Opening the vaults, Paul Goldsmith

Turning Points
Paul Moon
New Holland Press, $40.00,
ISBN 9781869663797

Visiting the Catlins once, I walked under ancient trees, rimu or possibly beech, which our guide pointed out were more than a thousand years old. The trees pre-dated human population in these isles. They would have been grazed by moa. The most striking thing about New Zealand history, it seems to me, is the absence of people for all but a split second in geological time. Today’s inhabitants just missed one of the most extraordinary shows on earth.

Discovery, first by Maori, then by Europeans, provides the first two turning points for Paul Moon’s thought-provoking book, which is built around 20 such events that he argues changed the course of New Zealand history. One imagines it was conceived over a dinner conversation with friends, as Moon, one of New Zealand’s most prolific historians, and his mates argued over what should or shouldn’t be included if such a book were tackled.

It is thought-provoking because the reader can’t help but enter into his or her own debate with Moon over his choices, and, since his 20 chapters each offer only a teaser for what is invariably a large and complex topic, one is left with more questions than answers. In that sense, it is a successful book. It doesn’t say anything new particularly, but it opens the vaults of New Zealand history to a wider readership in an interesting and accessible way.

From discovery, Moon moves to Hongi’s visit to England in 1820, which provides a good entrée to the Musket Wars. Then he makes an interesting choice. Rather than alight on the Treaty of Waitangi, he focuses on the appointment of James Busby as Resident in 1832 as the way in to tell essentially the same story. After the broad and billowing topic of the foundation of the nation state, he narrows in for the next chapter on the execution of Maketu for murder in 1842, which asserted the extension of British jurisprudence of the Queen in its most awesome form to Maori subjects. Some of Moon’s asides can irritate. Maketu’s action of grabbing an axe, creeping up on the sleeping Thomas Bull and splitting his head open was “a gesture that would possibly have found some acceptance in traditional Maori communities, but to European eyes it was an outrage”. A “gesture”? Come on.

Moon does, however, have an eye for a good quotation. Introducing us to the New Zealand Company history, he quotes Hobson’s speech to settlers at Port Nicholson, which reminded Edward Jerningham Wakefield of “the break-down of a middling singer in trying to execute a difficult passage”.

The New Zealand Constitution Act 1852, Thomas Gore Browne’s Waitara purchase, the granting of the vote to Maori in 1867 and to women in 1893 are all recognisable turning points in the nation’s history. The “Recovery of the Maori race” is a more interesting candidate. On that one, I wasn’t convinced by Moon’s apparent conviction that the most obvious explanation for the dramatic decline in the Maori population during the 19th century was the loss of land at the hands of the Crown and its agencies. That the population decline was dramatic is not doubted. One actual example I came across recently was from the Wairarapa. The settler C R Bidwill died in 1884, survived by all nine of his children. A year later, Te Manihera Rangitakaiwaho, his early protector and contemporary passed away. By his first wife, Manihera had 14 children, only three of whom survived in 1885. He had a further eight children by his second wife and these were all dead. It is not surprising that contemporaries speculated wildly as to what was going on. Most researchers now would rank the difficult transition that all previously isolated populations faced for several generations when encountering the diseases of Euro-Asia as the primary cause for the population decline. Mercifully, as Moon points out, time and improvements to health services and housing turned the situation around in the 20th century.

WWI, the Savage Government and its welfare state, the ANZUS Pact of 1951 and Britain’s entry to the EEC in 1973 all make good sense for inclusion. Moon reminds us that toasts were drunk to the French President, Charles de Gaulle, when he vetoed British entry to the EEC in 1963. But eventually the logic of engagement with Europe caught up with Britain and that made for a difficult transition for New Zealand and other beneficiaries of the old Commonwealth regime.

When we come to the Springbok Tour of 1981, Moon does well to lay quotes from some protestors and the police side by side. The protestors: “Politically, the Government had lost. It had been forced to use force or the threat of force against peaceful demonstration … But emotionally we knew we had lost.” The Police: “We had won, and we had done it without firing a shot – so to speak. We had shown the New Zealand public that the police could deal with mobs competently and without overreaction.” I’m not sure there was a meeting of minds there. Certainly, the tour was a dramatic episode in New Zealand’s history, though I’m not sure just what turning point it provided. The most striking thing is how few have been the riots on New Zealand streets, before or since the Tour. More a one-off eruption than a turning point, perhaps?

Chapters on Rogernomics, Homosexual Law Reform, and the introduction of MMP all offer ways into the big themes of recent history.

My disappointment with Moon’s selection is that it carries on and reflects the tendency in New Zealand history writing to be very diligent in analysing Maori-Pakeha relations, while neglecting the role of enterprise in the nation’s story. How did New Zealand emerge blinking, in the years before WWI, as one of the highest income countries in the world – an astonishing achievement after barely 60 years of development? We are scarcely any the wiser from this book. On the development of the economy more broadly, maybe the introduction of sheep to New Zealand or the use of electric fences to improve productivity on dairy farms, the discovery of gold or the introduction of strict import licencing by Finance Minister Walter Nash in response to capital flight after the introduction of Society Security in 1938 might have brought some balance.

WWI is a case in point. Moon notes that it was a major turning point in several ways – the enormous loss of life, the cause it gave for the country to reflect on the nature of its close connection with Britain, and the impetus it gave to a new and more vital sense of national identity. But it was also a turning point in that it stimulated a massive growth in government, assisted by the politicians’ discovery of the power of income tax. This comparatively new tax provided a gusher of previously unheard-of proportions. In a short space of time, the average New Zealander went from paying very little tax indeed, particularly if he or she didn’t smoke, drink much alcohol or consume great quantities of sugar, to a new reality where he or she faced modern levels of taxation. Surely that was a turning point in the relationship between citizens and the state.

Of course, any reader could find their favourite topics insufficiently covered in such a book. Which brings me back to my main impression: that Turning Points is a thought-provoking historical teaser that will engage and entertain many.

 

Paul Goldsmith is a Member of Parliament, whose biographies of Alan Gibbs and Sir William Gallagher are published by Random House. 

 

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