HOW DO YOUNG NEW ZEALANDERS view their country’s recent past? In the 33 years since the Fourth Labour Government unleashed “Rogernomics” on an unsuspecting New Zealand, how have the “Children of the Revolution” been encouraged to characterise the society it replaced?
These are important questions. No revolutionary regime can afford to tolerate the notion that life before the revolution may actually have been happier, fairer and more prosperous than what came after. This Orwellian impulse to re-write the past is all the more important when massive change is imposed from above, rather than demanded from below.
It is, therefore, hardly surprising that the wholesale rewriting of New Zealand’s recent history began almost immediately after Labour’s electoral victory of 14 July 1984. Before describing this process, however, it is necessary to say a little bit about Labour’s win.
In First-Past-The-Post terms it was an emphatic result. Labour emerged from the election with a majority of 17 seats. Had the MMP electoral system been in place, however, Labour (with just 43 percent of the popular vote) could only have governed with the support of Bob Jones’ New Zealand Party. The latter, with 12 percent of the vote, was an eclectic mixture of right-wing libertarianism and free-market economics.
Labour did well in 1984, but not as well as its numbers in the House might suggest. That New Zealanders wanted change is undeniable (the turnout of registered voters, at 93.7 percent, was the highest in New Zealand history). Exactly what sort of change they were looking for is much less clear.
As far as the revolutionaries were concerned, however, the people’s mandate could not have been clearer. First, the New Zealand economy had to be immediately and aggressively deregulated. Second, the possibility of a single, dominant politician holding the entire country in thrall, as Rob Muldoon had done since 1975, had to be eliminated. Third, the cultural and moral assumptions of the so-called “RSA Generation” had to be challenged and, if found wanting, superseded.
Most New Zealanders would have gone along with this “To Do” list. They were, after all, well into the third year of a comprehensive wage and price freeze. New Zealand’s economy was horribly distorted by arbitrary government regulation, agricultural subsidies, protective tariffs and a host of inefficient, heavily indebted and consistently unprofitable state-owned industries.
Many New Zealanders under the age of 30 felt equally aggrieved by the deeply-entrenched social conservatism of their elders. The events of three years earlier, when the Springbok Rugby Team, representing South Africa’s appallingly racist regime, had been afforded massive state protection from equally massive public protest, had fundamentally undermined the moral authority of the RSA Generation. The desire to free-up New Zealand society was every bit as strong as the desire to de-regulate its economy.
What the Labour Government had no mandate for, however, was the systematic destruction of the broadly egalitarian and generously redistributive society which had grown out of the First Labour Government’s economic and social reforms of the 1930s and 40s.
Many Kiwis would have conceded that, in recent years, the New Zealand “family home” had not been very well maintained, and that it could certainly benefit from a good spring-cleaning. There might also be an argument for knocking out a few walls; letting in a lot more light; installing a new kitchen and bathroom – maybe adding a deck. But bringing in the wrecking-crew: selling-off the family’s most valuable possessions; and reducing the much-loved family home to a pile of firewood? Neither the Labour Government, nor its Treasury and Business Roundtable advisers, had the New Zealand people’s permission to do anything remotely like that.
All the more important, therefore, that the revolutionaries convince succeeding generations that the old family home had been a horrible place, full of deeply creepy people, with rubbish piled up in corners, a leaky roof and rotting floorboards. So decrepit was it, they insisted, that the only sensible thing to do was to knock the whole place down and start over.
It’s a story they have never stopped telling.
An interesting example of this ongoing re-presentation of New Zealand’s past may be found on the Spinoff website. Shamubeel Eaqub, the site’s hip young economist du jour, was commissioned by the Spinoff to front “The New Economy”, a “pop-up section which takes a critical look at the issues and challenges facing the New Zealand economy”, sponsored by Kiwibank.
In the second episode of the series: “Hey Shamubeel! – How Did We Get Here?”, the 36-year-old economist rehearses all the old tales about how hopeless New Zealand was before the Rogernomics revolution.
“We were all about protectionism, and all about trying to re-create manufacturing and economic activity within New Zealand ….. That culminated in Robert Muldoon pursuing the ‘Think Big’ projects …. The reforms of the 1980s were like an atom bomb going off. The entire way of living in New Zealand changed, and we went from driving shit cars to good cars. We went from having a couple of TV channels to having many channels. And when the smoke cleared we found an economy that was more diverse, stronger and more flexible. ”
It is fascinating to note Eaqub’s choice of automobiles and television channels as emblematic of New Zealand’s improved way of life. Apparently, all that the country needed was a never-ending supply of Japanese used cars and “57 Channels (And nothin’ On)”
Given that Eaqub was only 3 years old when Roger Douglas dropped his “atom bomb”, it would be a little unfair to expect him to remember just what went with those “couple of TV channels”.
He’d have no recall, for example, of the hundreds of talented journalists, presenters, camera-persons, set-designers, actors, writers, directors and producers who staffed the state-owned regional television news and production hubs located in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. Nor could he be expected to have noted the extraordinary cultural lift which these “creatives” gave to those communities.
Because the NZBC was long gone before Eaqub was old enough to notice, he couldn’t have appreciated the superb quality of New Zealand’s “pre-revolutionary” TV schedule. Kiwis watched the best programmes the world had to offer, most of them purchased at bargain-basement prices, because there was only one buyer of overseas produced shows. (As an economist, Eaqub would recognise this happy condition as monopsony.)
“Linear television” had a lot more going for it in the 1960s and 70s than The Project and a schedule packed with excruciatingly bad reality-television shows. And all it cost the owner of the household TV set was $30.00 per year!
It’s not Eaqub’s fault. None of us can be expected to know what we do not know – especially when so many people are working so hard to prevent us from remembering and/or discovering what it is that we do not know.
The overcrowded concrete monstrosity that passes for New Zealand’s family home in 2017 has been stripped of everything likely to trigger either memories or questions about the house we used to live in. That our old home might actually have been warmer, more comfortable and less alienating than the place we live in now is an idea that is getting harder and harder to conceptualise. Everybody knows (because everybody is forever being told) that our current, neoliberal, home is superbly constructed, fantastically appointed and guaranteed to stand forever.
But, hey, Shamubeel, can you tell us: is this really as good as it gets?