Hard News by Russell Brown

Democracy at Ease

It so happened that I had a few hours to kill in Wellington between appointments. My anticipated lunch date hadn't happened, and it was a bit late to go chasing up another one. But Wellington is a good place to be distracted.

The present crop of exhibitions at the City Gallery includes a small selection of works by Peter Robinson on the physical nature of things, called 'Divine Comedy', and 'Real Fiction', a retrospective collection of monochrome street scenes by the Wellington photographer Peter Black, which is wonderful. (I was surprised that none of my fairly clued-in Wellington friends had heard of Black.)

I looked at new cookware (of which the Wellington CBD has quite a lot) and old books. The thing about the second-hand bookshops of Cuba Street and its environs is that they contain books that, quite possibly, nobody in Auckland thought to buy in the first place. The New Zealand political shelf at The Ferret Bookshop was particularly good.

I leafed through 1987's The magic square: what every New Zealander should know about Rogernomics and the alternatives, by Wolfgang Rosenberg, with an introduction by Jim Anderton. It preached a lot of terrifying tosh about import substitution and seemed to regard export trade as a dangerous affectation. Perhaps all economists are wrong; some are just more wrong than others.

Eventually I, plumped for R.M. Dalziel's The Origins of New Zealand Diplomacy, published in 1975 by Victoria University Press, and based on the author's doctoral thesis at the same university. Very Wellington.

But the real prize was a curious little book called Democracy at Ease: A New Zealand Profile (Pall Mall Press, 1957), by the British Liberal Party activist David Goldblatt. Goldblatt was sent to New Zealand to convalesce from a heart attack in the 1950s and became fascinated by our "insufficiently understood Dominion".

Goldblatt finds us a blithe people; kind, prosperous, fond of machines, frequently devoid of theory. Ours is "a land in which the practice of neighbourliness is most strongly developed":

'Struggle for existence' is a phrase strange to ear and experience. No one need look askance at his neighbour, and there is enough without undue effort or any competition. Want barely exists: a carefree, light-hearted prosperity is to be found everywhere.

He says that, after leaving the privations and inequality of industrial Britain, New Zealand's settlers found a place so bountiful that they soon learned that if they banded together at key times there would be enough for everyone:

The fight for life, the sense that one must go to the wall so that others might survive, was alien to experience. The harvest was overflowing and there was no need to covet anything that was one's neighbours.

Goldblatt proposes that New Zealand's national sense of "mutual help and sharing as a clan" drove the creation of a pioneering welfare state that placed it "high, almost highest, among the advanced countries in terms of the life and security of its people", but also allowed laws in other areas that amounted to "the complete control of the individual by the government". He admires our education system and our newspapers, despairs of our tariffs and barriers, and is underwhelmed by our leaders.

Interestingly - after conversations with Walter Nash and WB Sutch, among others - he bought in to the prevailing myths of the time regarding Maori: they were a likeable, if feckless, people who had whiled away their 500 years on the land fishing and eating, in clans that had little need to bother each other. The colonists had been accepted, and the Treaty honoured, even if "incidents there were and uprisings not without minor massacres". Wars and land seizures were for another generation to recall.

Although he prefers Wellington, as the only place where "there is opportunity for conversation in terms of the abstract", he is taken with a clandestine European-style restaurant in Auckland, where waiters wait and bottles of wine are hidden under tables: Elsewhere, it was "the plain fare and even plainer fetch and carry of the normal feeding machine of this country" and shops catering "in the same pedestrian fashion for a people never fastidious - the same again is the order of the day."

It took us quite a while to shuck "the same dull sandwiches" that Goldblatt found wherever he went, to recover from ethnic amnesia, to dispel a sense of order that had become oppressive and to embrace a national awareness that, in Sid Holland's New Zealand, was still marginal.

Of the country, he predicts that one day:

Its tempo will heighten and the general atmosphere will become less bucolic and acquire an added tenseness. New Zealand must be tempered in the fires of the conflicts of ideas and personal self-expression to gain that influence in life which the quality of its people and the gentle charm of its nature and topography have a right to demand.

Yet he wonders in his conclusion "what hardships and what misfortunes" would need to fall on this happy people to create the "divine discontent" out of which change would spring. It would be interesting to revive Goldblatt and see what he made of our furious few years in the mid-1980s, where so much of what he discusses did actually come to pass. He would, I suspect, recognise that that "move from the easy going into maybe the more Spartan" was not only provoked by hardship but brought hardships of its own.