Party till we drop

by Gabe Atkinson / 27 December, 2012
Our national appetite for living it up doesn’t quite match Greece’s, but it’s still a bit of a worry.
photo Ron Burgin/NZH


During Rugby World Cup 2011, historian and editor of online encyclopedia Te Ara Jock Phillips searched for the “real New Zealand”. He trotted around museums and other earnest alternative exhibits, often rugby-related, reporting on what the non-rugby elite thought was important.

And – perhaps to his mild surprise – he found the real New Zealand was in the street celebrations that accompanied the tournament, rather than in the stadiums and galleries, as he reveals in a lecture that can be found online here.

The Rugby World Cup is not the only example of national life spilling out on to the streets. Public festivals do not happen every week, but they seem to be increasingly frequent. In the run up to Christmas we had one for The Hobbit, and there were numerous other end-of-year occasions. Wellington has the Sevens in February, and most other centres have similar festivals.

There are always consultants’ reports saying these events generate huge numbers of dollars of economic activity, but do we really believe them? If we add the figures up, we could almost expect a doubling of GDP. Let’s be honest, the festivals are about spending public money for public enjoyment. That need be no bad thing, but it is quite a contrast with New Zealand life 60 years ago when poet and English professor MK Joseph wrote Secular Litany, in which he satirised New Zealand’s narrowness of spirit. The poem pleaded that New Zealand be defended

From the vicious habit of public
enjoyment
From kermesse and carnival, high day
and festival


Joseph’s indignation about the national stolidness came out of his wartime experiences in Italy where he saw a more relaxed approach to public life. Of course people partied in the 1950s, but that was about “serious drinking”, not public enjoyment (other than at rugby matches). Public attitudes have gone through an enormous change since, although we have not abandoned drinking alcohol to excess.

The shift to partying is not confined to New Zealand. Although former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and former French president Nicolas Sarkozy come to mind, our partying tends to involve the general public rather than just the political elite. A better parallel might be Rome’s bread and circuses, which continued until the funds ran out. Or, perhaps, today’s Greece. Greeks have been partying up large over the years – not paying their taxes and spending public money lent by others.

Now the money has run out, the creditors are asking for it back – or, at least, for the Government to stop borrowing more – and Greece is suffering a whale of a hangover. The public partying has prepared them well for some ugly street protesting. Our partying is nowhere near Greece’s excess, but still worrying.

You may have finished the year with an improved balance sheet – with an increase in assets over debt – but many other New Zealanders did not. Neither did the Government. Its net worth is expected to have fallen over the current year by about $9 billion. That means this year it is borrowing about $2000 for every New Zealander to fund spending; since the global financial crisis struck in 2008, it has borrowed about $13,000 a head.

New Zealand’s original motto was “Onward”, indicating, one supposes, an earnest (early-20th-century) commitment to progress. The exhortation was on our coat of arms until 1956. On the shield of the coat of arms are the symbols of New Zealand’s trade, agriculture and industry, reminding us that while kermesse and carnival may be ways to enjoy life, the economy is integral to sustainable enjoyment.

This is the time of the year to party – privately or publicly – or at least to enjoy the beach or whatever with family and friends. While we are away, however, the Government will be borrowing another $350 million or so to spend on our behalf. Some day that will have to be repaid. Instead of “Onward”, perhaps our motto should be “Let’s Party”.

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