Historian and former Wallabies player Peter FitzSimons claims NZ is ‘lapping’ Australia in ’progressive politics’.
Strange days indeed, most peculiar, Mama. Back in the day, on Wallaby and Waratah tours to New Zealand in the ’80s and early ’90s, we used to sneer a little unpleasantly about how . . . you know... provincial the Kiwis were. I mean, nice people and all, so long as they’re not dressed all in black, wearing football boots and coming at you like herd of maddened bulls, but we had no doubt that, even as footballers for Gawd’s sake, we were the sophisticates in the piece.
We were from Australia, you see, and were just so far ahead of them all in every field we could think of, bar the rugby field! But, bit by bit, things changed and it was the Kiwis who took in the lead on so many matters of progress.
At the 1999 World Cup, when the All Blacks sang their national anthem, they sang the first verse in Maori, and the practice took off soon afterwards, embraced by the whole population. Their racial politics is one where inclusion and integration are the shared goals of all races.
Not long afterwards, Maori Television Service was established, a TV network devoted to the promotion of the Maori language and culture, after legal action was successfully taken forcing the government’s hand, on the grounds that under the Treaty of Waitangi 1840, the British colonists had promised to preserve Maori culture. They have a treaty. It is taken seriously, and guides them.
Then, when the Iraq War was about to get underway in 2003, our prime minister, John Howard made clear from the first, that Australia stood shoulder to shoulder with America.
Their prime minister Helen Clark said, "We stand shoulder to shoulder with the United Nations."
The Kiwis had the courage to forge a foreign policy a lot more sophisticated than, "We say what America says, only we say it double, hear?"
Then, fast forward to the Auckland Writers Festival two years ago. I was on stage being interviewed about my book on Gallipoli by the long-time Kiwi breakfast TV host, Alison Mau, who in the course of our conversation mentioned she was engaged to marry her gorgeous partner Karleen. As one, the 2000 Kiwis in the theatre started cheering and stomping their feet.
Hang on, I yelled. I am from Australia! Don’t you poor backward bastards know the dangers of same-sex marriage? Don’t you know that that this is a very slippery slope you are on? Don’t you know that people will soon start to marry bridges, marry children, marry sheep – oh, wait – and that everything will soon go to hell in a handcart?
They sneered unpleasantly at my backwardness. They were Kiwis. They knew that same-sex marriage had none of the horrors backwards Australian commentators had been banging on about, and simply couldn’t understand how a country like ours could have fallen so far behind them.
(Me neither. Don’t get me started.)
Not long afterwards, their fine conservative prime minister John Key had the courage to say out loud that having the Union Jack – the most famous symbol of another nation – as the primary symbol on their own Kiwi flag, was, you know, a bit on the antiquated side of things? And yes, the subsequent referendum on flag change didn’t get up, but only because of the lack of an alternative that gripped their national imagination. (We, at least, have the Eureka flag to inspire us, when the time comes.) The point is, they had a rational discussion on the whole thing, and even if it didn’t get up this time, the whole thing moved forwards.
And most recently, of course, they have just elected a 37-year-old woman as the third female Kiwi PM, Jacinda Ardern, who has been an international breath of fresh air in progressive politics, and not just because she talks about NZ being a republic, out loud. She has pointed towards a proud, independent, path for New Zealand. She treats climate change seriously, in a country where no one serious disputes climate change and the need to reduce emissions. She has called out Australia’s treatment of refugees on Manus Island for what it is: unacceptable. Just last week it was announced that references to both Jesus and the Queen have been removed from Parliament’s te reo karakia, or prayer. I think it might be something about accepting that not all Kiwis are Christians or monarchists, you know?
You get the drift. On every front of progressive politics that you can see, the Kiwis are lapping us! Did you hear me, tree people? I said, the KIWIS are lapping us!
They are the sophisticates. We are the provincials. How did this happen? Jacinda Ardern’s Foreign Minister, the redoubtable Winston Peters, is my friend. "A key part," he tells me over the phone from Fiji, "is our MMP proportional representation system, which we have had since 1996. This allows for a diversity of political voices to be heard, and a diversity of politics to be represented. It is inclusive. There are not just two main voices, there are many. It works for us. When I was elected to Parliament, there were just four Maori in parliament. We now form 24 per cent. The system fosters progressive politics."
My longtime Kiwi colleague at The Sydney Morning Herald, Bernard Lagan, now a correspondent for the London Times – has some theories.
"It is multi-faceted," he says, "but if you go back to the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior in 1985, the government of David Lange in the 1980s forging an independent path, and the Americans trying to bully NZ back into the fold, you see a national rise of social activism on a broad front, and we have never looked back. And it also helps that we don’t have a very loud, hardright media here, which gives space for progressive politics to grow. "
The heavyweight New Zealand political journalist Richard Harman dates the seeds of New Zealand’s social progressivism back even further: "Ever since we had the Australian-born Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage, who led a very successful reformist government from 1935, New Zealand has fancied itself as a social laboratory. We haven’t been afraid to try new things. And yes, David Lange was a spur to that progressivism, then retarded by the government of Sir Robert Muldoon, but we really haven’t looked back since. From our side of the Tasman, we can’t quite understand why Australia is so far behind. On same-sex marriage for example, we just don’t see, why you don’t get it. No-one here can understand what the fuss is about."
Richard? It’s a long story. But things, we can tell you, are pretty bloody grim when we have to look to your side of the ditch for inspiration.
Carry on. We shall be along in a little while.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern waves to student dancers as she arrives at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in the northern Philippines this week. Coluimnist Peter FitzSimons calls her a an international breath of fresh air in progressive politics.