Saturday, April 10, 2010



New Zealand is talking about whether to become part of Australia. It would be a sad step for a country which has used its independence to set an example for the rest of the world, says Simon Schama.

On a recent Sunday morning in New Zealand I'm waiting to do a turn on breakfast TV with a tough, veteran presenter, Paul Holmes, whose sharp tailoring at an hour when most of us are still in pyjamas seems, all by itself, a reproach to dozy thinking.

I'm in a studio in Wellington; he's in Auckland. We are connected by a satellite feed, but there is something about Paul that reminds me of a Latin teacher who had an uncanny knack for spotting where my mind was wandering. The rest of the class would be plodding through Parthia with Caesar's legions, but Schama? He was off somewhere on a Pacific lagoon backing up Elvis as grass skirts swayed to a tropic breeze.

"Boy at the back WAKE UP!" the Master Conjugator would roar and you can bet I did. So, this Sunday, even though my fellow writers at the Wellington festival have been making friends with the Pinot Noir until all hours, I sit up straight in the studio and pay attention as Paul and his politician guests tackle a painful question for the half-hour before my interview.

That subject turns out to be the suicide of New Zealand. No not suicide in New Zealand but a proposal to cash in the country's independence and become instead, the seventh state of the Australian commonwealth. An opinion poll has suggested that no less than one in four New Zealanders are in favour of this startling departure, and fully a half of the polled want to begin serious debate about it.

What - in the name of Edmund Hillary, the haka and all things Kiri te Kanawa - are they talking about? Don't they know that Poms live for the moments - and they happen all too infrequently - when the Aussies get shafted by the Men in Black?

Isn't it bad enough they have the sunshine, the terminally cute wombat, and Nicole Kidman? Must they get the kiwi and the juiciest spring lamb in the world too?

The reasons habitually given for this overture are, surprise, surprise economic and not without a steely logic. Over the past two decades, per capita incomes in the two countries on opposite sides of the Tasman Sea have been diverging with New Zealand on the short end of the trend.

Young brains have been draining to Melbourne, Sydney and Perth. As the British and Irish descendants depart for Oz, the great trans-Pacific Asian migration moves in.

New Zealand is one of the least racially defensive places on the face of the Earth, but even in high-minded circles there's anxiety about a shift in cultural identity. Which seems to me to be even less of a reason to cash in that identity in for the Mephistophelian allure of the mineral-rich economy of Australia.

I must have registered shock for when Paul asks me to chip in, the words "birthright" and "mess of pottage" escape my lips.

Some days later in Sydney, though, I can see the point of kiwis who are thinking the unthinkable. Is there any more gorgeous city on the face of the Earth? No, there isn't.

Paris? Oh please: food and fashion are so over. New York? Uninspired modern art and punitive traffic on the West Side Highway. London. OK the great world city. But unlike London, the economic outlook in Sydney is as sunny as the weather.

Future of megastates

Unemployment stands at 5%. Property prices are going up. As are glittering high rise office towers, designed by the usual premier league of celebrity architects. The creamily clad Opera House sits enthroned on its pedestal in the harbour, as the muscle-toned and the tanned jog by the water.

Something deeper and sadder is lurking here: the embarrassment of smallness

And for a moment you say to yourself, well, all right, who wouldn't want to be along for that kind of thrilling Aussie ride into the Pacific-Asian future?

But then you snap out of it. Because you realise that the economic rationale for making New Zealand more Australian is just that - a rationalisation. Something deeper and sadder is lurking here: the embarrassment of smallness.

I take a straw poll in the studio in Wellington and it's only the producer who says yes she'd vote for a union tomorrow because the country might stake more of a claim in the coming world. By which she means the world of the economic megastates whose population is counted in the hundreds of millions rather than New Zealand's 4.3.

Better to be a tickbird on the hide of the pachyderm than trampled ignominiously beneath its thundering feet is it?

Wretched cookie cutters

To my appeal to leave New Zealand just as it is, my hosts are too polite to retort "that's rich coming from you" and remind me that in 1973 we ran off to the EU; responding to sleeve tugging from the orphaned antipodes with a brush-off telegram: "Thanks a ton for Gallipoli and all the butter, but this is just the way it is. Sorry about the surplus to requirement sheep. Have a nice life."

I'm all for micro-anachronism. Long live Andorra! Hail to thee O Liechtenstein! May Sikkim never perish from the face of the earth!

But even acknowledging the hypocrisy, I still don't want to see New Zealanders selling short the rich history of their peculiar place in the world. I'm not an enthusiast for one-size-fits-all versions of national community: interchangeable airports, cookie-cutter multiplexes, die-stamp shopping malls.

I'm all for micro-anachronism. Long live Andorra! Hail to thee O Liechtenstein! May Sikkim never perish from the face of the Earth.

I own up to a smidgin of nostalgia here. For anyone who grew up in the 1950s, it's a weird and not unpleasant experience to travel thousands of miles to the opposite ends of the Earth and, in New Zealand's smaller towns, arrive where you began your life amidst drizzle-sprayed bowling greens, rose gardens, and shops selling Bassett's Liquorice Allsorts.

But that's the knitted tea-cosy cliche about the country. The strength of its history could not be less purl and plain.

Wherever you look, the New Zealand story has been heroic, volcanic, singular. Its island masses, torn from Gondwanaland, stayed so remote that for millions of years they knew no mammalian life. Insects, reptiles and birds shared the lush ecology and without any predators, many birds evolved flightlessly.

Zoological miracle

In an ambitious ecological restoration project, set around an old 19th Century Wellington reservoir, it's possible to get a glimpse of that miracle of zoological idiosyncrasy. Deep in the shade of tree ferns, a lizard-like tuatara, identical to its ancestors 200 million years ago, snoozes, its skin papery, eyelids wrinkled like some retired professor taking a nap.

Higher up a tui bird goes through its sweetly comical repertoire of impersonations, sounding first like the winding of an old clock, then Susan Boyle in top form.

But the exceptional New Zealand history that needs to be preserved is human. Whatever its ethnic and social battles, New Zealand has often led the way. In 1893 it was the first country in the world to give women the vote, and it was the first to offer old-age pensions to the poor.

But it's the story of Maori and pakeha, the settlers of European origin, that - for all the pain, betrayals and suffering - still deserve to be known and celebrated as offering a different model of cultural encounter than anywhere else in the world.

The 1840 Treaty of Waitangi which, in usual imperial style, seized sovereignty from the Maori and laid it at the feet of Queen Victoria did so on condition that their property rights and political and cultural integrity were respected. Needless to say in the generations that followed, this pact was respected more in the breach than the observance, but New Zealand history did follow its own extraordinary course.

In their first wars against violations of Waitangi the Maori effectively won the battle with the pakeha. Decimated by imported diseases for which they had no immunity, the Maori were expected, at the turn of the 20th Century to be on their way to extinction or extreme marginalisation like native Americans or Australian aborigines. Nothing of the sort has happened.

Today they constitute - by one count - almost 20% of the population and astonishingly a special tribunal created in the 1970s has been ruling on land claims dating back to the post-Waitangi years. Maori and the descendants of intermarriages that go back deep into the 19th Century, are to be found in every leading walk of life in the country.

Of course there have been serious problems of unequal social opportunity, of street gangs. But if there is anywhere in the post-colonial world where two cultural worlds truly live an engaged life alongside each other, it's in New Zealand.

Such stories don't come along very often. Cherish them. Chant them. Dance them.

Upane upane, kaupane, whiti te ra! Up the ladder, up the ladder, the Sun Shines.

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