Amnesia, myopia and national remembrance in Aotearoa-New Zealand


Apologies for the long title for this blog. I`m just worried about our national identity at several different levels and I want to get everything in.

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.

TDB Recommends

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.


  1. Nationalism is a dead loss today.
    The advantage of being squeezed between China and the US is that we can resist siding with either ruling classes, and side instead with the powerful working classes in those countries.
    It’s time to stop talking about our national identity when the ruling class ignore it except for the purpose of keeping workers divided and ruled by kings and flags from while they sell out the country to a few giant banks.
    Patriotism is the last refuge of the capitalist ruling class scoundrels.
    The anti-dote to being driven to fight a war against China while the economy is dependent on China, is working class internationalism, making common cause with Chinese and US workers.

    • Nationalism still has relevance because the nation state is the unit of political accountability. When the gross economic incompetence of our current government becomes insupportable, the nation throws the morons out. Puppet states do not have this privilege, it may not seem like much, but we’ll miss it if it’s gone.

  2. “Since `Rogernomics` in 1984 the economic sovereignty initially established by the first Labour government has disintergrated.”

    Well, so much covered here, and so much in need to comment on, but that sentence about “economic sovereignty” established by the first Labour government, that does not reflect the reality, I am afraid.

    New Zealand has NEVER had true economic “sovereignty”, as the over dependence on export markets buying the New Zealand raw materials and products has always meant, that any such perceived “sovereignty” is just wishful thinking.

    How can you be sovereign, when you depend on the dollars earned from more powerful export markets, and how can you be sovereign when you are tied in and dependent on existing strategic alliances that override much sovereignty there may be?

    New Zealand could not enforce much independence and sovereignty as long as the UK bought most of its products, and it is still now very dependent on a number of major markets it exports to. Yes, it is worrisome and bizarre, that Mainland China has now become such a dominant importer of New Zealand products, and is also a major exporter of its products to New Zealand.

    Wayne already described how dependent Australia is also on trade with China. Australia and New Zealand are now in a very difficult and vulnerable position, in a strategic sense, still relying largely on cooperation with the US, and to a lesser degree with the UK and the EU, in defence and other areas. On the other hand it wants to have friendly, prosperous ties with the rising power of China.

    We are part of the Five Eyes Network, and the GCSB debate must have reminded everybody of this. New Zealand is dependent on trade with China, and if a conflict will come, and I say, it will eventually, between China and the US, we will be in dire straits, for sure.

    It is very observant to note that New Zealand has a large migrant community from various backgrounds, but yes, the many Chinese migrants will also never fully give up emotional ties with their homeland, so if a conflict comes, what will this mean for New Zealand as a population?

    I think it is fair to say that most migrants and many of their off-spring do not relate so “intensely” to the history of New Zealand and its people up to say the 1980s or 1990s. That may also be part of the reason why parties like Labour struggle to get the votes they need to win an election. Labour, despite of its flaws, still very much bases its existence and tradition on the labour movement, and that movement did of course have a crucial historic role to play in the 1930s and for decades after.

    Who of all the migrants, who come here under an immigration system favouring strongly the business and entrepreneurial minded, the self reliant, who do all to NOT end up on benefits, the ones who will have varying cultural values, and who believe in their own or family virtues of achievements and so, does fit the traditional Kiwi working class image? Few I dare to say, and hence the very fact we have large scale migration (at levels per capita that no other comparable country has) does have a substantial affect on how the population of this country functions, thinks and votes.

    New Zealand will NEVER be the same again, I tell you, and it will also not be that “united”, egalitarian and traditional country it once may have been.

    Old dependencies have been replaced by new ones, the “establishment” is still dominated by the old white, British culture focused, “western” types of networks, with some moderate influence of Maori and Pacifica, but it will in coming decades look totally different. The media are largely owned by commercial players, and it is commerce and business that set the agenda here.

    But it will all change, and new powers will come to play, and that is also happening within the US. Different coloured faces do though not change the dominance of commerce and business, and I fear we will simply just have new “masters”, who will continue to rule us, with the usual capitalist methods.

    At this time, I think, it is impossible to predict what will become of New Zealand, it may even become a firm part of “Asia”, not too far away in the future.

    But it will be utterly naive to think, New Zealand will play some “special role” as a broker between the large powers around it, while the future will all be about fight for controls over remaining resources, including land to farm for food production. I fear the “good old times” are gone for good, and the present outlook does not give much encouragement and hope for a “socially just and fair society” to be reinstated here.

  3. Why are we dependent on the US?

    Who made our economy dependent on China?

    I seriously thought NZ was a fully independent nation.

    Have we sold out completely?

  4. Wayne Hope’s article is important. The Anzac Day ceremony becomes an increasingly mystified occasion, with its mock solemnity, its pickup by the young, and the blatant lies which are re-iterated year after year: dying for freedom blah blah blah. Even Vietnam is included with a growing confidence. It is part of a simplification of culture, where we are ‘united’ through compliance, spectacle, a service culture spreading to all sectors, increasing use of uniforms, a growing programming of people at a deep level, a refusal of alienation (which was previously seen as a fundamental truth – we sell our labour daily – a sort of part time slavery – and depend on commodities produced via part time slavery); and a growing narcissism with its accompanying rages.
    It is scarily close to fascism, and the imagery begins to be there. The old progressive frameworks constantly disappoint, even self sabotage, so any unpacking of this mystification, rather than spin, is very welcome.

    Paul Maunder

    • Yes, and what makes a real mockery of the whole ANZAC Day parades, “reverence” and “reflections” is the fact, that business is back to usual after about midday, and commerce is in full roaring trade, with sales being advertised in advance, and with media pumping out commercials to tell people, buy, buy, buy, and buying is these meant to present the purpose of “being”, the purpose of life.

      The soldiers in the many wars were not primarily fighting for “freedom” and “democracy”, they were tasked to fight to defend the economic and commercial interests of the elite, and the capitalist bosses. It was a war for global strategic influence, for territories and resources, on all sides. Hitler sent his soldiers to Africa and the Middle East to get control of oil resources and the Suez Canal and so forth. The English and French fought to maintain their controls of the regions.

      Let us not forget also, that many jews and jewish organsiations, appealed for years to the British and US governments, to do something, as they were being persecuted and gradually disowned and eventually annihilated en masse. Yet neither the Brits, nor the US government, saw a need to rush in to take actions for their cause. It was only at the end of the war, when they took note of what went on, and then they arrogantly claimed they “liberated” them from concentration camps, of which they supposedly had no knowledge of before.

      It is a lot about lies and lies and more lies, and it is highly worrying, that younger generations are only told one side of the story, to compromise the whole truth, and to potentially prepare them for the next round of wars, to again defend the interests of the ones at the top, holding power, and using the rest of us, to uphold the system as they want it.

Comments are closed.