Do we have a national identity? If not,did we ever have one? Where is this country going?
These questions have plagued me recently for three reasons. First, I`m pondering ANZAC day and how its meaning is contested over time. This year was bizarre. We saw a belated but welcome public acknowledgement of World War One conscientious objectors. In my parents day the searing tale of Archibald Baxter and his field punishments was a taboo subject. Yet, politicians and dignitaries still recite the myth that Gallipoli made us as a nation. Nonsense, our troops, along with those from Australia, Ireland and other countries were British imperial pawns; unwitting victims of Orientalist folly and strategic idiocy. A new Dominion`s young men fight another new nation`s young men on their homeland just because Churchill had a bright idea. And, when the British warships didn`t make it to Istanbul (because the Turks mined the entrance) thousands of soldiers were sent to their deaths on the wrong (well fortified) beach.
So much for the element of surprise.
Every New Zealand soldier was ultimately answerable to the British High Command rather than the New Zealand Prime Minister. Our `deserters` were tried for execution by British officers as their New Zealand counterparts looked on approvingly.
After the war an austere, civic patriotism pervaded the country like a fog. Memorials were built in every town not just to remember the dead but to remind later generations that our devotion to Empire trumped all.
When my grandfather came back from Gallipoli and the western front he was quite cynical about the whole World War One enterprise. Big power politics and money sending soldiers to slaughter each other was his assessment. His eldest son (my uncle) told me of this testimony, an example of family remembrance at odds with official national mythology. Actually, it was the left that created a national identity in 1935. The first Labour government and their supporters established a semi-independent macro- economy, full employment and universal welfare provision. This was a truly national accomplishment which attracted international recognition. Accordingly, during World War Two there was a national line of military command stopping at Peter Fraser, the Prime Minister.
A recent business column provides the second reason for pondering this country`s identity. A special New Zealand Herald China-Business lift out (April 16) contained a column from Sir Don McKinnon entitled `New Zealand`s Chinese century`. Sir Don noted, quite accurately, that China was `our largest trading partner, our fastest growing source of tourists, our largest source of overseas students and our greatest source of net migration`.
One should also take into account China`s increasing demographic influence (especially in Auckland), our economic dependence on a Chinese centred dairying monoculture, recent direct currency convertibility between the NZ dollar and the Chinese Renmimbi along with growing incoming investments in agriculture, forestry, manufacturing, financial services, commercial and residential property.
In the latter context let me say emphatically that foreign direct investment from any source is a concern if profits are repatriated offshore rather than reinvested domestically. Sir Don, in his column, grandly concluded `And I`m optimistic that my grandchildren will be living in a more prosperous and more cohesive New Zealand as our China century advances`.
This wrongheaded claptrap brings me to the third reason for pondering our national identity; a Sunday Star Times front page headlined `NZ warned as US and China raise stakes` (April 27). This feature article relays the concerns of former Australian Prime Minister Malcom Fraser. He warns about the likely repercussions of the US-China conflict. The Pentagon`s bellicosity toward China is dangerous for Australia. Their growing economic connections with China coincide with a growing strategic dependence on the United States. The ANZUS treaty is being redefined to fit the US`s military and geopolitical repositioning in the Asia-Pacific. In a crisis situation involving China junior signatories to the treaty won`t be initially consulted; their automatic military involvement will be assumed.
In the same article security analyst Paul Buchanan notes the dangers for New Zealand. Mineral wealth provides Australia with a geopolitical leverage that we simply don`t have. New Zealand is becoming increasingly deferential to both China and the United States. According to Buchanan the Chinese are `acutely aware` that New Zealand belongs to the US dominated `five eyes` surveillance network. Any revelations of spying against China would entail economic countermeasures from Beijing. Just think `milk` `Fonterra`, `overseas investment regulations` and `cancelled dinners`.
New Zealand`s so called `Chinese century` might become a decidedly unpleasant experience. Let us now return to my original questions about national identity.
This is how I see things. In the 1960s and 70s we saw the emergence of new social movements arising from feminism, anti-Vietnam war and anti-apartheid activism, and ecological consciousness. Most importantly, a Maori cultural renaissance centring upon the recovery of land, language and cultural recognition openly challenged old style `colony-to-nation` patriotism. In short, national identity was essentially contested.
Since `Rogernomics` in 1984 the economic sovereignty initially established by the first Labour government has disintergrated. Most of the macro economy, including vital infrastructure has been absorbed within global capitalism. There is no longer an assumed correspondence between the national economy, the nation state, and national society. The very template of the national which was once the subject of political conflict has actually gone. This is not publicly apparent because we have been swamped by corporately branded versions of national identity; successive Americas cup campaigns, Adidas/AIG All Blacks, Lord of the rings/Hobbitsville, the international marketing of our `clean green` national image to the tourist market, celebrification of accomplished New Zealanders and so on. On top of this, our country`s demography is changing rapidly at the expense of national memory. The 2013 census reveals that over 25 per cent of New Zealand residents and 39 per cent of Aucklanders were born overseas. These percentages are rising.
If we break down the national percentage into nationalities a disturbing picture emerges. Only 16.7 per cent of the overseas born are from this part of the world (South Pacific and Australia ). Twenty one percent are from England, 8.9 per cent from China and 6.7 per cent from India.These demographic trends suggest that a growing percentage of the country`s population have little sense of national history. The situation is made worse by the sheer commercialism of most mainstream media and the declining status of history as a discipline in our high schools and Universities.
In years to come ANZAC day, the Treaty of Waitangi and contemporary political history will be essentially meaningless to hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders. Without Maori television and the cultural resilience of the Maori population our country would be lost already. Amidst a neoliberal and social liberal ideology of multiculturalism and `Kiwi` branding the country blunders myopically forward, oblivious to the fact that we are dangerously dependent upon two warring masters; the United States and China.
So then, where is the country heading? I would say toward the same level of national autonomy as in 1915.