The impudent what-if, Geoff Cush

New Zealand as it Might Have Been
Stephen Levine (ed)
Victoria University Press, $35.00,
ISBN 0864735456

“Counterfactual” is the term preferred by the 15 writers here, who are mostly historians or political scientists, and mostly based at Victoria University of Wellington. Speculating about what might have happened in order to understand what did happen is a regular tool of these professions – we are told this so often we begin to suspect the writers have mistaken us for inattentive students, or that they are themselves uneasy about what Kathryn M Hunter calls “the impudent What-If”. This book comes with qualifications and cautions, like something released from a lab. As a contribution to the local what-if genre, it is useful source material rather than finished product.

A student of editor Stephen Levine first alerted him to the possibilities of the New Zealand counterfactual. A conference was organised of which this book is the fruit. Here, we are told in the introduction, are “fifteen different New Zealands”, in one of which Jim Bolger, fearing for his poll ratings, contrives at the last minute to prevent finance minister Ruth Richardson from presenting her 1991 “mother of all budgets”. Reasoning forward from this, Jon Johansson brings us to a belated appreciation of Richardson’s genius. Without her, the country would never have run screaming to the embrace of MMP. In another New Zealand, David Lange allows the USS Buchanan to visit, so infuriating his party that he is hounded from office before his first term is out. John Henderson’s piece neatly illustrates how handy the ships issue was for placating the Left while the real business of economic reform went ahead. New Zealand as it Might Have Been excels at the strategic re-lighting of our past.

What it does not do so well is transport the reader to those richly imagined, instantly recognisable yet dizzyingly different places that make the classics of what-if shine. There is a reluctance to step outside the think-tank and breathe the air of fully fledged other realities. Every piece of invented history is supported by a host of notes from real historical sources – in one case almost 2000 words of notes for a 7000-word text. Solid academic practice, but how much more fun if the notes were inventions too.

The book has three sections: “Beginnings”, “War and Development”, and “Elections and Politics”. Giselle Byrnes opens proceedings with an intriguing description of the chiefs departing from Waitangi without signing the Treaty because of the inadequacy of Hobson’s catering arrangements, then wanders away herself to muse on the function of what-if, rather than writing it. Professor Levine lightens the tone with his own contribution, “What if Nelson had been made capital of New Zealand?”. We meet Helen Clark gazing from her 10th floor Beehive office at a gorgeous Nelson day and thinking what a mess the country would be if, by some mistake, the government were in Wellington:

They’d come into the chamber and sit there shouting at each other, the wind howling outside, the members howling at one another inside … When it’s that cold, that windy, you become retentive, you just want to hang on to everything.


Relaxed and lovely Nelson would have languished with “only one road out in any direction”. I wonder if it is really playing the game to situate a commentator in an alternative reality, only to have them imagine actual reality and describe what is as though it isn’t. More could have been made of Auckland’s threat to secede if Nelson became the capital. Wellington ending up as a wind farm is good though.

There is rich potential for fuller treatment of some scenarios: New Zealand on the brink of war against Britain in Janine Hayward’s “What if Maori had not been made British subjects in 1840?”; Western Australia seceding from the federation because of New Zealand’s racial policy in Hunter’s “What if New Zealand had joined Australia in 1901?”; New Zealand “working closely with the Soviet Union”  in Erik Olssen’s piece on the Waihi miners’ strike; games deciding the fates of nations in Bob Gregory’s meditation on the power of sport.

What if there had been no Gallipoli, the sentimental fiction of ANZAC spirit had never been invented, and New Zealand had struck out boldly on its own? These questions run through Donald Anderson’s and Denis McLean’s pieces on the two world wars.

In “What if New Zealand had not gone to war in 1939”, McLean, a former diplomat, achieves the book’s first coup, the authentic lurch of the elevator, arriving at a new level: Michael Joseph Savage appearing on the steps of Parliament to deliver a foreign relations speech straight out of the mouth of David Lange or Helen Clark. New Zealand doing to Britain in 1939 what in reality it did to America 60 years later. What if, eh?

The next chapter is even better: “What if Japan had invaded New Zealand?” In Ian McGibbon’s New Zealand, as in McLean’s, America does well. On the one hand, having abandoned Britain, New Zealand quickly snuggles up to the new power. In McGibbon’s scenario, American boys lay down their lives on Foxton beach trying to prevent the Japanese from landing. Alas, their valour does not save the lives of every man, woman and child in the Manawatu town of Shannon, who are massacred in reprisal for resistance attacks. In both scenarios, the first atomic bombs are welcome, and the country shelters comfortably thereafter under the nuclear wing.

The writers on “Politics and elections” spend a lot of time rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic that was the National Government 1990-99. But first we have Robert Muldoon, the unlikely hero of that most poignant scenario – the what-if which time has proved the better course. What if his “Think Big” energy projects had succeeded? John Wilson wants us to know how close run a thing this was. If the oil price had continued to rise, as every 1979 indicator suggested it would, Muldoon’s energy policy would never have become the albatross of debt that made him the whipping boy of the free marketeers. Now, in 2007, rocketing oil prices again have governments thrashing around for alternatives.

“Had the economics of using Maui gas succeeded,” Wilson concludes, “we would today have made the transition to renewable energy sources and alternative technologies …. we would have limited our emissions of carbon dioxide … the frequency or intensity of heat-waves in Europe, of flooding in Bangladesh, and of hurricanes in the Southern United States may well have diminished.”

Gosh, Rob Muldoon nearly saved New Orleans.

Does the success or failure of individuals really have the power to alter history? None of the scenarios around the economic reforms seriously suggest that New Zealand could have avoided that global reckoning, though Muldoon’s Canute act certainly meant that when the tide came in, it came in fast.

“There is more to counterfactual analysis than mere wishful thinking,” notes Jon Johansson, warning against the slippage from what-if to if-only. Some individuals shine more brightly in counterfactuality than seems plausible in tiresome fact. In “What if Winston Peters had gone with Labour in 1996?”, Nigel S Roberts writes of:

the relief with which Kiwi voters accepted Bill English, his attractive wife Mary and their host of pleasant children …. English’s longevity as Prime Minister has now overtaken Sir Robert Muldoon’s and some commentators have even referred to the youthful Southlander as the country’s “new Holyoake”.


Remarkable possibility. And for English to become the new Holyoake while remaining youthful takes us to the threshold of something truly amazing: Holyoake was never young.


Geoff Cush’s novel Son of France is set in New Zealand as it might have been if colonised by the French.




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