Gloomy agreement, Tom Brooking

The New Zealand Project
Max Harris
Bridget Williams Books, $40.00,
ISBN 9780947492588

New Zealand: Paradise Squandered? Reflections on What We’ve Lost and Where We’re Heading
John Hawkes
John Hawkes, $40.00,
ISBN 9780473375553

Two New Zealanders at either end of their writing lives have set down their diagnosis on what is currently wrong with New Zealand and suggest some possible solutions that might be implemented to rid us of their rather lengthy list of ills.

Twenty-seven-year-old Max Harris is a law student and holder of a prestigious Examination Scholarship from All Souls College Oxford; John Hawkes is a retired rheumatologist who worked in the United Kingdom and France for several years and is now in his 80s. Despite the generational gap, they are pretty much agreed on what is wrong with New Zealand. 

Both argue that we must begin to address immediately: growing inequality (a problem reinforced by Oxfam’s recent claim that New Zealand is now the most unequal society in the developed world); the alarming gap between the standard of living and life experience of European and Asian New Zealanders compared with Māori and Pacific communities, especially in terms of education and health; the consequent over-representation of Māori and Pacific Islanders in prison and the criminal justice system, as well as their predominance amongst the unemployed; alarming levels of child poverty and family violence; an appallingly high youth suicide rate; New Zealand’s high rate of incarceration and failure to develop adequate (re)habilitation policies; chronic underemployment that undermines the constant “good news” promulgated about our “low” rate of unemployment, forcing over 100,000 into working short hours at low rates of pay, trapping them on the margins of poverty – a group now known as the “precariat”; persistence of third-world diseases, such as rheumatic fever; unaffordable housing for anyone outside the professions and the financial sector; escalating rates of homelessness; growing levels of non-participation in the democratic process, especially amongst the young; rapid degradation of the environment, especially water quality, brought about by intensive dairying and urban pollution; ongoing failure to diversify the economy and so move away from overdependence on production of bulky, low value commodities; increasing loss of control of many of our major business enterprises to global/overseas interests, many of them monopolies; the continuing gender gap, especially in terms of salaries and top management positions; increasing signs of insularity and intolerance of immigrants from different cultures; and totally inadequate research and development.

Hawkes also adds: the failure to appreciate the sciences, despite Steven Joyce’s emphasis upon science, technology, engineering and maths subjects in the tertiary sector; lingering anti-intellectualism; rampant individualism and the breakdown of collectivism; a lack of personal discipline; and a dreary culture that fails to celebrate achievements in high culture, whether literature, music or the visual arts.

One of those neglected achievements is our excellent children’s literature, highly regarded internationally, though Hawkes fails to mention it. Probably, he and Harris could also have added pop music as a major creative activity with Lorde, at a mere 20 years of age, being chosen by the late David Bowie as the leading pop artist of her generation.

Both authors succeed in making a convincing case for such a long list of problems, because each book is thoroughly researched, even if Harris is more systematic in laying out his case for the prosecution. Hawkes is a little more reliant on personal experience and anecdote, and some of his historical interpretations seem a little dated. Still, he does try to adopt a longer perspective than Harris, who is guilty of attributing too many of these problems to the country’s dramatic change of direction since 1984. Hawkes has lived long enough to know that this country has succeeded in reducing inequality in earlier times, and managed to house most of the poor while providing access to a quality education and health system to the great majority of New Zealanders, no matter where they lived or how they made their living. Younger New Zealanders also need to be reminded that there was virtually no unemployment in New Zealand for nearly two generations (late 1935 to 1975). Of course, we have never succeeded in building Utopia, but there have been some relatively long periods when we did rather better for the general population as opposed to privileged elites.

Both authors agree that most of their long lists of failings have been brought about by an excessive commitment to “neo-liberalism”, particularly when this shift failed to address persistent negative longer-term consequences of colonialism such as racism, sexism, massive Māori land loss, and a cavalier attitude towards environmental transformation. Mighty efforts may have been made to address these lingering problems by the Race Relations Conciliator, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, the Waitangi Tribunal, and the Department of Conservation, but much work still lies ahead. The core problem is identified by both as a blind faith in the efficacy of an unregulated market to solve all social, cultural and environmental problems, as well as cure the distortions caused by Robert Muldoon’s rather clumsy efforts at enhanced interventionism.

Harris and Hawkes both argue that the state still has an important role to play in many areas of national life, because the untrammelled market does not do everything better than the state. They support American historian David Hackett Fischer’s claim that, to operate as successful democratic polities, nations must find a balance between “freedom” and “fairness”. This conclusion has led one conservative reviewer to accuse Harris of being ideological, a strange claim, given that the Right is as much driven by ideologies as the Left, despite claims that advocacy of operating an untrammelled cum deregulated “market” is somehow free of ideology.

Harris and Hawkes draw upon persuasive overseas writers to support their diagnosis, such as Thomas Piketty, John Ralston Saul, John Lanchester, George Akerof and Robert Shiller, Robert Reich, Naomi Klein and Richard Wilkinson (a New Zealander based at the London School of Economics who suggests that more equal societies are also wealthier and operate more dynamic economies). Equally, they draw upon the best New Zealand writing on our growing inequality and economic failures, produced by the likes of Sir Paul Callaghan, Susan St George, Jane Kelsey, Paul Dalziel, Brian Easton and Katie Pickett who, between them, produce powerful evidence to support the gloomy diagnosis of Harris and Hawkes.

Harris’s academic legal training enables him to check his youthful idealism by retaining a more measured approach throughout his book. Hawkes is more vigorous, but sometimes mixes personal preference with scholarly judgement. For someone who lived through the Brexit debate in Britain in the first half of 2016, and watched the Trump phenomena with growing horror, his claim that New Zealanders are peculiarly insular in relation to the wider world could be challenged. Hawkes is also seemingly unaware of the success of Ngāi Tahu in utilising their Waitangi claim monies effectively, the relative successes of Māori fishing and Māori farming, and the enterprising and innovative endeavours of other New Zealand farmers. His claim that the humanities have somehow been privileged in relation to the sciences would strike anyone in the humanities who has coped with woefully inadequate research funding and worked through numerous managements of change in recent years as somewhat exaggerated. But he becomes more convincing as he progresses, and is best on health and economics.

The difficulty, however, comes when one asks: how can such a pile of apparently insurmountable problems be overcome? The diagnosis is convincing, but what of their prognosis and suggested solutions?

Yet again, despite the age difference, the two authors suggest similar approaches to improving the current parlous state of the nation, although Hawkes’s prognosis is gloomier. Harris claims that we need to pay more attention to the three cs – caring, community and creativity. He even argues for a “politics of love”, based on care for those less fortunate and a move away from the adversarial approach to politics that anyone who listens to RNZ National’s The Week in Politics can hear for themselves. Instead, Harris wants politicians to talk to one another in a more respectful manner, listen more carefully to alternatives, and stop dismissing each others’ ideas in a torrent of machine-gun-like utterances. More importantly, he wants community to be rebuilt at all levels so that there is much greater engagement with local-body as well as national politics. Creativity is critical in re-engaging community and he, like Hawkes, thinks we can learn much from Scandinavia (especially Norway) about better ways of treating and rehabilitating criminals, as well as caring for the victims of crime.

Both authors hold up Finland as an exemplar for improving our education system, and Gerry Brownlee comes in for a lashing from Hawkes for being so dismissive of the Finnish alternatives. Both also see research and development as holding the key to diversifying the economy and promoting high-value, high-technology enterprises. Both single out low wages as a root cause of the country’s declining wealth, and Harris discusses the possibility of introducing a living wage for all. He acknowledges that the world of work is changing at an accelerating rate as robots and computers between them make many traditional jobs in both the white- and blue-collar sectors redundant. He discusses Labour’s recent report on the future of work at some length, but refuses to take sides, criticising all major parties’ policies as inadequate if we want to turn the country’s fortunes around. Both authors agree that more venture capital is required, along with creativity, to generate new jobs and lift average incomes. Harris also ruminates at some length on the advantages of having a more binding, written constitution, but leaves the matter to proper national debate.

Harris concludes that we need to think much more carefully about the “big-picture direction of our country” and urges us to build a “values-based approach to power and society” to help address the major challenges confronting New Zealand. Such a shift is only possible if we construct “an alternative economic model” and decolonise “the state and society”. Above all, the country needs to regain its heart, just as Harris survived a dangerous heart operation to mend his damaged aorta and became much stronger because of his life saving operation.

Hawkes concludes by focusing on the need for New Zealand to move beyond its “quarrelsome individualism” to develop “a well informed consensus”, so we can compete in “a markedly technological marketplace”. Thinking as “a fourth generation New Zealander” (a somewhat quaint moniker in the New Zealand of 2017), he implies that we must move beyond our white settler frontier phase of development, with its number-eight-wire, “man alone” (a notion now considered rather misleading by many historians) and environmentally careless attitudes.

Hawkes is somewhat harsh in his judgement of younger New Zealanders; as someone privileged to work with intelligent and caring young New Zealanders on a daily basis (of whom Harris is a shining example), I can assure him that plenty of them are well informed about what is going on around the globe, as well as within this country. As a South Islander who has lived overseas for many years, Hawkes also seems somewhat disconnected from what is going on in the Māori world, whereas Harris is highly attuned to that part of New Zealand’s heritage. This sensibility, and his measured and methodical approach, make Harris’s book the more convincing of the two. Even so, Hawkes’s passion to build a better country and to learn from our many mistakes is also stimulating, and will resonate with many older New Zealanders.

Both books, thereby, make a very important contribution to a national conversation that is long overdue, if we ever hope to develop some long-range strategies and visions that stretch well beyond the cautious patch-ups induced by our three-year election cycle. Perhaps climate change will force a more far-sighted debate but, probably, things will have to get much worse for middle New Zealand before meaningful change occurs (as happened in the 1890s and mid-1930s). Cultural change is very hard to bring about, which is why I am surprised that neither author paid much attention to the role of the media in either hindering or helping us to think more long term. The outright electoral rejection of some policies, like a capital gains tax, that tried to work towards more longer term solutions at the 2014 election, left this reader somewhat sceptical about the likelihood of any change in the short term. But, hopefully, these two important books will spark a debate to halt the current slide towards chronic inequality, and bequeath a better world to our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.


Tom Brooking teaches history at the University of Otago and his last major book was Richard Seddon: King of God’s Own. Currently, he is working on a book on the making of rural New Zealand, and co-editing a volume on culture and democracy in the Age of Empire.

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Posted in Non-fiction, Politics & Law, Review, Sociology
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