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The events that shaped New Zealand

New Zealand Infantry patrol in Italy, by Peter McIntyre.

In celebration of 80 years of the New Zealand Listener, we're looking back at the country's key moments.

New Zealand declares war

September 3, 1939. When World War II broke out and Prime Minister M J Savage declared, “Where she [Britain] goes, we go”, it was the first time this country had actually declared war on anyone. The public swung in behind the fight against fascism, with 12,000 men signing up in the first week. Over the next six years, 11,625 New Zealanders sacrificed their lives for victory, while three times as many were wounded. The first few months of war were deceptively quiet, however, and no one quite knew what to expect. When the Listener questioned people in the street, it got some tight-lipped replies. “It’s a pretty rotten business,” opined a policeman. And someone described as a typiste said primly: “You don’t think I am thrilled about it, do you?” Footnote: There is no truth in the common belief that, because of the time difference, NZ declared war on Germany before Britain did; but we weren’t far behind.

Centennial Exhibition opens

November 1939. For a post-Depression nation facing war, the six-month-long Centennial Exhibition in Wellington was a tonic. It attracted 2.6 million visitors; the country’s population was then only 1.6 million. Some came to grapple with their history and identity, as organisers intended. Even more came for Playland, entertainment dominated by a roller-coaster and including the “world’s fattest girl”, the 343kg Mexican Rose. Many Māori protested against it, which was hardly surprising given its theme of brave British settlers – “people of the best British colonising type”, declared Lord Galway, the Governor-General – overcoming the odds, which included Māori. The dramatic buildings, dominated by a 52m-high tower, burnt down in 1946.

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Michael Joseph Savage dies

March 27, 1940. His benign photograph hung on thousands of walls, he was the most loved of New Zealand’s prime ministers. A goldminer, flax-cutter and trade unionist, he went on to lead the first Labour Government as it pulled the country out of the Depression and introduced the welfare state, which gave several generations the security and opportunities he never had in his early life. The Listener eulogy said many thousands throughout the Dominion would feel “they have lost a personal friend”, and those friends paid their respects at 21 stops along the main trunk railway line as his body was taken from Wellington to Auckland, where he is buried at Bastion Pt.

Common core curriculum introduced

1942. While war raged in Europe and Asia, Prime Minister Peter Fraser still found time to oversee a radical reform of the country’s manifestly inequitable education system during the 1940s. The school-leaving age was raised to 15 and a “generous and well-balanced” common core curriculum introduced for the first three years of high school. He couldn’t have done it without visionary Education Department head Clarence Beeby, who wrote later that it was “revolutionary, the first time any government in New Zealand had ever committed itself absolutely to the idea of full and free education for all”.

Photo/Getty Images

Fall of Singapore

February 15, 1942. “We’re not greatly worried at home, because we’re well out in the suburbs” – so said a librarian to the Listener, when questioned about fears of Japanese invasion following the fall of the supposedly impregnable British bastion of Singapore. Maybe she knew something the authorities didn’t: despite post-Singapore alarmism, the Japanese war machine did not get this far. But Britain’s failure to defend the Pacific Rim left New Zealanders feeling abandoned. It was clear, then and postwar, that Britain was no longer a superpower, meaning New Zealand was “no longer attached to a winner”, says James Belich.

Best-ever leaders

Most surveys put Richard Seddon at the top of the prime-ministerial rankings. His 13 years in charge (1893-1906) were phenomenal by any political standard. Not only did he dominate with his aggressive personality, but also his administrations introduced a raft of far-reaching legislative reforms. In more recent times, however, who would rate as the best? The political scientists tend to plump for Peter Fraser (1940-1949) or Keith Holyoake (1957, 1960-72). The latter’s reputation, in particular, gets rosier by the year, as the wheels of hindsight grind on, and few would disagree now that he has been the most successful – and therefore the best – prime minister of the past 60 years. He was the one deemed most in tune with his time. And Barry Gustafson, author of the major biography Kiwi Keith, points out that Holyoake was also Foreign Minister throughout his 11 years at the top, and more or less ran finance as well. More socially liberal than posterity has so far given him credit for, he kept the country stable during a time of increasing division and diversity. “While he was prime minister,” says Gustafson, “by a combination of luck or good management or both, most New Zealanders got what they wanted.”

VE Day

May 8, 1945. “Victory tarried long, then came in a clap of thunder; but it was not, and still is not, peace,” Listener editor Oliver Duff wrote in May 1945 – our Victory issue. Almost a year after D-Day, the Nazi regime had finally fallen and Europe was free. At last, celebration, flags and kisses. But, as Duff continued sombrely, “peace cannot come suddenly any more than a troubled pool can suddenly go calm”. New Zealand had lost, per capita, more men than any other Commonwealth country, the war in the Pacific continued and rationing would go on for years. The magazine gave away its ads to run 24 full pages on the war years; a mixture of sad reflection and proud hope for reconstruction. “But,” Duff emphasised, “this is victory, the most crushing, complete and spectacular victory in modern history. Our enemies are scattered, crushed, disarmed and dishonoured, blown away like chaff from a thresher’s floor, and we are entitled to harbour more than feelings of relief … We dishonour the dead unless we use our victory to restore the dignity of the human race, which has sunk lower in five years (as well as climbed higher) than in any other brief space in civilisation.”

NZ an independent nation

November 25, 1947. “The major constitutional development of the postwar years went almost unnoticed at the time by the public at large,” historian Michael King wrote. It remains mostly forgotten today. But on November 25, 1947, the New Zealand Parliament signed the Statute of Westminster, and so our country became an independent state – responsible for our foreign as well as domestic affairs – no longer a colony or a dominion. Canada, South Africa and Eire had all grabbed independence when Britain passed the Statute in 1931. We, however, were the children who didn’t want to leave home. King, shortly before he died in 2004, argued persuasively that November 25 should be celebrated, with a national holiday, as our independence day.

Takahē rediscovered

November 1948. World scoops are rare birds for the Listener, but we got one in April 1949 when we published the first photograph of a takahē chick. Long thought extinct, takahē had been rediscovered the previous year in deepest Fiordland by Geoffrey Orbell. Armed with only cameras and 50 yards of fishing net, Orbell and his team were able to find the truth behind the rumours of “a bird the size of a goose … with the speed of a racehorse”. He wrote in the Listener, “It has not been because it was not there – it has been because no one knew just where to look.”

Aerial topdressing trialled

May 1949. Aerial topdressing revolutionised both farming and the New Zealand landscape. Degraded by a century of forest clearing, overgrazing and pests such as rabbits, inaccessible hill country had a ruined look when the 1949 trials dropped fertiliser on 11 Wairarapa properties. Farmers were immediately convinced. In just 20 years, livestock numbers doubled. Wartime pilots such as Phil Lightband gave the industry a flying start. He says, “I go through country around Taumarunui that I topdressed myself. It was crappy country and after three years, it was beautiful.” Environmental concerns have grown about nutrients leaching into waterways, causing an increase in algal or weed growth, and topdressing is now prohibited within certain distances of water.

Striking waterfront workers in 1951 outside the Auckland Town Hall. Photo/Newspix

Waterfront dispute begins

February 13, 1951. So many years ago, but still so painful for many. The 1951 waterfront strike (or lockout, depending on stance) was not so much growing pain as tumour. When shipowners refused to give watersiders a pay rise, the wharfies banned overtime. Employers began laying them off. The Government declared a state of emergency with draconian measures: press censorship, penalties for anyone so much as helping families caught up in the dispute. Internecine strife broke out between unions. “We got belted around the ear right, left and centre,” said unionist and strike veteran Bill Andersen, “and we couldn’t raise a squeak.” Armed forces worked the wharves, the Waterside Workers’ Union was deregistered and its funds seized. An insipid Labour stance prompted National to call a snap election. Fear of communism and trade union power led to a government victory and a scarring defeat for unions. Forty years on, Waterside Workers’ Union leader Jock Barnes told the Listener, “Right at the start I thought, ‘I don’t know how this will end. But those bastards are going to know they have been in a fight.’ And they did!” The dispute lasted 151 days.

First TABs open

March 1951. Rugby, racing and beer used to be the holy trinity of social life, with racing by no means the least. Jockeys were heroes with huge followings, and horses – Carbine, Phar Lap, Cardigan Bay – became legends. The world’s first automatic totalisator was installed at Auckland’s Ellerslie Racecourse in 1913, and 38 years later, in Dannevirke and Feilding, we opened the world’s first national off-course betting agency, the TAB. From 10.00am on March 28, betting was steady on the Manawatū and Wellington races. By the end of 1952, there were 167 TABs, with a weekly turnover of £200,000. Although the sport’s popularity has flagged, the TAB’s turnover from racing in the 2017-2018 year was $1.65 billion.

Māori urbanisation and the Māori Women’s Welfare League

September 1951. In the biggest internal migration this country has known, Māori began to move into the towns and cities from the late 1940s onwards. As they arrived, organisations such as the influential Māori  Women’s Welfare League were set up to assist with the social problems that came with moving into a sometimes strange, Pākehā world. Princess Te Puea, the league’s first patron, expressed concern to the Listener as early as 1950 that young Māori were being lured by the city glamour, high wages and freedom from tribal controls. “I think they should be back in the country,” she said. Professor Ernest Beaglehole said that although Māori labour was boosting national wealth, the Māori worker was often tempted back to the marae, so “continuous work, week in, week out, still comes hard to him”.

Today, more than 80% of Māori are urban dwellers – a complete reversal in just half a century (though there has been a small swing back to rural living in the past decade). The change has been two-edged, however: Māori have sent the old Pākehā monoculture packing, and established themselves as a potent political and cultural force, but urbanisation also created a detribalised cohort no longer in touch with te reo and the old traditions of the land.

After Ed

At 11.30am on May 29, 1953, for the first time, someone stepped onto the world’s highest point, and that someone was a New Zealander. Edmund Hillary – “Sir Ed” to us all these days – had scaled Mt Everest with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay. After a night at 8500m, the pair awoke to an “icy silence” and walked into the unknown. And, upon descent, into the roar of worldwide acclaim. The news arrived the morning a queen was crowned.

Royal visit

December 1953. From December 23, 1953, to January 30, 1954, the country was united as never before, or since, in a public orgy of royalist rapture. Hardly a soul was unaffected by what Prime Minister Sidney Holland called the “multitudinous events of those magic weeks”, as the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II toured the country. The sun shone, the crowds glowed, the young Queen dazzled; even the Duke of Edinburgh seemed glamorous. It was still a time, as historian James Belich says, when New Zealanders were “more likely to give ‘British’ than ‘New Zealander’ when asked their nationality”.


Tangiwai disaster

December 24, 1953. Late on Christmas Eve, a lahar from volatile Mt Ruapehu’s crater lake surged down the Whangaehu River and swept away the Tangiwai railway bridge. A few minutes later, the Wellington- to-Auckland night express raced along the line and, despite the efforts of a young clerk, Arthur Ellis, to signal it with his torch, plunged into the flooded river. Of the 285 people on board, 151 were killed. The tragedy would have been worse but for Ellis, guard William Inglis and passenger John Holman, who saved all but one occupant from one of the carriages. Ellis and Holman were awarded the George Medal. The disaster stunned a small nation, but in one way made it more closely knit.

Last hanging

February 18, 1957. “The neck had been stretched considerably, while the tongue was out of the mouth and looked to be about nine inches long.” Quoted in Sherwood Young’s book Guilty on the Gallows, this comment by a constable who saw the body after the last official hanging in New Zealand, at Mt Eden Prison, may help to explain why capital punishment was abolished four years later, in 1961. The condemned man was 68-year-old Jim Bolton, convicted of lethally poisoning his wife by putting sheep dip in her tea for more than a year. He protested his innocence to the end.

Jandal becomes an official trademark

October 1957. The jandal was invented by Maurice Yock, and for its first two years came in brown or white. According to Yock’s granddaughter, former Alliance minister Laila Harré, the name was an abbreviation of Japanese sandal. Australians claim the jandal and the pavlova as their own, but call it a thong, flip-flop or le slap. Jandal is New Zealander Yock’s invention. However, says Harré, it never made him rich: “He was simply an entrepreneur who came up with a good idea.”

Photo/Getty Images

Auckland Harbour Bridge

May 30 1959. Driven over, climbed, flown under and jumped off, the Auckland Harbour Bridge has become both a queen city and a national icon. Its opening, in May 1959, heralded a new era of suburbanisation that saw the country’s cities sprawl outwards into the countryside. Says historian James Belich, the bridge can also be seen as a symbol of Auckland’s dominance, as the country’s “big four” centres became the “big one”. Immediately too small, the bridge’s capacity was doubled by clip-ons in 1966. The bridge cost $16 million 45 years ago. Construction of a walking and cycling connection is due to begin in 2020. A 5m-wide path on the bridge’s city-bound traffic side will link Westhaven to Northcote Pt.

The arrival of television

June 1, 1960. Only a quarter of a century after the first broadcasts in the US and Britain, at 7.30pm on a Wednesday, our first official programme beamed to viewers from Auckland’s Shortland St studios.  As the Listener’s first TV listing shows, it began with Robin Hood. Ian Watkins interviewed British ballerina Beryl Grey. The Howard Morrison Quartet sang. We were entranced. Then, after just two hours, it shut down for the night.  In 1981, after the removal of import restrictions, New Zealanders were allowed to buy video cassette recorders. With the new technology came freedom from network schedulers – if you could figure out how to operate the thing.

Restaurant wine day

June 1, 1960. The police said it would cause drunken rioting in the streets, church leaders claimed it would undermine the moral fibre of the country, but what actually happened when restaurants were licensed to serve wine with meals on June 1, 1960, was the emergence of a new national pastime – dining out. It wasn’t until 1971 that fried chicken, with the opening of the first Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet, presented the first challenge to fish and chips. Pizza Hut arrived in 1974, and McDonald’s opened in Porirua in 1976.


The pill goes on sale

January 1961. Although New Zealand tended to lag behind counterculture, the sexual revolution arrived right on time when oral contraceptives hit our shores.  It was available only to married women and by prescription, and women remember having to put on faux wedding rings before going to Family Planning. Punitive social sanctions for sex outside marriage were skirted, heralding a move away from traditional, nuclear-family structures. 

Baby boom peaks

October 1961. More babies were born this month than in any other in the country’s history. There were 5338 registered births, out of a record 65,476 that year. It was the peak of the postwar baby boom; a last hurrah before fertility rates fell away. And it was huge – our family sizes increased more in the 20 years after the war than in any other Western country. By sheer weight of numbers, the boomers have dominated this country’s political and social life ever since, moulding the destinies of generations either side of them.


Talofa lava, Samoa

January 1, 1962. When Western Samoa gained independence, a quota was established allowing 1000 or more immigrants a year into NZ, on top of those coming to join family. Independence for the Cook Islands and Niue followed, with their people retaining NZ citizenship. These policies and the growth in industry offering well-paid, unskilled labouring jobs turned a postwar trickle of Pacific migrants into a steady flow by the end of the 60s. Manufacturers and politicians invited islanders in, expecting them to be temporary workers. The immigrants had different plans, however, staying and overstaying even after many were laid off as unemployment bit. The issue peaked in 1976 when PM Rob Muldoon accelerated and increased Norman Kirk's policy of police raids to find overstayers, and police burst into homes at sunrise to make arrests. The public disliked such tactics and the "dawn raids" policy didn't last. Pacific Islanders now make up 7% of the population and Auckland is the largest Polynesian city in the world.

Peter Snell, athlete of the century

October 1964. Jack Lovelock and John Walker both won the Olympic 1500m title, the blue riband event in track and field. But powerful Aucklander Peter Snell went one better at Tokyo in 1964, when he outclassed the 800m and 1500m fields to win two golds. All up, Snell, described by Time magazine as “a Sherman tank in overdrive”, won three Olympic gold medals and set world records from 880 yards to the mile. No wonder he was named New Zealand Athlete of the Century.


The Beatles arrive

June 21, 1964. In the month that The Beatles made their only visit to New Zealand, young Christchurch reporter Sue McCauley, not yet a novelist, wrote to the editor of this magazine, pointing out the “unforgivable error” of mislabelling Ringo as Paul in a reversed order photo caption. Those heady days, when 7000 fans waited at Wellington Airport and another 7000 stood in the rain in Auckland, gave us a first-hand dose of a new pop hysteria. Youth triumphed and, with The Beatles as spiritual figureheads, a generation of New Zealanders grew its hair, picked up guitars, dabbled in drugs and mysticism, gave peace a chance and ultimately bred pop icons of their own.

Anzac soldiers commemorate the Battle of Long Tan in 1969 with the dedication of a memorial cross on the site. Photo/Noel Bell collection/courtesy www.vietnamwar.govt.nz

NZ sends troops to Vietnam

July 1965. New Zealand, with Australia and Korea, went to war in Vietnam as an American ally. In the Battle of Long Tan, on August 18, 1966, the bloodiest clash involving New Zealand and Australian soldiers in the war – 18 were killed and 24 wounded – the heroic actions of New Zealand gunners were instrumental in preventing a massacre of almost 100 Anzac troops.

In 1972, tens of thousands of New Zealanders demonstrated against the war in the four main cities. Anti-Vietnam War sentiment pushed Labour towards a more independent foreign policy. It also taught a nation how to protest.

When the Vietnam War ended on April 30, 1975, 37 New Zealanders had been killed and 187 injured from a force that peaked at 543 and involved 3890 men and women in total.

In February 2019, 30 men who were mentioned in despatches during the war for their bravery or exceptional service had their efforts acknowledged by the Governor-General.


Wool price collapse

December 14, 1966. Once, the country’s economy could be described as depending on processed grass. After the wool price collapse, that was never going to be enough. On December 14, the auction price of wool tumbled, eventually to levels comparable to those of the Depression, bar a brief respite in the early 1970s. At that time, wool and sheepmeat combined earned more than half of all export revenue. The resulting rupture to the economy included a devaluation in 1967, the infamous “nil-wage order” of 1968, and the beginning of more than a decade of inflation. The economy stopped growing as fast as those of the rest of the world. Exporters were forced to diversify. Wool now earns less foreign exchange than tourism, dairy, meat, forestry, horticulture, fish or machinery exports.

The end of the pound

July 10, 1967. After a long argument over what it should be called (poet Denis Glover wanted the “zac”), the dollar replaced the pound as the nation’s unit of currency on DC Day. Under the tutelage of Finance Minister Rob Muldoon and Mr Dollar, we replaced the system of 20 shillings and 240 pence with the simplicity of 100 cents. The pound didn’t cease to be legal tender until 1982.


Six o’clock closing ends

October 9, 1967. Six o’clock pub closing was introduced in 1917 as both a wartime measure and a palliative to the powerful temperance movements. Liquor laws had always been eccentric; women and Māori were sometimes not allowed in hotels or to buy alcohol, some districts had total prohibition, Sundays were dry. Alcohol could not be served with food other than in hotels until 1960. The swill, though, was in a class of its own. As the hour approached, men packed pubs and lined up jugs that had to be downed in a furious rush by 6.15. It ended in 1967, and was replaced by 10pm closing. Few mourn the swill, although Bill Manhire, in his essay “Under the influence”, remembers “a kind of wonderful uproar, a thundering, male exuberance”. The first supermarket opened in June 1958, in Ōtāhuhu, Auckland, but it would take until 1989 for them to be able to sell wine (beer followed in 1999).

Sinking of the Wahine

April 10, 1968. It was Giselle that did it. Few people know the name of the cyclone that caused the country’s worst marine disaster in living memory, but everyone remembers its principal victim: the inter-island ferry Wahine. Carrying 610 passengers and 123 crew, the ship ran into the storm from hell as it approached Wellington Harbour at dawn on April 10, 1968. Battered by winds of up to 160km/h, the vessel was driven onto Barrett Reef and eventually capsized. Fifty-one people died, and two more later.


Māori renaissance

1970s. It’s an iconic image that tells two tales at once: 80-year-old Dame Whina Cooper was on her way to Parliament, leading the 29-day, 1100km land march or hīkoi that brought the sale of Māori tribal land to national attention, and, wider, Māori were on the move, with a cultural renaissance and a strengthening political voice. From the early 1970s, Māori protest groups raised long-held grievances in ways that meant Pākehā could no longer ignore them. There were Waitangi Day protests and the occupations at Raglan and Bastion Pt. At the same time, Māori artists and artisans with new things to say appeared – Witi Ihimaera, Patricia Grace, Ralph Hotere. Ihimaera wrote for the Listener about the first conference of Māori writers and artists at Tūkākī marae in 1973. It was, he wrote, “a small sneeze, but loud and open-throated and vocal against the restraints limiting Māori artistic expression … the question was, would the sneeze be sustained?” It was. Marae were rebuilt and traditional crafts learnt anew. Te reo became an official language and was taught in schools. Kōhanga reo were started. The hīkoi model left such a dent in our consciousness that it has been reused many times since.

When Aroha Fletcher was interviewed for the Listener Māori Renaissance cover at age 15, she said her ambition was to be a High Court judge. Fifteen years on, she has a master’s degree in law and a stellar legal career.

Petition to save Lake Manapouri presented

May 1970. Lake Manapouri turned a nation into environmentalists. Engineers planned to tunnel under the mountains to Doubtful Sound, raising the lake to supply a power station. The prospect of ruining the lake to supply a foreign-owned aluminium smelter with cheap power enraged New Zealanders. A Save Manapouri campaign began in 1960 and a new conservation movement was born. Public anger grew until, in 1972, it brought down a National Government and tinted politics green thereafter. The tunnel was built without destroying the lake. In 2002, Meridian Energy opened a second tunnel at Manapouri, generating enough extra power for 64,000 homes. It worked so sensitively that not a squawk of protest was heard.

Colin McCahon: legend

February 1971. In collaboration with poet John Caselberg, Colin McCahon looked for words to fill up the spaces: spiritual vacuums, empty landscapes. In the monumental – try this for size: 3m by 10m – Gate III (1970), McCahon sets God’s message to Moses in a landscape as a storm passes. “In this dark night of western civilisation”, it begins, but the white light in the far corner is intended to be reassuring. Doubt, personal struggle, anxiety: no wonder that, after its first viewing in Auckland in 1971, the painting spent years hanging in the foyer of a university lecture theatre.

Jumbo jets start regular service

December 1972. When these big birds started flying in, they did for tourism and migration what refrigerated container ships did for agricultural exports. In the words of historian Michael King, jet transport “opened New Zealand to the world, and the world to New Zealand. The rate of travel shot up as young New Zealanders in particular claimed what came to be seen as a right: OE, or overseas experience.”

Split Enz’ first concert

December 1972. Playing to 30 people at the Wynyard Tavern’s “Folk Night” was hardly an auspicious debut. And as Split Ends they would endure further indignities during their first year, such as being booed at the Great Ngaruawahia Music Festival and finishing seventh out of eight finalists in television’s New Faces talent quest. But, ultimately, Split Enz became New Zealand’s iconic band. I Got You, I See Red, Six Months in a Leaky Boat, among others, became huge hits and de facto anthems.

Britain joins the EEC

January 1, 1973. The drift away from Britain had begun during World War II, but this was when the Mother Country really cut the apron strings and – economically, culturally – we suffered. In 1940, when we were “Britain’s farm”, 87% of our exports went “home”. By the end of the century, it was a mere 6%, and we had learnt the hard way that we were a South Pacific nation, not an island off the Kent coast. Not that we should have been surprised. Britain had flagged its intentions a decade before, and even after 1973, we had years of grace before full European Economic Community (EEC) regulations kicked in. In 1970, the Listener reported concerns from government advisers that we could lose $150 million of dairy income overnight, and a correspondent in London pointed out “the Common Market needs New Zealand butter like a dose of cholera”. “It really kicked New Zealanders in the guts,” said historian David Thomson. In the end, diversification came hard and late in the form of Rogernomics.

Mt Erebus plane crash

November 28, 1979. The nation spent its longest night waiting for news of its worst disaster when Air New Zealand Flight 901 slammed into Mt Erebus in Antarctica. All 257 passengers and crew were killed. Until then, Air New Zealand had been as much an institution as an airline. But a 1981 inquiry headed by Justice Peter Mahon blamed the airline for effectively aiming the aircraft straight at the mountain by changing the route on the plane’s computer without telling the pilots. He accused the company of trying to hide its blunder with an “orchestrated litany of lies”. The phrase now lies deep in the national consciousness. Mahon himself became a further casualty. His findings were criticised by appeal courts and denounced by Prime Minister Robert Muldoon. He resigned as a High Court judge soon afterwards and died in 1986.

Springbok tour

October 1981. The famous Listener cover at the end of the Springbok Tour had no need of a question mark. The country had torn itself in two – some friends and family members irreconcilable – over a rugby tour.The Springboks arrived for a 56-day, 15-match tour, despite heated protest that in accepting a whites-only rugby team, New Zealand endorsed South Africa’s race-based apartheid system. Anti-tour people wanted a statement of solidarity and social justice. Pro-tour people wanted politics kept out of sport and revenge for the past two Springbok-All Blacks series, which we had lost. At every game there were violent protests, police riot squads with swinging batons and barbed wire. Of course, it was about so much more than rugby. The Muldoon Government was hanging on to power by the slimmest of majorities. By allowing the tour, it – accurately – believed it could deliver enough electorates to scrape another three years. It was town against country, a new baby-boom generation against the old, a more liberal, urban middle-class against the conservative provinces. To historian James Belich, it was also a case of “contested nationalism”. Both sides claimed to be representing the true New Zealand character, something picked up on by Listener journalists Tony Reid and Phil Gifford, writing about the pivotal day in Hamilton on July 25, when protesters forced the game against Waikato to be abandoned. The crowd’s fury at the activists invading “the equivalent of their living rooms … was like a great lump of poisonous phlegm being cleared from the national throat. Once you weren’t a Kiwi if you did not love rugby … The crowd bashed and kicked its rage that life was now so incomprehensible that these protesters should also claim to be patriotic New Zealanders.” John Minto, a leader of Halt All Racist Tours (Hart), now says the most profound legacy was not the change in attitude to South Africa, but to ourselves.

Freeing the dollar

March 4, 1985. Critics and defenders identify the floating of the dollar as having the greatest impact of any Rogernomics policy. No longer was the value rigidly fixed to another currency, but found its own level, reflecting those who wanted to buy or sell it. It was a logical consequence of the 1971 Smithsonian Agreement that ended the world’s fixed rate regime, but a totally free-floating policy (reversed in March 2004) was unusual. The dollar floated up, to the joy of consumers (who got cheaper imports) and the financial sector (who liked a “strong” dollar). But it devastated the export sector, business and jobs were depressed and per capita economic output fell for six successive years. As Finance Minister from 1984-88, Roger Douglas began dismantling the welfare state – a policy continued by Ruth Richardson – as subsidies were eliminated, import duties reduced and state assets sold.


Rainbow Warrior

July 10, 1985. Terrorism came to New Zealand when the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior was blown up in the Waitematā Harbour, causing a photographer’s death. This, however, was not the act of some proto-al-Qaeda or urban guerrilla gang: the bombs were planted by agents of the French Secret Service, under instructions to stop the ship from leading a protest against French nuclear testing at Moruroa Atoll in French Polynesia. Two agents were sentenced to 10 years’ jail each for manslaughter, but French Government pressure soon had them freed. Both the US and British governments of the time declined to condemn this act of terrorism by a leading member of the Western alliance.

Waitangi Tribunal powers extended

December 1985. The Treaty of Waitangi was largely ignored by Pākehā for more than a century, although Māori fought continuously for their Treaty rights. In 1975, the same year Whina Cooper led the massive Māori Land March to Parliament, a Labour government set up the Waitangi Tribunal. In 1985, another Labour administration changed the tribunal’s rules, allowing it to hear claims and grievances dating back to 1840. The move was pivotal. The Treaty was resurrected as a living document. Settlement of ancient grievances, worth many hundreds of millions of dollars so far, forged well ahead of Pākehā understanding, a discrepancy with its own compensation for Don Brash, National Party leader from 2003-06. But two of the biggest settlements were achieved under National. The northern Tainui and southern Ngai Tahu accepted $170m each. Tainui initially struggled, but Ngai Tahu proved a corporate star. Said Ngai Tahu kaiwhakahaere (chair) Mark Solomon, “To let go issues of the past you had to have them heard, if you’re to go forward.”

Photo/Getty Images

Homosexual law reform

July 11, 1986. By 1986, gay men had suffered 80 years of harsh judicial discrimination, although lesbian women had largely slipped beneath the Government’s radar. Writer Frank Sargeson, who changed his name after a conviction for indecent assault in 1929, spent the rest of his life in fear of discovery. Then MP Fran Wilde introduced the Homosexual Law Reform Bill and was cast as the Antichrist. Opposition led by Auckland businessman Keith Hay (“God’s carpenter”) resulted in a petition claiming 800,000 signatures. Polls, though, showed a more tolerant public supported reform. On July 9, 1986, the bill was passed. The sky stayed up.

The Listener was one of the first publications to champion gay marriage as a human rights issue.

NZ becomes nuclear-free

June 8,1987. New Zealand – forelock-tugging, Uncle Sam-pleasing, Pommy-greasing, butter-access-begging – finally took a stand of its own in the mid-1980s, when it struck out independently of our traditional allies and said no to nuclear ships in our waters. And we have rather grown to like ourselves for it, too. By refusing to welcome the US warship Buchanan in 1985, we buried the moribund Anzus alliance, and by passing the Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament and Arms Control Act two years later, we formally gave the foreign-policy fingers to the Americans. Even though we now know that Prime Minister David Lange initially sought ways of appeasing the US, his name will forever be associated with this historic legislation.

’87 world cups

June 20, 1987. When the All Blacks won the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987, we didn’t think too much of it. It was a quaint, understated tournament and the All Blacks, as expected, were the best team – they hammered France 29-9 in the final. It would take an agonising 24 years before Richie McCaw became only the second captain, after David Kirk, to hold the Webb Ellis Cup aloft, in 2011, following a nail-biting 8-7 win over France at Eden Park. In 2015, the All Blacks won their first Rugby World Cup overseas, beating Australia 24-17 at Twickenham in London.

The glory of 1987 didn’t just belong to the men. That year, the Silver Ferns triumphed in the seventh Netball World Championships, beating Australia in Glasgow, with no team getting within 10 points of them. Last month, the Silver Ferns won their fifth world championships title after defeating Australia by one goal in the final in Liverpool, England.


The big crash

October 20, 1987. The New Zealand stock-market crash followed Black Monday in the United States. But New Zealand’s market crashed deeper than any other rich country’s. The boom, fuelled by promises of “Rogernomics” reforms with their rapid liberalisation of financial markets, proved to be fake, unsustained by the economic fundamentals and dependent on cowboy investment strategies and creative accounting. Despairing investors lost their fictitious fortunes, and some company directors went to jail. Businesses that were market darlings – the longstanding and the fashionable – disappeared, or were sold off overseas, and New Zealand’s then-largest listed company, Brierley Investments, almost went down with them. 

Sunday trading

December 10, 1989. Once, you only shopped Monday to Friday. The great New Zealand weekend began crumbling in 1980, when shops could open on Saturdays, too. Sunday trading was allowed from Christmas 1989, despite complaints from trade unions and churches over the falling quality of life for shop workers, and emptying pews.


March 1991. In early 1991, the Asian population exceeded 100,000. It rose to exceed a quarter of a million by 2001. Two years later, Prime Minister Jim Bolger declared himself pleased to be an Asian leader.

The nation’s face was changing and it made some Kiwis nervous, as Winston Peters’ success in the 1996 election proved. But that same election gave us our first Asian MP, National’s Shanghai-born Pansy Wong. In her maiden speech, she described the long march from the active legal discrimination of the period 1881 to 1951: a “path leading to Parliament … paved with tears, blood, hard work and determination”. New Zealand, culinarily, linguistically, politically and culturally, is becoming more and more part of the Asia-Pacific region. Last year, aside from returning New Zealanders, the largest number of migrants came from China, followed by India and the United Kingdom. The number of New Zealanders leaving the country for Australia peaked in 2012, but in 2016, that trend reversed for the first time since 1991, thanks to our strong economy and political stability. Since the start of 2018, however, the traditional trend has started to re-emerge.

Crime stories that shocked the nation

These covers are a small reflection of our nation’s sad history.

Higher education

February 1992. The early 90s saw a run on gowns and mortarboards. Universities bulged and polytechnics offered degrees as more New Zealanders than ever participated in tertiary education. With high unemployment in low-skill areas encouraging upskilling, and the loans scheme enabling borrowing to cover costs, student participation increased by a third to 200,000 between 1991 and 1993. Non-Pākehā students made inroads, comprising 30% of the student body by 1998, up from only 15% in 1990. Although the loans scheme enabled wider participation, borrowing reached $26.1 billion in 2018.

MMP referendum

November 1993. Abrupt and unexpected policy changes in the previous decade sowed doubt in the minds of many over the legitimacy of the first-past-the-post (FPP) electoral system. A royal commission in 1986 recommended changing to the mixed-member proportional (MMP) system – where parties would receive representation in direct proportion to the number of votes won. In 1993, as the binding referendum approached, the Listener endorsed MMP. “We do not think MMP is a perfect system – nor will it solve all the problems facing this country, not by a long shot. But it is fairer than the present system.” The plebiscite, according to this magazine, was “the most important choice faced since women’s suffrage”. Despite Labour and National uniting in opposition, and MMP being tied to an unpopular increase in the number of MPs, a close but clear majority (53.8% to 46.2%) voted to embrace proportional representation. The next election, in 1996, saw more parties, women and Māori in Parliament than ever before. Critics point to the downside of MMP,  specifically the last election where Winston Peters,  who lost his own  electorate seat and whose party vote fell to just 7%, had 100% of the power to anoint the prime minister, using it to demand policy concessions and a $3 billion Provincial Growth Fund for Shane Jones. 

Child justice

These covers speak for themselves – and there are many more cover stories on this issue.

Opening night – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

December 21, 2001. It might have been the start of Peter Jackson’s triumphant Lord of the Rings trilogy, one that grossed nearly US$3b, clean-swept the Oscars with 11-wins-out-of-11 for Return of the King, did wonders for New Zealand tourism and brought downtown Wellington to an annual standstill as the film-maker’s hometown rolled out the red carpet on Courtenay Place.

But the debut of The Fellowship of the Ring was also the beginning of Jackson’s elevation to the realm of superstar director – and eventually knighthood. He was a global movie-business force to be reckoned with. The first Middle-earth movie not only showed the massive gamble that his studio backers, New Line, had made backing the trilogy would pay off. It also showed Jackson’s preference that he make films at home and have Hollywood come to him had worked out for the best, really, and not just for him.

The first Middle-earth epics transformed the Wellington production and post-production facilities that had begun with his early films into an industry in themselves, working on films from around the world as well as Jackson’s King Kong remake, his The Lovely Bones adaptation and his less remarkable The Hobbit trilogy.

In recent times, Jackson has turned to directing smaller documentary projects, which might be a wise move. Mortal Engines, the long-gestating fantasy flick he co-wrote and produced, was one of 2018’s biggest flops, while his World War I doco They Shall Not Grow Old, also out last year, won him his best reviews since the LOTR era. 

Relationship with Oz

Relations between us and our nearest neighbour, Australia, run hot and cold, with sport and politics typically at the centre of what we think about each other. New Zealand has the upper hand in rugby clashes, having racked up more than three times as many wins as Australia, and had the satisfaction of claiming the Netball World Cup by beating Australia by one goal in July. In cricket, too, we outdid Australia in the 2019 World Cup. In foreign policy, however, Australia is making all the running, steadily clamping down on New Zealanders’ residency rights across the Ditch. The terseness that has crept into transtasman political feeling was expressed eloquently by former Prime Minister David Lange when a journalist asked him for “a word on Australia”. “Wombat!” was his reply.

Global reach

We may no longer be the utopia of three million people and 60 million sheep, but New Zealand is one of the world’s most global-centric economies, with export earnings comprising a third of our economy. We lead the world in pioneering free-trade deals because our economy depends on them – though these days, our modern super-earner, dairy, vies with a non-exporter, tourism, as our top foreign-exchange earner.

Dairy remains king, in the sense that it’s something we do more efficiently than anyone else in the world – one reason farmers are so chippy about pending emissions trading and other environmental penalties. Even factoring in transport – now environmentally black-marked as “food miles” – our dairy exports are still price-competitive and greener than competitors’. Concentrated milk is the most valuable cargo we ship, followed by sheep and goat meat, butter, unprocessed wood and beef. Tourism has boomed partly from global PR as a result of the Lord of the Rings movie franchise and our new reputation as a “billionaires’ idyllic bolt-hole”. Tourist leaders hope high-end tourism will mostly supplant cheap-seats package deals, as it’s more lucrative and environmentally sustainable. The sector provides one in seven jobs, and is ahead of dairy as our primary export earner, comprising 21% of total foreign income. We’ve also developed other globally lucrative new niche sectors besides movies, including information technology, and mānuka honey, which commands such a premium it has fuelled a domestic crime wave in beehive thefts. Oil, one of our top 10 exports, according to the industry, faces an uncertain future, the Government having curtailed further exploration of fossil fuels, though existing contracts are grandfathered until 2030. The National Party says it will overturn the ban if re-elected. Analysts predict the next bonanza is in forestry, because of our future reliance on trees as carbon sinks to offset greenhouse-gas emissions. The existing trend for mainly overseas-based investors to develop plantations here is expected to grow by multiples. The farm sector fears this could outprice and overwhelm other sectors, with beef, sheep and other productive land going into carbon-farming.


2002-2019. In its 17 years, the secondary schools’ assessment system NCEA has generated strong criticism in the Listener that it dumbed down aspects of our children’s education while needlessly stressing students and teachers with constant assessments.  Both Labour and National governments were mulishly defensive in the face of evidence that the system was too easily “gamed”, with the inclusion of credits for such things as picking up rubbish. The chorus for change has finally led to announcements of reform with higher-quality teaching of core skills such as numeracy and literacy and more robust assessments. There’s still room to add non-core subjects and activities tailored to students’ vocational aspirations, but New Zealand is upgrading the quality of learning with the recognition that young Kiwis’ life opportunities are dependent on their abilities in key areas.

Population reaches four million

April 2003. When New Zealand’s population passed the four million mark at about 5.30pm on Thursday, April 24, 2003, on one level, it meant just one more entrant in the global game of sardines started by those first Polynesian explorers. We reached one million people in 1908, two million in 1952 and three million in 1973. Reaching the four million club was thought to be the last million milestone we would pass for the next century, but we are already at 4.9 million. In 2003, Statistics NZ expected our population to peak at 4.8 million in 2046 before declining to 4.4 million by 2101.

There were 58,020 live births and 33,225 deaths in New Zealand last year, resulting in a natural increase of 24,795 people. The fertility rate dropped to 1.71 births per woman, which is the lowest recorded. However, New Zealand’s population could reach 5 million late this year or in 2020.

Taika Waititi. Photo/Getty Images

Comedy returns to the big screen

2006. Somewhere between 1986’s Footrot Flats: A Dog’s Tale and the end of the 20th century, comedy had largely gone missing in action in New Zealand cinema. Peter Jackson’s splatteryefforts like Bad Taste and Brain Dead offered gooey nuttiness but gore-free chuckles were largely hard to come by until 2006’s Sione’s Wedding. Written by James Griffin and Oscar Kightley and starring Kightley and his comrades from the Naked Samoans theatre crew – who were behind animated television series bro’Town – the film proved a $4 million local box office hit. Other successful big-screen funnies soon followed. Some like Second Hand Wedding, Housebound, and last year’s The Breaker Upperers did not require the involvement of one Taika Waititi (though he executive-produced that last one) to do well. True, Waititi got off to a modest and quirky start with debut feature Eagle Vs Shark, but then came Boy, What We Do in the Shadows (co-directed by Jemaine Clement) and Hunt for the Wilderpeople. The 2016 Wilderpeople made more than $12 million locally and almost the same again in Australia, with another $7 million from its UK and US release. It remains our biggest homegrown movie, with Boy the runner-up. His comedies have tackled serious stuff – absent fathers in particular – but Waititi has provided a long-term cure for the Cinema of Unease disease.

Financial crisis

2007-2008. The global financial crisis was the bullet that grazed rather than pierced our economy. Activity had been humming at an average of 3.5% annual growth – albeit fuelled mostly by housing and private spending – when in 2008, banking giant Lehman Brothers collapsed and the world’s financial system plunged into turmoil. The US and many other developed countries suffered further banking failures, housing-price collapse and crippling economic downturn, and resorted to austerity measures and controversial experiments to artificially expand the money supply. Kiwis braced for the worst. A summer drought had already crimped our dairy and other agricultural production, and fuel and food prices had begun to soar. But because our Australian-owned trading banks had no exposure to the complex and often value-hollow financial instruments that Lehman and many others had devised to try to bolster their books, our economy had the ballast to withstand the downturn without emergency measures. John Key’s Government won plaudits for resisting austerity and liquidity tinkering, though some economists worried that New Zealanders’ high levels of private debt made us specially vulnerable to the recession. Mum and Dad investors were particularly hard hit by a spate of finance company collapses, in which poor governance and management, criminal misconduct, deficiencies in disclosure and a lack of understanding of risk were highlighted as major causes. High-profile prosecutions and investigations followed the failings of companies such as South Canterbury Finance, and Bridgecorp.

Although there’s mounting apprehension that global conditions are again conducive to a financial crisis, the Reserve Bank’s figures suggest we’re no more vulnerable to one now than we were in 2008. Household debt has risen 55% in the past decade, but it’s no higher relative to the economy’s size or to household assets or incomes. The debt is also cheaper to service than it was in 2008.

The internet arrives

Facebook is eating the print media’s lunch. Since 2008, four years after the social media giant came into being, the circulation of Christchurch’s Press and Wellington’s Dominion Post have fallen by more than half.

The country’s biggest daily newspaper, the New Zealand Herald, which in 1992 sold more than 250,000 copies a day, now sells fewer than 105,000. Last year, Stuff, which owns the Press and DomPost, closed more than a third of its newspapers.

According to an Auckland University of Technology study, Facebook is the third-biggest “news consumption platform” in the country, yet it produces no content. If news media are to survive, the study says, Facebook and search engine Google may need to start paying a “public media tax”.

Funny fulla: Billy T

When the Listener commissioned Nielsen in 2009 to find out which New Zealander past or present was the greatest exponent of Kiwi humour, Billy T James was the overwhelming choice, despite ceasing to be a live act in 1991. Billy T would say, as someone half Māori and half Scottish, “One half of me wants to get pissed and the other doesn’t want to pay for it.” His most memorable skit, though, was a spoof of the Lands for Bags TV ad. The ads ended with the cheesy line, “Where did I get the bag? Lands for Bags, of course.” The James version went, “Where did I get the bag? I stole it, of course. He he he.”

Pike River tragedy

November 19, 2010. Nine years on, experts are still trying to solve one of this country’s most heartbreaking mysteries: who or what was to blame for the Pike River Mine explosion that killed 29 men?

The broad answer is almost certainly corner-cutting and lamentable workplace-safety practices and invigilation. Whatever specific factors caused the critical buildup of methane to explode, inquiries have found numerous lapses on the part of the mine’s owner and management. A royal commission of inquiry also identified an inadequate and under-resourced safety regime that meant the Department of Labour’s inspection services were sparse and the existing regulation of mine operations insufficient. The department’s successful prosecution of the later-defunct mine owners, Pike River Coal, and of VLI Drilling, in 2012, brought no sense of atonement for the grieving families or the wider public. The companies said they were able to pay out only a portion of the $110,000 compensation the court ordered be given to each of the dead men’s families.

Charges were later dropped against the chief executive Peter Whittall and a $3.4 million payout was subsequently agreed to, to be shared among the families. Two widows later challenged this decision in court as “chequebook justice”. The Supreme Court unanimously declared the move by WorkSafe NZ to offer no evidence against Whittall was unlawful. 

The Labour-led Government agreed to fund a multi-phased mine re-entry programme, which began in May this year, but so far no reliable new evidence has been recovered. The Government is also considering introducing a new law to enable prosecution for corporate manslaughter. Pike River surpassed the death toll of 19 killed in the Strongman Mine explosion at Rūnanga in 1967. In this disaster, too, it was found that safety regulations had not been followed in the lead-up to the explosion.

Photo/Getty Images

Christchurch earthquakes

February 22, 2011. The nation was still thanking its stars that Christchurch’s massive earthquake the previous year had resulted in only one death when its horrifying sequel struck on February 22, 2011.

Collapsing masonry and the pancaking of an entire building killed 185 people, and liquefaction rendered vast tracts of the city uninhabitable forever. And the earth kept bucking. The stress of incessant aftershocks – still occurring today – caused depopulation and psychological damage many still grapple with. On to bereavement and stress was heaped a long-running lottery of injustice. It has still been technically unfeasible to hold anyone to account for the structural defects of the Canterbury Television Building, the collapse of which killed 115 people. Further legal and bureacuratic technicalities, combined with the sheer logistics of damage assessment and rebuild, meant many householders spent years waiting for compensation and remediation of their damaged homes. Some were ripped off by the unscrupulous or slap-dash assessments. Some are still waiting for redress.

Rebuilding is well under way following a Government-led redesign, but the city centre remains a patchwork of vacant lots, their futures unclear, as some landowners have simply walked away.

Total damage has been estimated at $40 billion, making it one of the world’s biggest insurance events, with total claims estimated as high as $35 billion.

The catastrophe spurred the Government and local councils to drastically revise our mandatory national buildings’ earthquake-resilience standards, the urgency underscored when quakes in Wellington rendered several recently built towers unsafe and beyond remediation.

A lasting symbol of the quake’s divisive aftermath is the husked ChristChurch Cathedral, still propped up by girders in its shambolic partial collapse. After furious local and national debate, the Anglican synod voted by a narrow margin to restore the landmark, accepting the offer of a Government subsidy.

The year of our Lorde

2013. When 17-year-old Ella Yelich-O’Connor appeared resplendent in red on the cover of the Listener at Christmas 2013 – which followed her first-ever print interview, given to the magazine in March – she’d had a very big year. She’d actually had the biggest year anyone in New Zealand music had ever had, care of a song called Royals and a debut album entitled Pure Heroine. The rocket she’d ridden wasn’t out of fuel yet – a few weeks later, she was at the Grammys, performing in her particular style, looking and sounding like no-one else on the show.

“Her on-stage body language suggests a mystical seizure: St Teresa in ecstasy,” wrote Diana Wichtel in that story about her live presence. At the Grammys she came away with an arm-full of trophies to go with the wheelbarrow of domestic silverware earned for that breakthrough song.

She’d first talked to the Listener as Royals had begun its viral attack on the world’s pop charts. Her Next Big Thing status was being shored up with a stack of overseas contracts to go with the one she had originally signed as a 12-year-old with Universal Music New Zealand four years earlier. It was her voice that got her noticed. But it was her songwriting partnership with producer Joel Little and her gifts as a literate lyricist that took her songs from the mean streets of Devonport into pop’s international jetstream.

“Although appearing very knowing and considered on songs like Royals, with its list of rejected designer brands and celebrity extravagances, she also summons a sense of vulnerability and everyday mundanity that has the potential to click with teens of all ages,” Jim Pickney presciently wrote in that first interview.

The hit Royals (22 million copies sold, two Grammys) and the album (3.4 million sales) also created a long shadow for the rest of her career. Lorde’s 2017 second, more ambitious album, Melodrama — powered by the aerobic single Green Light — debuted atop the US charts, was critically acclaimed and made her the only female nominee for Album of the Year at the 2018 Grammy Awards. While it couldn’t hope to match the numbers generated by her 2013 breakthrough, it surpassed her debut creatively. Lorde might have arrived as a mould-breaking pop star, but she’s successfully respositioned herself as an artist the world is going to be watching for a long time yet. 

Eleanor Catton wins the Man Booker

October 2013. With her second novel, The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton became at 28 the youngest winner of the Man Booker Prize and the second New Zealand author to take the award, after Keri Hulme won with The Bone People in 1985. Catton featured in an astrologically themed cover of the Listener inspired by her book on the eve of her big win. She wasn’t sure what to think about the looming life-changing event. “I don’t really know what I feel. I’m really looking to the prize being announced, because I don’t do very well with times of uncertainty. I’m a chronic over-thinker. I spend equal time preparing myself for all possible eventualities. So I do feel quite frazzled. I feel like I’m on the verge of doing something really awful in public, like sweeping all the crockery off the table.”

Catton is one of many New Zealand authors to have made the front page. Lloyd Jones was there when his Mister Pip won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 2006 (and was shortlisted for the Booker the following year); Witi Ihimaera in 2004 with the publication of Whanau II, his return to the setting of his first novels; Janet Frame appeared for CK Stead’s eulogy, which is reprinted on page 76 of this issue.

The fact that Katherine Mansfield died some 16 years before the Listener began publishing hasn’t stopped her being one of our most regular cover stars through the decades. She last appeared in 2017 with the publication of Redmer Yska’s A Strange Beautiful Excitement: Katherine Mansfield’s Wellington 1888-1903.

The Listener’s connection with local literature and its luminaries has been a defining feature of the magazine. Among its books coverage, it has occasionally stuck its neck out to name New Zealand’s best novel ever. The last time was 2007 and it was Plumb by Maurice Gee, the 1978 first book in the Plumb trilogy.  “Gee’s greatest novel, and one of the country’s most powerful pieces of literature,” wrote historian Michael King in the Listener early in 2004. “Plumb casts its own penumbra of reality that is in part a reflection of a perfect match between the author’s knowledge and his informed imagination. It is one of our truly mythic stories that tells us far more effectively than history alone can what kind of people we are and what kind of society we inhabit.”

Climate change

Glaciers have moved faster than politicians to address New Zealand’s contribution to climate change, but Parliament is now finally legislating to cap, reduce and sequester the greenhouse gases that are heating the planet.

The Zero Carbon Bill is generally seen as imperfect – the hard-won set of compromises among the three governing parties – but it sets the country on course to be carbon-neutral by 2050. An independent Climate Change Commission will set science-based reduction targets over the various sectors.

A further breakthrough came in July when farm leaders agreed their sector would transition into the Emissions Trading Scheme once reliable emissions-measuring systems were in place. New Zealand is an unusual emitter in that methane from agriculture – animals belching – makes up a third of its emissions, so that unlike in other countries the reduction burden is falling heavily on farmers.  Dairy farmers in particular are under pressure to reduce herd sizes – an economically unpalatable option.

A cross-party consensus is emerging in favour of reviewing the tight restrictions on use of gene technology here, as new grasses and breeding programmes show promise in reducing livestock emissions.

The zero-carbon strategy also depends heavily on trees to absorb carbon, with wealthy foreign investors already buying land to participate in the lucrative carbon forestry sequestration market. A future reliant on forest sinks is seen as controversial, however, because it’s displacing productive farm land, as investors can outbid locals, and because most of the plantations won’t be permanent, native or regenerating forest, but short-lived exotics such as radiata pines. Critics worry there are too few levers to ensure the carbon-farmed forests are maintained and/or replanted once their owners have claimed the carbon credits.

Also glacial, despite a pending Government tax-break boost, is progress towards electric and hybrid vehicles. New Zealand is among the world’s highest per capita car-owning countries, accounting for most of our households’ contribution of 11% of all greenhouse gases (as at 2017). Though these emissions are falling, electric vehicles are still scarce and pricy – this being a small, remote market – and industry analysts say it will be several years before that changes.


Last year, research published by Waste Management World showed that we produce 3.68kg of waste per head per day, the most in the developed world, putting the lie to the “clean, green” image we sell overseas. The recent single-use plastic shopping bag ban is a small step in the right direction, but our historic complacency in recycling and rubbish disposal, as highlighted by the Fox River landfill spill this March, demonstrate that much more effort is needed.

Illustration by Chris Slane

Christchurch mosque shootings

March 15, 2019. A lone gunman attacked two mosques in Christchurch during Friday prayers in a massacre in which 51 people were killed and 49 others injured. In the aftermath, the Muslim community was a source of inspiration in its refusal to let the atrocity create division and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern won plaudits for her compassion and calm resolve. The live-streaming and subsequent copying of the perpetrator’s video added further revulsion to an already unspeakable crime, leading to the Christchurch Call summit in Paris. The Government moved to ban semi-automatic weapons and assault rifles, and in mid-July the  first of numerous gun buy-back events around the country took place in Christchurch. The accused gunman is now facing murder and terrorism charges.

This article was first published in the August 10, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.