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The great revolution: Historian Jock Phillips on 80 years of change in NZ

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In 2019, Kiwis are taller and fatter than they were in 1939, material life has changed immeasurably, but the biggest change of all has been the revolution in our values.

You go to bed in 2019, wake up in 1939 and look around. There are fewer people – about a third of today’s 4.9 million – and they are noticeably more Anglo-Saxon. They are shorter and slimmer than 2019 Kiwis. There are not many old people – fewer than one in 14 people are 65 or over. Today, there are about one in seven. There are fewer cars – under 200,000, compared with 3.5 million today. And when you start driving, you quickly hit the gravel; so, long journeys are to be avoided. To head to another centre, you go not by motorway or jet aircraft, but by rail or overnight ferry.

You seek out news and entertainment from the big radio that dominates your sitting room, or it’s a weekly visit to the movies. Television, the internet and Netflix are missing. Your meal is meat, spuds and two veges. Eating out is a rare luxury when you are likely to splash out on roast chicken. Pies and fish and chips are the only takeaway options – no pizzas or hamburgers, let alone falafels. For booze, the offering is beer, mass-produced weasel water. There are only men in the public bars and the last drinks are served at 6pm.

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When you want supplies for your bungalow (almost no apartments), there are no supermarkets or online shopping services. Milk in bottles is delivered to your gate, bread is bought from a lorry that stops outside, or you go to the local stores – the butcher, the fruiterer and the grocer – who weigh out items, even sugar and flour, by hand. If you want clothes, you get dressed up, put on your hat and head “to town” to a large department store. You might stop for a cup of tea and scones – no sign of a trim flat white.

Material life – what it looks, smells, tastes and even sounds like (newsboys no longer shout their wares) – is hugely different today from 1939. But perhaps the greatest change is the way New Zealanders think about themselves. Our values have undergone a revolution. Let’s explore that revolution, and attempt to explain it.

Michael Joseph Savage.

“Better Britain”

On September 3, 1939, New Zealand declared war on Germany, and two days later, Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage spoke on the radio from his sickbed: “Both with gratitude for the past and confidence in the future, we range ourselves without fear beside Britain. Where she goes, we go. Where she stands, we stand.”

No one questioned Savage’s sentiments. New Zealanders thought of themselves as a “British” people, fiercely loyal to the “mother country”. When royalty visited, New Zealanders turned out in their thousands (almost three-quarters of the population saw the Queen in 1953-54) and they waved Union Jacks, not the New Zealand flag. London had passed the Statute of Westminster in 1931, giving former colonies constitutional independence from the British Parliament, but New Zealand did not adopt it for 16 years.

Our sense of being British was understandable. Newspapers’ cable items mostly came with the dateline “London”. The books we read were published in England. We learnt about the heroes of Britain in peace and war. King Arthur and Florence Nightingale, not “King Dick” or Hinemoa, provided our mythologies. More than 80% of New Zealand’s people were descended from migrants from “home”. Those of Indian or Chinese descent were tiny minorities. Māori, whom we considered “honorary Anglo-Saxons”, were 5% of the population.

Over the subsequent 80 years, our British identity has withered. There have been four drivers of change: migration, international relations, economic patterns and culture. Through the 50s and 60s, New Zealand welcomed migrants from the old country. About 100,000 “Poms” were given financial help to settle here. Apart from some Dutch, also given help, the only non-Anglo-Saxons arriving in numbers were those from the Pacific islands, who came from the 1960s to fill labour shortages in Auckland’s manufacturing sector. Then, in 1974, a year when the first New Zealand Day was commemorated by a festival of different ethnic groups, the third Labour Government ended racial discrimination in admitting migrants. The following year, assisted immigration from Britain was ended. In 1986, the fourth Labour Government based migrant selection on personal skills, not national or ethnic origin, and this was confirmed by the National Party’s points system in 1991. The effect was a revolution in our ethnicity. By 2013, more than 11% of the population claimed to be of Asian ethnicity, and if you added up those with Māori, Pacific, Asian and Pacific ethnic identity, they constituted about a third of the population. Even those of us with a British whakapapa were increasingly exposed to non-British cultural influences – through foreign travel, by meeting overseas tourists or by eating at the numerous Asian food places.

Changes in international relations came early. World War II showed up Britain’s military weakness in the Pacific and we turned for protection to the US. Some people argue that the signing of the Anzus pact with the US and Australia in 1951 was among New Zealand’s most “independent” acts. But the American alliance, too, came under challenge. Protests against New Zealand’s involvement in the Vietnam War in the late 60s and early 70s led to a vision of a New Zealand with an independent foreign policy, not beholden to any great protector.

The campaign against French nuclear testing and the refusal to accept nuclear-armed or -powered ships in 1984 heightened this vision. Prime Minister David Lange’s “I can smell the uranium [on your breath]” at the Oxford Union became the symbolic moment. We were no longer foot soldiers of the Empire, but apostles for a more peaceful world.

Foreign trade changed radically. In 1939, New Zealand was Britain’s offshore farm, with 84% of our exports by value going to the UK in the form of wool, butter, cheese and frozen meat. Little changed for 30 years. But after a decade’s negotiation, Britain entered the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973 and, despite an amazing act of lobbying that provided protection for New Zealand’s butter and cheese for some years, the writing was on the wall. Through Prime Minister Rob Muldoon’s central planning and Labour Finance Minister Roger Douglas’ insistence that the market should rule, the economy was transformed both in what it produced and to whom it sold. By 2019, the UK took less than 4% of our exports, dwarfed by the value of sales to China, Australia, the US and even Japan. We were selling wines, logs, fish, computer programs, even films, alongside the milk powder.

Finally, there was a major change in our culture – we began to read our own books and watch our own films. We cannot claim to be the author of all our dreams. We still head off on OEs to London and we have not had the courage to remove the Union Jack from our flag, but no one would claim that our minds are still forged by the culture of England and Scotland. Nor would anyone consider that “better Britain” is our national goal.

Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

“Best race relations in the world”

In November 1939, the New Zealand Centennial Exhibition opened in Wellington. The promotional poster showed a Māori “maiden” with poi standing alluringly outside the exhibition buildings. At the time, Māori were recognised as providing a distinctive element of New Zealand culture, and there was a pride that Māori and Pākehā had good relations. Māori, as we have noted, were regarded as “honorary whites”, who had shown their racial mettle on the rugby and battle fields. Although some Māori leaders, such as Āpirana Ngata and Te Puea Herangi, took the opportunity of the centennial to emphasise the loss of land and culture, few listened. The centennial was not seen as commemorating a treaty, unfulfilled, between Māori and Pākehā, but as the celebration of 100 years’ membership of the British Empire.

It was understandable that Pākehā considered relations with Māori in positive self-congratulatory terms, for most had little contact with Māori. The Māori  population was about 80,000, and most were in rural areas, especially in Northland and the East Coast, far from the main centres. Many Māori survived in a largely self-sufficient way and had few contacts with the wider economy. Their poor living conditions were not seen by most white New Zealanders. Māori were visible only on ceremonial occasions when Pākehā enjoyed their ritual as giving distinctiveness to a rather one-dimensional society. Few Pākehā knew te reo Māori. No one talked about a bicultural society.

The origins of change were during World War II and the following two decades when many Māori moved into the city. For the first time, Pākehā interacted daily with Māori and Māori encountered racist attitudes in housing and jobs. Young urban Māori began to ask questions and revive their language. There were new slogans – “The Treaty is a fraud” – and protests that climaxed with the Māori Land March, led by Northland kuia Whina Cooper in 1975, and then the 507-day occupation of Bastion Pt, which ended with the forced removal of Ngāti Whātua from ancestral land there in 1978.

New Zealanders began to think seriously about the costs of European settlement to Māori. Perhaps the biggest impact came from the establishment in 1975 of the Waitangi Tribunal, followed nine years later by the extension of its coverage to 1840. The scrupulous work of the tribunal documented harsh treatment in the past, and settlements led to resources for future Māori economic growth.

Another key moment was the visit of the Te Maori exhibition to the US in 1984, followed by its return home. A new awareness of the creativity of Māori culture affected the country. For the first time, New Zealand began to think of itself as bicultural. Te Papa Tongarewa – Museum of New Zealand was conceptualised in the early 90s on the basis of two cultures, “tangata whenua”, people of the land, and “tangata tiriti”, people who settled by virtue of the Treaty.

By 2019, there were about 750,000 Māori, more than 15% of the population, and a high proportion were living in the city. Attitudes have been transformed from 80 years before. No one pretends we have the finest racial relationships in the world. Most people are aware of some past injustices, and the New Zealand Wars are being remembered, not swept under the national carpet.

Te reo Māori is spoken by Pākehā announcers on the nation’s radio, and in schools Māori ritual, such as pōwhiri, have become part of the accepted order. It has become obligatory for many people to begin a public speech with a short mihi. Older racist attitudes have not entirely disappeared, but New Zealand has become a bicultural society in a way it was not in 1939.

“Country Lads”

In July 1941, the new National Film Unit released its first film, Country Lads, a jingoistic presentation of the departure of New Zealand soldiers overseas. The title referred to Adolf Hitler’s jibe that they were “poor deluded country lads”, but the phrase was adopted as a source of pride, suggesting that the Kiwi soldier had been forged through hard work in the backblocks. The nation’s centennial in 1940 was intended, said Prime Minister Savage, “to honour the memories and mark the achievement of the pioneer men and women”. At the heart of this pioneer worship was the belief that the outdoor life was morally and physically healthy. Cities implied crowded tenement housing, disease and immoral behaviour. The respectability of the New Zealand small town held firm. The pubs closed at 6pm, prostitution and homosexuality were criminal offences, and social control was intense. The most common criminal conviction was being drunk in a public place, which reflected social attitudes, not widespread behaviour.

It is true that in 1939, about 57% of the population lived in cities or boroughs. But only Auckland had reached 200,000, with the other main centres under 150,000. New Zealanders were determined to keep the rural mythology alive. City dwellers lived on quarter-acre sections in the suburbs, with grass, chooks and vege gardens, and at the weekends, it was physical sports or off to the beach and the hills. In the central city at the weekend, once the Friday night shops closed and the pubs shut their doors, a British immigrant claimed “you could have shot a rifle in the street and you wouldn’t have hit anybody”.

Over the next 80 years all this changed. As service industries became an increasing part of the economy, urban populations steadily rose. Auckland now has 1.6 million people, a third of our population and about the country’s size in 1939! It took time for New Zealanders to accept they were largely city dwellers. In the 1960s and 70s, people such as author Barry Crump and comedian John Clarke (“Fred Dagg”) began treating our rural mythology as a butt of humour. Increasing numbers of urban jobs required not tough muscular strength and “No 8 wire” ingenuity, but specialised knowledge. Lawyers, bankers, computer specialists, social workers, civil servants, teachers, architects – all needed a formal education. In 1939, there were just over 5000 people attending New Zealand universities, and of those at school, four out of five were in primary school. In 2019, there are more than 170,000 university students and about a million New Zealanders with a university degree. Graduates were largely trained for the city, and many spent time overseas where they learnt to enjoy different foods and the entertainments of London or Paris.

New Zealand developed a rich urban culture – an increase in ethnic and experimental dining, a wealth of concerts and gigs. More people now go to museums and galleries than to rugby games, and even rugby has become an urban entertainment, with improved food, all-seating stadiums, loud music and performances by well-paid professionals.

Auckland and Wellington transformed their waterfronts from industrial docks to sites of urban recreation. Wellington pumped itself up as the world’s “coolest little capital”. Peter Jackson, film-maker and thoroughly city person, replaced Edmund Hillary, outdoor bloke, as arguably the country’s best-known person.

Cities bring diversity of cultures and a tolerance of difference. Small-town social controls weaken. The result has been a revolution in social behaviours. Beginning with 10 o’clock closing in 1967, there have been progressive changes in drinking laws. Patrons are drinking wines, cocktails and craft beers. There is a greater tolerance of sexuality. Homosexuality was decriminalised in 1986 and prostitution in 2003.

New Zealanders have not wholly lost their admiration for outdoor skills. City culture is not universal. The old suspicion of cities is sometimes reflected in anti-Auckland jokes. But there is no doubt that New Zealanders in 2019 see city life as an attractive and significant part of the nation’s identity, one that gives them pride. It is a major transformation from 80 years before.

Circa 1960.

Mum, Dad and the kids

In late 1939, one of the talking points of the Centennial Exhibition was a walking-talking robot, Dr Well-and-Strong, who performed in the Government Court. The final scene in his performance was “the healthy family in the happy home”, with “Dad” out front mowing the lawn and “Mother” on the veranda serving afternoon tea. Women received plenty of public attention in 1939.

The Listener, as with the nation’s newspapers, had a substantial women’s page, but its content was useful hints on housekeeping. By the late 30s, almost all New Zealanders lived in a family situation. With the sex ratio evening up, most men were settled down and married by their early thirties. As for women, once married in their mid-twenties, they inevitably gave up work and became full-time housewives. Only 3.7% of married women were in paid employment in 1936, significantly lower than in the UK and US. The economic depression had forced most middle-class women to dispense with domestic servants and the family was seen as a place of emotional support. Governments encouraged the nuclear-family housewife by providing substantial family allowances and basing wage settlements upon the “family wage”, which assumed one male breadwinner. Because manufactured goods, even clothes and canned foods, were expensive, women were encouraged to knit, preserve and “make do”.

The next two decades saw little change. The post-war baby boom intensified the role of the mother in the suburban home. But from the early 60s, even before feminism made the case, married women were re-entering the workforce. They were in demand as teachers, nurses and secretaries.

In the 1960s and 70s, there were several developments – the arrival of the pill allowed women to plan births more strategically, and the women’s movement, expressed most strongly by the publication of Broadsheet magazine and the Women’s Conventions of the 1970s, led to partly successful campaigns for equal pay. Child-care centres appeared, and the introduction of Saturday trading in 1980 allowed families, including men, to shop outside work hours. Women diversified their job aspirations and increasingly filled roles as lawyers and doctors alongside the “caring” professions.

By 2014, no less than 58% of solo mothers, and 70% of partnered mothers, were in paid employment. The working mother has become the norm and it is accepted for men to take time out to care for children. Even the Prime Minister gave birth while holding down the most important job in the country.

Also remarkable is that the married two-parent nuclear family is no longer the norm. The introduction of the domestic purposes benefit in 1973 allowed solo parents to keep their children, instead of adopting them out. By 2015, more than a quarter of households with children were headed by a solo parent. Even couples are choosing not to marry – only half of children are born to married mothers, compared with 87% in 1968. Parenthood is often delayed and families are generally small – two births per woman, compared with more than four in 1961.

The public acceptance of gay relationships allows more men and women to openly live with members of their own gender, and many people choose to live on their own. Diversity of situation and tolerance of difference have replaced the universal expectation of dad, housewife-mum and the kids.

The “god of material progress”

In 1939, the country’s 4d stamp showed “the progress of transport”, from a bullock team to a train, a ship and an aeroplane. When New Zealanders visited the Centennial Exhibition, they ogled at the 37,000 lights displaying the wonder of electricity. New Zealanders at that time believed wholeheartedly in material progress.

This was understandable. In the previous 20 years, their lives had been transformed by electricity, yes, but also the automobile, the refrigerator, the telephone, the radio, not to mention aircraft. The sufferings of the Depression had made the material comforts of modern life more valued. Yet there was an unresolved tension in the New Zealand value system. New Zealanders also firmly believed that their country was “the most beautiful in the world” and there was pride in our distinctive trees, birds and alpine scenery.

There were a few, such as members of Forest & Bird, or isolated intellectuals such as future Listener editor Monte Holcroft, who pointed out the contradiction between our enthusiasm for material progress and our worship of the “scenic wonderland of the Pacific”. But they were unusual. Few worried about the fragility of the environment. Some of the negative effects of technological progress – atomic bombs, pollution – had yet to become fully visible, and electricity promised a clean, efficient source of power that would free people from the smogs of coal and oil. It is hardly surprising that for a people struggling out of the Depression, economic growth and technological advances were unquestioned goods.

Eventually, the contradiction became obvious. The first significant expression came in the mid-60s when the Government agreed to raise the level of Lake Manapouri to provide power for a new aluminium smelter. The “Save Manapouri” campaign was launched and its petition in 1970 gained 260,000 signatures, the largest up to that point in New Zealand history. A widely supported conservation movement emerged, which over the next few decades led to the end of logging native trees, concerted efforts to save endangered birds, the establishment of the Ministry for the Environment, a parliamentary commissioner for the environment and a resource management system that ensured conservation matters were considered in development proposals.

In the 2000s came an awareness of a more serious threat, global warming. By 2019, at a time when our drive to increase milk production has led to a flood of nitrogen into waterways, no one can pretend that environmental values rule. But most New Zealanders recognise that the benefits of material progress come with a cost, and that a major issue for our time is how to enjoy a prosperous life without compromising either the world’s or New Zealand’s environment.

One big happy family?

There are obviously other changes in values since 1939. At the deepest level, religious values have radically declined and diversified. In 1936, about 1% of the population claimed no religion. In 2013, the figure was 42%, quite close to the total who claimed to be Christians. A quarter of a million had a non-Christian faith.

There is also more questioning of the role of the state than there was in 1939 when the Government regulated or owned large parts of the country’s economic activity – during World War II, the Government even enforced “austerity clothing” by outlawing cuffs and bulky sleeves! The Rogernomics revolution of the 1980s led to a questioning that has never ceased. There is also less consciousness of class than 80 years ago. At that time, party allegiance was defined by class, with working-class people tied to the Labour Party and middle-class people and farmers voting consistently National. This is no longer the case, with more swinging voters, many working-class Tories and many middle-class liberals. People do not think as strongly in class terms.

Arguably the greatest change is simply the increase in different points of view. In 1939, there were few dissenters. Some Māori in rural areas with little access to the mainstream media were unhappy about their treatment. There were a few intellectuals, such as Denis Glover, who wrote famously:

In the year of Centennial splendours,

There were fireworks and decorated cars,

And pungas drooping from the verandahs,

– But no one remembered our failures.

When war broke out, there were some committed pacifists who courageously made their views known in street gatherings. But there was a deep consensus about the core value system.

Today, the mainstream media reflects the radical changes in our value system. No one now thinks of us as a “better Britain” or having superb race relations. Many people enjoy New Zealand’s urbanity and they qualify their commitment to material growth with an obligatory nod to the environment. Most New Zealanders accept working women and gay people. Yet there is also a huge diversity in the country – a small town in Southland is very different from an inner-city Auckland suburb. There are fundamentalist Christians, committed Muslims and practising Buddhists; there are people proud to be “family men” and “gay men”; there are ardent All Blacks fans and those who ignore the game.

At a time when we have just seen the worst domestic terror act in our history – the Christchurch mosque attacks on March 15 in which 51 people were killed and 49 others injured – our real challenge for the next 80 years may be learning to live with diverse values. In the end, a mature society is one that contains different ideals, strongly held, yet manages to cohere and sort out its clashes of values in ways that are dignified and peaceful.

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