At a crossroads, Max Harris

Unquiet Time: Aotearoa/New Zealand in a Fast-changing World
Colin James
Fraser Books, $39.50,
ISBN 9780994136015

Last year, Colin James published his final weekly column with the Otago Daily Times, after over 50 years of work as a journalist. In a thoughtful reflection on his career, James wrote that the privilege of being a journalist is that of spending a “lifetime learning”. He also spoke of his experiences of reconciliation with people after heated debates, pointing out that those who had been angry or abusive towards him in most cases “recovered the courtesy and decency that is in everyone”.

Those two features of James’s outlook on the world – his appreciation for learning, and his fundamental faith in the capacity of people to be good – shines through in his book, Unquiet Time: Aotearoa/New Zealand in a Fast-changing World, published in August 2017. Unquiet Time is a book that draws on diverse sources to make sense of contemporary global trends, understand Aotearoa/New Zealand’s place in that world (especially in light of domestic political developments since the 1980s), and gesture with some hope towards how we might address challenges, domestic and international, in the years ahead.

The book is divided into two parts. Part I comprises a series of chapters that examine the drivers of change globally. Chapter II provides an overview of globalisation, with emphasis placed on the fact that the benefits of globalisation have not been distributed equally. There are discussions, too, of technological shifts, planetary limits, and emerging concern about inequality, amongst other topics. Part II of the book builds on these initial reflections to address the state of Aotearoa/New Zealand, and highlights priorities for public debate in fields such as foreign policy, biculturalism, the environment, the economy, and social policy. In Part II, the author tries to grapple with the legacy of the political and economic reforms of the 1980s in Aotearoa/New Zealand, and describes them as a product of the “independence generation” – a generation seeking to build new values and institutions for Aotearoa/New Zealand. The book closes with a thorough discussion of changing modes of political participation, and some reflections on our shifting identity, entitled “Who Will We Be?”.

For many years, James used his weekly Otago Daily Times column to provide an engaging round-up of new thinking, events, and developments – and for 23 years he also directed The Hugo Group, a firm providing briefings to major companies about the policy and economic environment. It is hence no surprise that Part I of Unquiet Time is comprehensive in its description of drivers of change and patterns in policy-making. At times, the language can be dense, abstract, and slightly technocratic: on planetary limits, James writes that there is a “slowly evolving political awareness among governments and people that action is desirable and/or critical.” Some of the terms and categories that James invokes, such as populism, could be broken down with more nuance. And James is often better at identifying that trends are important, rather than explaining how or why they are important. On the admittedly difficult subject of cryptocurrencies, he says: “It is unclear how these … will affect doing business and everyday life by the 2020s, but the effects could be substantial.” He marshals statistics well, however, and shows good judgment in quoting writers – for example, Dani Rodrik on globalisation – who offer distinctive perspectives on well-worn topics.

In Part II of the book, James is more committal in setting out his position on particular policy issues. He comes close to recommending that te reo Māori should be taught in all schools, pointing to the Swiss model of language-learning as a parallel, though he accepts there would be challenges to doing this and considers obvious objections. In the chapter on the economy, which contains particularly strong analysis, James concludes that the New Zealand economy today is flexible, but that any praise of it has to be qualified by reference to a series of factors (he lists nine), including regulatory failure, high personal debt, inequality, and stagnating wages. He makes the interesting observation that, while general Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth (a flawed measure in lots of ways, as James points out) has been strong in recent years, GDP growth per capita has been low. It was just 0.5 per cent over 2016, and went down by 0.2 per cent in the last quarter of 2016. And James, who has never voted in his working life (in a step taken to try to maintain political independence), is willing to credit political parties on all sides with ideas he considers to be sound. For example, while he is critical of aspects of the National-led government’s management of the economy, he is complimentary of that government’s social investment approach, though he argues that it should be more squarely focused on building assets, including social assets. In general, James prefers to avoid recommending specific policy changes and tends to report the positions of others, sometimes hinting at viewpoints he considers to be persuasive or worthy of further investigation.

James has a tendency to describe events in the passive voice – and this can result in it being unclear who James thinks has been responsible for change, or who has responsibility in the future. For example: the “dominant analytical framework” for thinking about politics globally (in terms of concepts such as liberalism, democracy, and capitalism) is “under challenge”; or “the final flickers of autonomy” for Māori were “extinguished with the arrest of Rua Kenana”. James also tends to focus on recent history when describing events: he does not discuss pre-19th century history at all and, where he does discuss the past, the focus is on the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. That slightly truncated perspective can lead to some questionable claims, such as the conclusion that New Zealand “‘acquired’ an independent foreign policy” in 1985, which minimises a developing independence emerging from at least as early as the mid-20th century.

This speaks to a broader feature of Unquiet Time: James does not adopt an explicit overarching framework to help explain why change happens, who is responsible, or what changes are significant. In some ways, this is understandable: James wants to avoid ideology, and to leave readers to make sense of facts, trends, and developments. But there are implicit frameworks in the book (like James’s emphasis on the importance of, and potential for, cooperation at every level of government) and it might have been worthwhile to make these frameworks more explicit. Doing so might have made it easier for readers to process the impressive wealth of data, anecdotes, and analysis that James draws together.

There are also slips, stylistic and substantive, in the course of the book’s analysis. The book may well have been rushed out to publication in advance of the election, and this is suggested by several obvious typos, most glaringly the spelling of Aotearoa as “Aoteroa” in the table of contents and in the heading at the outset of Part II. The absence of macrons in the spelling of Māori words stands out a little, given that the use of macrons is increasingly common in New Zealand media. On occasion, James’s judgment falls short of his usual high standards, too. In the chapter on biculturalism, he repeatedly refers to the “animist” culture of Māori, a description that might be technically accurate (in the sense that Māori traditions attribute living force to features of the environment), but that jars slightly given how the term “animist” has been used by some commentators, including the lobby group Hobson’s Pledge, to imply primitiveness on the part of indigenous peoples. And he talks in the same chapter of how urban Māori became “brown pakeha [sic]”, a slightly crude term that cannot capture the complexity of urban Māori identity. James’s claim in chapter 13 that the political theorist John Rawls thought that “justice is fairness” is one that Rawls himself expressly disavowed in his book A Theory of Justice, though this is perhaps verging on the pedantic – and Rawls’s phrase “justice as fairness” is liable to mislead.

In all of this, it is important to review the book that James set out to write. He does not purport to write a book of academic political theory (and we should thank him for not writing a book that would have been less accessible); nor does he claim to provide a framework to understand the past, present, and future of Aotearoa/New Zealand. What James has written is an account of a country at a crossroads. He may not set out all of the possible roads ahead for Aotearoa/New Zealand. He may not make the case for one particular direction. But in drawing attention to the turbulent winds around us, he has shared some of his “lifetime learning” as a journalist. That should prompt all of us to continue to debate how we might move through what is, undoubtedly, an unquiet time.

Max Harris is a writer, campaigner, and PhD student, and the author of The New Zealand Project, reviewed in our summer 2017 issue. 

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