Opinion: National Party Leader Christopher Luxon struck a nerve when he told a Helensville farmer New Zealand had become a “very negative, wet, whiny, inward-looking country”. Many inferred he was describing the country under the Ardern and Hipkins governments, and took umbrage accordingly.
As Prime Minister Chris Hipkins pointed out, albeit snidely, it is never good form for political leaders to attack their own country, especially in election year. Though Luxon was undoubtedly trying to score a quick political point at the Government’s expense, without realising his comment had been recorded and would be broadcast widely, he was also inadvertently describing what has been a trend over the past couple of decades. Although the insularity engendered by our response to the Covid-19 pandemic has intensified aspects of our growing introversion, the reasons for it lie far deeper.
In the 1960s, before it was clear Britain was intent on joining the European Economic Community at the expense of our guaranteed market for sheep and dairy products, New Zealand had little reason to be too concerned about what was happening in the rest of the world. Post-war life was too good here to be that bothered. But the EEC shock, followed by the American request to send troops to a far-off place called South Vietnam, changed all that. Although the Pentagon Papers showed New Zealand’s reluctance to become involved, Prime Minister Keith Holyoake grudgingly agreed, amid strong domestic protests, to send a small contingent to South Vietnam in 1965.
The upshot was a new political and social focus on New Zealand’s place in the world, and the desirability of an independent foreign policy based around New Zealand’s best interests. As Opposition leader Norman Kirk said in 1966 it was time to move on from having “American policy announced in Wellington with a New Zealand accent”.
An inevitable consequence of such introversion in a small, isolated country is an excessive focus on our domestic situation to the near exclusion of anything else
By the 1970s New Zealand was becoming more outspoken, sending a frigate to Mururoa Atoll to protest against France’s continued atmospheric nuclear testing in the South Pacific, and successfully taking its case to the World Court. New economic opportunities in Europe, Asia and Africa were pursued to replace the previous reliance on Britain.
In the 1980s and most of the 1990s, New Zealand continued to become a more open and diverse society, first through the Māori renaissance from the 1980s and then a more expansive immigration policy from the 1990s. New Zealanders started to become more prominent in international affairs – at one stage in the early 2000s both the World Trade Organisation and the Commonwealth Secretariat were led by New Zealanders. From the early 1990s, New Zealanders began to feature regularly and strongly in other areas – including winning Oscars at the Academy Awards, and the America’s Cup.
The first signs of emerging introversion came with the Asian financial crisis in 1997 which dented confidence and highlighted how vulnerable our dynamic, open but small economy was to international shocks. The Global Financial Crisis in 2008 reinforced that. The advent of Avian flu in 2010, and most dramatically Covid-19 in 2020, expanded our exposure to international threats far beyond just the economic sphere, and brought home the importance of keeping our country as free as possible from the spread of these viruses.
Though this was a huge global crisis, there were times when one could have been forgiven for thinking New Zealand was the only country facing Covid-19 and the only one taking dramatic steps to deal with it
Alongside these economic and health uncertainties and the attendant greater focus on the domestic environment, there has been a generally unrecognisable but nonetheless steady withdrawal from international engagement in other areas as well. Major broadcast and print media outlets have cut back substantially or abandoned basing New Zealand correspondents in major international centres. (TVNZ and TV3 now have New Zealand correspondents in London, Washington DC and Sydney only, and Radio New Zealand gave up using New Zealand correspondents abroad about 20 years ago.)
The upshot is that much of our international news is now supplied directly from overseas networks or “stringers” with little direct relevance to the things New Zealanders are likely to be interested in. Local television news is dominated by trivial stories, so long as there are pictures to accompany them, and with one or two exceptions, current affairs broadcasting has almost ceased to be.
An inevitable consequence of such introversion in a small, isolated country is an excessive focus on our domestic situation to the near exclusion of anything else. This was shown most starkly during the pandemic. Though this was a huge global crisis, there were times when one could have been forgiven for thinking New Zealand was the only country facing Covid-19 and the only one taking dramatic steps to deal with it.
Like Sir John Key, who complained New Zealand was becoming a “smug hermit kingdom”, Luxon is right when he says we have become more inward-looking. But it is simplistic to lay responsibility for that on any particular government, or to suggest politicians alone can overcome that.
There is no doubt we need to become more optimistic and confident as a nation – the glass half-full approach of our Australian neighbours would be a good example to follow. But it is going to take much more than a change of government to achieve that. Somehow, we need to recreate the spirit of almost naïve optimism that spurred us on from the 1970s to the 1990s, but which we seemed to have lost subsequently.
Positive political leadership is certainly part of that. However, that needs to be accompanied by other community and business leaders promoting and encouraging national and individual opportunity, rather than constantly grumbling about what they see as wrong and what more the government should be doing to help them. People respond to what their leaders are saying – if that message is persistently “negative, wet and whiny”, it is not surprising the public mood is likewise.
To turn that around, a message akin to President John F Kennedy’s famous invocation “ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country” is surely in order.