture obsessed with these three things. Not any more.

Rugby is still very strong, and will probably remain so for some time yet. However, it no longer holds the undisputed heavyweight title as the only sport that matters. It almost fell victim to rugby league before relenting to professionalism. Since then, rugby administrators have learnt that money can buy loyalty, and the game continues to attract solid support.

Horse racing is a sport/industry which is in all sorts of trouble. There's a huge body of people out there who feel that racing just doesn't cut the mustard as a 21st Century pastime. One of racing's biggest problems is that it was such a fundamental part of our culture 50 years ago that it didn't have to be well-organised or commercially competitive. People went to the races anyway. In the late 20th Century racing didn't adapt to new competition from other forms of entertainment and suffered a dramatic decline. If the racing industry doesn't get realistic about it's future soon it won't last until the year 2050. As it happens, I've spent many years working in the racing industry and my partner Ange and I have a website which aims to address these problems and provide some cohesion within the industry. It's called The Race Cafe*.

Beer is our most popular alcoholic beverage, but it has also suffered knockbacks. There was a time when the main beer producers could churn out any old rat-urine and pub patrons would lap it up. These days, there's a vast selection of imported beer, and tastes have changed. New fad drinks come and go, and city bars in particular are concentrating more on exotic drinks than hops-based ones. The "cafe society" has also made inroads into the pub market.

Tangata Whenua

This is a touchy subject. Who exactly are the Tangata Whenua - the "people of the land" (my loose translation). One view is that, as the original inhabitants, Maori have certain priority rights in this country. Others see this differently, and argue that anyone with several generations of ancestors can claim to be native. There is also the argument that Maori weren't actually the original inhabitants at all, which further clouds the issue. I'm not going to take sides here - I just want to make the point that this situation hasn't helped our sense of national or personal identity.

As a pakeha, I've found it difficult to see where I fit in. A connection with the land is important to most of us, but I've inherited a cultural guilt about my connection with New Zealand. It's not easy to feel proud of your heritage when you know that your culture was founded on theft and atrocities.

So Who Are We?

This is the question. I don't think anyone really believes that the Kiwi self-image of last century will survive much longer. So how are we to think of ourselves?

We don't like sport as much as we used to. Our farms don't support our economy like they used to. We don't eat "meat & 3 veg" meals like we used to (10% of us are vegetarians!). Our race relationships need serious attention. There are dangerous gaps opening between the wealthy and the impoverished. Human rights abuse is an issue which must be dealt with.

We need to address this state of national confusion. I think a strong sense of cultural identity is important, but it must change to suit the times if it's no longer relevant. 

Perhaps we should use our past and foster a new image as a country which learns from it's mistakes. 

  • If we continue to work hard at our race relation problems, we can set an example for the rest of the world (which badly needs it).
  • It would help to resolve the issue of who has the right to call themselves New Zealanders. I think we need to accept the fact that the world's cultures are slowly merging, and find a comfortable place in the international order of things.
  • We can use our geographical position and abundant expertise to create a clean environment, which in turn drives a green-based economy. We can do this where other countries can't (or won't).
  • We can use our new representational parliament to ensure that the needs of all our citizens are met, making for a healthy and productive society.
  • We can decide that, although our previous image as hardy rugby players has served us well, an image of adaptive forward-thinking human beings would suit us better in the 21st Century.

* We have since sold The Race Cafe.