When the Prime Minister announced that the history of New Zealand would be taught across all school levels it was a victory for those who have long questioned the startling lack of popular engagement with our past. Last week, the Government released a draft of that curriculum.
Paul Goldsmith, as National’s education spokesperson, was quick to launch an attack. He claimed that there was an undue focus on “identity and identity politics” and that the curriculum was “unbalanced”.
Goldsmith thought it better for history students to consider such questions as, “How did we make a living as a country? How, in such a short space of time, did we attain one of the highest living standards in the world?” He added, “New Zealand is also one the oldest democracies in the world, with strong traditions of freedom and the rule of law – which is rare in this world. How did those institutions develop?”
For Goldsmith, the problem is a lack of economic history, and the focus on conflict, protest, and colonisation. Where, Goldsmith asks, are the entrepreneurs and business leaders of the past?
His brief but revealing press release is about all we have so far on Goldsmith’s wishes for the curriculum. His own historical writing gives us some clues as to what he might have in mind.
Before entering parliament, Goldsmith operated as a kind of historian for hire.
Completing his Master thesis in history at the University of Auckland on the nineteenth century missionary William Colenso, he came from a history department with a number of New Zealand’s most esteemed historians – Judith Binney and Keith Sinclair among them – who transformed the nation’s understanding of its past and laid the foundation for a generation of New Zealand historians and history teachers.
Goldsmith then worked at the Waitangi Tribunal where he contributed to the landmark Taranaki Report. It revealed the extent of raupatu (land confiscation) and war in the area and the shameful sacking of the peaceful Māori settlement at Parihaka. Goldsmith’s also detailed Māori land loss in the Wairarapa. It resulted, he wrote, “in landlessness and social and economic marginalisation on a scale comparable to, if not more severe than, some of those areas affected by confiscation.”
Then something seemed to change for Goldsmith. He was, he claimed, for too long “brainwashed by a left-wing history department” until he “snapped out of it” when he “met characters like John Banks and people like him”. Goldsmith left the Waitangi Tribunal and began working for National MP John Banks.
From that point, Goldsmith increasingly gravitated towards a group of political leaders and policymakers associated with right-wing economic reforms of the 1980s and 1990s, particularly those who would go on to found, support, or later join the ACT Party.
It was a group of people that saw Government regulation and tax as an unnecessary imposition, any recognition of the Treaty of Waitangi as a dangerous step towards ‘separatism’, and – in their more honest moments – democracy as an inconvenience to economic efficiency. Many would go on to play their own roles in the mythology of the era and Goldsmith was part of legitimising that story. As they clapped each other on the back, Goldsmith wrote their stories.
John Banks: A Biography was published in 1997. In it Goldsmith playfully portrays the political life of ‘Banksie’ from his opposition to the Homosexual Law Reform in 1986, his attacks on ‘poms’ in trade unions, his conversion to a “disciple of Thatcherism and Reaganomics”, his attacks on the welfare state, and his time as a “tough-on-crime” Minister of Police. The book concludes that Banks has “always been a larrikin”.
Goldsmith would go on to write a series of hagiographies of various entrepreneurs, captains of industry, and conservative politicians in the second half of the 20th Century – Don Brash, William Gallagher, the Myers family, and Alan Gibbs among them. These were the men Goldsmith credited with the economic success and prosperity of the country; many of them were participants in, or at least the big winners from, the post-1984 reforms; some were members of the right-wing lobby group, the Business Roundtable.
In this way, Goldsmith was heir to another historian-politician: Michael Bassett, a member of the Fourth Labour Government, which oversaw the first round of economic reforms (deregulation and privatisation) before the National Party took on the welfare state and workers’ rights.
Bassett has spent a large part of his historical career, particularly in his book The State in New Zealand, attempting to advance his hypothesis that the New Zealand state was too large, played too much of a role in people’s lives, and that the deregulation he played a role in advancing after 1984 was the only answer. The State in New Zealand shares the views of Don Brash, who, as Reserve Bank Governor in 1988, is quoted in the book, claiming that New Zealand had reached a ‘sort of serfdom’ by 1984, a reference to Friedrich Hayek’s 1944 The Road to Serfdom, a bible for right-wing economic thought. The book shows evidence of deep archival research but the ideological imprint of the economic reforms Bassett himself took part in are clear. The book originated, Bassett tells us, from ‘a chance conversation I had in 1993 with Roger Kerr, Executive Director of the New Zealand Business Roundtable’ who agreed to ‘pay some of the expenses involved in the researching such a big project’.
Bassett, Goldsmith explained, “educated me in politics, put me in touch with people and set me on the political path – for better or worse.” The pair would go on to co-author a number of books, including The Myers, which culminates in the story of New Zealand businessman, then one of the country’s richest men, and vice-president then chair of the Business Roundtable, Douglas Myers.
Before entirely departing from the history of the 19th Century, Goldsmith told the story of the Ngāti Rongo chief, Te Hemara Tauhia. The Rise and Fall of Te Hemara Tauhia is a strange book and an outlier in Goldsmith’s focus on late 20th Century entrepreneurs and conservative politicians. The introduction soon makes the connection clear and presages Goldsmith’s comments on the curriculum: “Colonisation and in particular the establishment of the British legal system”, Goldsmith tells us, “brought life-changing opportunities for Te Hemara. It gave him the chance, provided he had the wit and courage, to drag himself back from a life of exile and fear to great success.”
Devoid of context, the book seeks to challenge “the myths of New Zealand history”, constantly points out the theme of “personal responsibility”, and even makes a few jabs at his previous employer, the Waitangi Tribunal. It was “inspired and generously supported” by Business Round Table member Alan Gibbs, who would become the subject of yet another of Goldsmith’s biography series: Serious Fun: The Life and Times of Alan Gibbs, a celebration of the “unofficial high priest of the New Right”.
Then there was the curious case of Brash: A Biography.
Goldsmith’s biography of Don Brash was released in 2005 just a year after then leader of National Party’s infamous Orewa Speech. Brash is, again, hagiography, a celebration of Brash’s life as a Reserve Bank Governor and his role in the 1980s and 1990s reforms then as politician. Brash, Goldsmith concludes, is a “true New Zealand patriot”.
What made the book controversial was the claim that it was “not commissioned by the National Party”. But journalist Nicky Hager later revealed that the book was in fact commissioned, and that it was one of the first big budget items of the 2005 election campaign, and – in Brash’s own words – “a significant marketing tool”. Historians are regularly commissioned to write books, but Goldsmith never declared that in his case. (Hager also claimed that Goldsmith and Bassett had played a role in reviewing drafts of the infamous Orewa speech.)
Goldsmith entered Parliament in 2011 to pursue the policies he celebrates in writing. In his maiden speech, Goldsmith made his view clear once again: in the post-Global Financial Crisis (GFC) world, we were living through “the end of an era [in which] … the big-spending welfaresStates are being forced to face reality”. Again, he celebrated the virtues of the post-1984 economic model, a model that in its global iteration many now credit with causing the indebtedness and global imbalances that helped create that financial crisis.
Then, echoing Brash, Goldsmith also warned against elevating “the importance of ethnicity in our political and legal arrangements” which threated a focus “on internal differences” – the 2011 equivalent of the warning against “identity politics”.
Goldsmith is entirely correct when he says we need economic history to understand our past. But it should be a history that gives a sober and critical account of the development of our economy rather than a celebratory story of entrepreneurs, business leaders and right-wing politicians. Goldsmith promotes a history that caricatures the post-war social democratic welfare state, ignores the inconvenient downsides of deregulation, and puts a spin on the continued legacy of the post-1984 reforms in our levels of poverty, wage stagnation and our punitive welfare system.
To Goldsmith’s question about how “we attained one of the highest living standards in the world”, we might also add: how did we go from attaining the highest standard of living in the world in the mid-twentieth century during the height of the welfare state, to being a deeply unequal society today? This is the subject of historical debate, to be sure, but a large part of the answer comes down to the economic reforms that Goldsmith so celebrates.
It’s also a version of history that says very little if anything about colonisation, despite the fact that the dispossession of Māori land and resources was and is a central development in the story of our economy, of how “we make a living” as a country and the how the imposition of the “rule of law” came about in the first place.
Goldsmith writes well and does his research; his books contain some fascinating details of important elements of our past. But the problem lies in his conclusions, which are always ideologically blinkered. It’s a history that plays down the violence and dispossession associated with colonisation and allows the political and policy elite to dominate the story of seemingly inevitable change. It is, at times, shameless boosterism for New Zealand’s rich and powerful.
Goldsmith’s history lessons are designed to lock in a policy agenda and narrow the possibilities for alternatives in the future, to naturalise our institutions and inequalities, such that it would be folly to try and change or interfere with them. That means playing down conflict in the past or inconvenient challenges to the status quo – or what Goldsmith might call “identity politics” – and calling for “balance”, often a euphemism for maintaining the self-serving version of the past that Goldsmith himself has played a role in writing.