An eye on the ball, Graham Mourie

Rights of Passage: Beyond the New Zealand Identity Crisis
Chris Laidlaw
Hodder Moa  Beckett, $29.95,
ISBN 1 86958 723 5

Chris Laidlaw was a quality All Black in the late 1960s, who achieved prominence by firing a Parthian shot at the bastions of the sport in what was then a ground-breaking autobiographical commentary, Mud in Your Eye. Sensibly, he immediately went into a self-imposed exile as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University.

In the years that followed, while most of his team-mates were doing their bit for New Zealand with a shearing hand-piece and a coil of number-8 wire, Laidlaw developed his talents in the human relations arena. As a diplomat, an ambassador, a special assistant to Commonwealth Secretary-General Sonny Ramphal, as the Race Relations Conciliator and a Human Rights Commissioner, an aide to David Lange, MP for Wellington Central, CEO of the New Zealand branch of the World Wildlife Fund and recently a Wellington Regional Councillor, he has been heavily involved in what one might call public affairs.

Through his involvement Laidlaw has been uniquely positioned and privileged to be at the hub of many organisations leading or dealing with the national and global socio-economic forces and changes which have accelerated the redefinition of our society.

Ernest Hemingway in Death in the Afternoon offers the sage advice that “The great thing is to last and get your work done and see and hear and learn and understand; and write when there is something that you know; and not before; and not too damned much after …”. Timing, it seems, is important, and in Rights of Passage: Beyond the New Zealand Identity Crisis, Laidlaw has certainly got his pass away at the right time.

Rights Of Passage is a collection of essays, enlivened by some high-quality name-dropping, which comments on most of the issues New Zealanders grappled with on a personal or intellectual level in the twilight of the second millennium; he even addresses some we have been content to place in the too-hard basket. Sport, politics, sport and politics, human rights, race relations, the Treaty, globalism, economic evolution and revolution, mono-, bi- or multiculturalism, class and society along with the personalities who were on centre stage at the time, are put under the Laidlaw magnifying glass. This is not an impartial thesis: the glass is tinted by Laidlaw’s personality and political bent.

Two features of this publication strike me as being of some importance. First, in his first-person anecdotal style he does ask questions of us at a time when the answers may still be of some relevance rather than historical footnotes. And the questions he asks are not only timely but are also appropriately directed. Laidlaw’s observations on where we have come from, where we are now and how we got there are accurate. His awareness of the issues and his analysis are good. Secondly, Laidlaw has not been frightened in his many roles to step out from behind the barriers of convention and dogma to experience the view from the opposite side. He has continually straddled the Kiwi extremes. An intellectual amongst All Blacks; a rugby player amongst intellectuals. A Pakeha race relations conciliator. A colonial at Oxford. A social egalitarian greenie aiding David Lange while he was at the helm of a runaway Ayn Rand-oriented cabinet. As Member of Parliament for Wellington Central, he represented probably the most schizophrenic electorate we have.

He is certainly more qualified than most to understand where the middle ground is, that spot where subtle positioning of the fulcrum enables the balance between opposing views to be maintained. Laidlaw builds his word-pictures well, making for easy reading, interesting for those inclined to the topic and colourful in its illustration of the personalities involved; while (unsurprisingly, given his background on the rugby field) maintaining a relative fairness when others would have been tempted to put the boot in. The use of cartoons of the period is appropriate and adds a little pinprick of steel.

Laidlaw makes the point early in the book that much of what he chronicles has followed the path predicted by Toffler’s Future Shock  (and, I might add, The Third Wave). What is highlighted in most of the issues is the interaction between, and interdependency of, countries, the vulnerability of smaller, newer and culturally less secure nations in the path of the forces of progress which sanitise and homogenise those parts of the world that can afford it at the expense of those that can’t. The argument that we are particularly vulnerable at this time is coherent and convincing.

The analysis of situation and definition of the dilemma provide the basis for Laidlaw to do what all good social commentators want to: having shown that the system is broke, they can then try and fix it. In making his case for creating new paradigms, Laidlaw inevitably reflects his Labour leanings.

You may agree or not with the weighting and direction of his arguments, the serious intent that we should, to quote the press release:

break from our constitutionally constipated past, capitalising on our distinctiveness as a people, our honesty and directness, our informality and sense of adventure. It is time to create a new republic that recognises that Maori and Pakeha have different aspirations and different ways of doing things; a society that is more confident about itself and better equipped to cope with the forces of globalisation and the free market.

But these solutions are in the hands of the politicians and in the new environment, where there is a party for every person, we may be just as constitutionally moribund as we were under the yoke of colonialism.

Chris Laidlaw is not your average Kiwi bloke. He might not feel comfortable hanging out in the local or as part of a shearing gang. But anyone passionate about this country and where it’s heading will probably enjoy his book.

Graham Mourie is a former captain of the All Blacks and is now coach of the Hurricanes.

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