Friday 25 November 2011

Farewell To Old New Zealand?

Dreams Of Old New Zealand: A glimpse of the curving North Otago shoreline and a swathe of bright blue sky

LAST NIGHT I dreamed of Oamaru. I was born there 55 years ago in the big public hospital which overlooked the little seaside town. In those days, public hospitals were almost always built on hilltops. Set there by the State, they quite literally “watched over” the citizenry they were erected to serve. It was reassuring.

Why was I dreaming of Oamaru? I’d like to think it was because, on the eve of the 2011 General Election, I was reaching back into my past for answers about the present, and the future, of my country. That, at some point in the dream, someone would step forward and answer all the questions my conscious mind has been asking me since the campaign began.

But the unconscious doesn’t work like that, does it?

In my dream the person with the answers was me. A hall-full of people was waiting for Chris Trotter to get up and sing. But he couldn’t sing. His guitar had no strings, and he had forgotten all the words to his songs.

I looked down at the audience from the stage. All the faces were friendly, expectant and curiously familiar. The big doors at the end of the hall stood open, framing a glimpse of the curving North Otago shoreline and a swathe of bright blue sky. Then somebody shut the doors; the audience fell silent; and I woke up.

Except it won’t be a dream from which we wake on Sunday morning; it’ll be a brand new political reality to which we open our eyes. And unless I’m very much mistaken, the most important aspect of this new reality will be how few points of connection it has with our nation’s past. Old New Zealanders, like me, will feel like those people left standing on the quay when a big passenger liner pulls away. One by one the paper streamers connecting us to the departing world will snap. The ship will sail away and we’ll be left behind.

The people on board the ship will breathe a huge sigh of relief. For the past three years they have grown increasingly impatient with Old New Zealand and its passé traditions. They know that the egalitarian values it persists in celebrating have no currency in their brave new world.

A brutal and unreflective fatalism defines these New New Zealanders. For those lucky enough to be born to the right parents, life is good. Is it their fault they’re lucky? Losers’ children (with the right sort of genes) will scrabble and claw their way out of whatever hell-hole they’re born into – and why not? No one’s going to condemn them for the crimes they commit getting out and climbing up. The consideration of others is a choice people make – usually at their own expense. The only real crime is getting caught.

It’s why the Captain of this happy little ship, John Key, is so incredibly popular among passengers and crew alike. He epitomises the strategies for success they long to emulate. Mixing sunny smiles and cheery waves with the most ruthless and unforgiving displays of political management. His enemies called him “the smiling assassin” – never understanding that his friends have come to admire both the killings, and the “aw-shucks” grin that accompanies them, in equal measure.

The most frightening thing about the new ship of state is the number of people who have scrambled aboard for no better reason than the proximity of wealth and power. Even in the bowels of steerage their excitement remains undimmed. They can feel the beat of the band through the ship’s bulkheads, and smell the champagne and caviar wafting through the ventilation shafts. They have no idea that their real purpose is to satisfy the First Class passengers’ pathological appetite for social torture. That, in the neoliberal theatre of pain, the flesh of the poor is the ultimate prop, and their suffering the only acceptable tribute. Not even their children will be spared.

Perhaps that’s why I awoke so suddenly from my dream. Perhaps the closing of the doors was the signal that it was about to descend into nightmare.

And I'm left wondering: is my use of the departing ship metaphor ill-judged? Is it really possible for us Old New Zealanders to avoid embarking alongside the New on Mr Key’s voyage of the damned? Aren’t we all aboard that ship? All inescapably bound to its fate? Aren’t those paper streamers attached to the world we are leaving behind? Isn’t the moment of their breaking also the moment we must bid farewell forever to Old New Zealand?

I don’t believe it is. Neoliberal values are like those plates African tribeswomen insert in their lower-lips. They are alien to the true shape of humanity and are only accommodated by constant application and severe distortion. Once accomplished, however, the effect is much admired by those who have already endured the process. And those who have not are, naturally, despised.

But we plate-less ones at least retain the natural shape of our humanity and inhabit a world in which it is still possible to whistle to, smile at, and kiss one another. In this sense, we Old New Zealanders have indeed been spared the horrors of Captain Key’s voyage.

I dreamed last night of Oamaru and awoke fearing the onset of nightmare. But it need not be so. For hasn’t Oamaru become the capital of that strange art-form known a “steam-punk”? Past and future can be merged to create a potent new hybrid of magic and science. Old songs can find new singers, and old guitars new strings. And, if we all try hard enough to remember, perhaps, in time, the right words will come back to us.

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.


Nick said...

Beautiful Chris, the viciousness of your prose to the neo liberal creed is a perfect mirror of their credo. Fortunately, unlike them you have a heart. Sometimes the picture painted reflects the cruel reality, your portrayal is so accurate.

Duval said...

Does that make John Banks Gilligan? Perhaps Hone is Sinbad and Winston is Popeye.

As for the aspirational poor who have clamoured aboard to feel closer to wealth simply by proximity. Their fate is set when the good ship National hits the iceberg and they find out like their Titanic fairing counterparts that the life rafts are few and reserved for the wealthy... don't hold your breath for Capitan Key to go down with the ship. His life raft is pre-booked with a one-way ticket to the fatefully named Waikiki... don't forget to smile and wave!

Anonymous said...

Nice post Chris.

I'm afraid you are right, but there is nothing that can be done about it. In the end, even democracy cannot change the shape of history. Large scale human societies continually regress to the norm of an elite and it's lackeys dominating the rest. It has always been so and will be so until our species ends. We are now regressing to the norm - here's hoping it does not swing too far this time. Count yourself lucky that you lived to experience better times, and that you aren't a Greek, Italian or Spaniard for others are going to feel the consequences of the crunch much more than us.

If you want to do something affirmative, just pack in politics. It's a hopeless cause and the trajectory of politics in the last 40 years shows that you have wasted a lot of time.

Life has many joys for the apolitical. Still, if you get paid for writing about it, that is an upside.

Rachel Carley said...

Thank-you for your post Mr Trotter. I thought you might find the quote below resonant. It is taken from a paper entitled "The Case Against Perfection" by Michael Sandel,a Harvard law lecturer. It was sent to me by my husband in anticipation of election day.

“Why, after all, do the successful owe anything to the least-advantaged members of society? The best answer to this question leans heavily on the notion of giftedness. The natural talents that enable the successful to flourish are not their own doing but, rather, their good fortune—a result of the genetic lottery. If our genetic endowments are gifts, rather than achievements for which we can claim credit, it is a mistake and a conceit to assume that we are entitled to the full measure of the bounty they reap in a market economy. We therefore have an obligation to share this bounty with those who, through no fault of their own, lack comparable gifts.”

If only more people were in agreement.

Anonymous said...

Exquisite, Chris. Sleep soundly, son, for those diamond words can never be destroyed.

Listen closely: they murmer now from every corner of the globe, through the steam-punk contraption in every youth's hand and in the labour-lite flesh of even the beast.

And the murmer becomes a growl: as Nature culls her petty cancers with relentless, ruthless, progression.

Patience, brother. The final ACT approaches. Re-string your soul and keep playing your salubrious airs; balm to our ears, fuel to our resolve.


Mark Wilson said...

As a member of the terrifying, greedy, vicious, inhumane, all round bad species of "neoliberal" I really like the quote from Michael Sandel and only a fool would not agree with his thesis.
The debate surely is how to best look after the least successful.
That is the real question. Since the expontential growth of the benefit class from the 1960s we have thrown increasing amounts of money and effort and have created a larger and larger underclass. The left's prescription hasn't worked!How much evidence is needed before they accept that intergenerational
benefit dependency is killing the people who they are trying to help. And that in the current global financial crises there is no money left. And who did more damage to the world economy - the morons on the right who invented insane financial instruments or the morons on the left who spent money like there was no need to ever pay it back - see Greece, Spain, Italy, etc etc?
All the parties on the left in NZ are now committed to throwing billions more at the less well off in the form of a massive increase in support for those on a benefit. Will it work - yes if the plan is to make sure that the recipients make every effort to stay on a benefit. That's worked well for them over the last 50 years!.
The Greens latest policies have been costed at $26 billion and rising. Bankrupting NZ would help the poor how?

It is futile and facile to suggest that the right is made up of uncaring monsters who hate the poor. We just say that the emperor has no clothes.
Society is moving irrevocably to a position where more and more of the population will become unable to keep up with the rate of change and the intellectual and educational requirements to compete will become tougher and tougher. And the right is tougher than the left. Because operating in the real world and creating wealth for the left to waste does that to you. And it breaks our heart to see it wasted.

Chris you were absolutely right when you said on Stratos that if the left do win there will be a capital flight from NZ that will dwarf what happened when the lunatic Muldoon was in charge. And to those who would criticise that I say please justify your criticism by setting fire to your money first.

The fact is that the only way to genuinely help the poor is to make EVERYONE work (to the best of their ability). That means that yes we will have to create work especially now that the private sector has completely and justifyingly lost faith in the lower classes to function in a work environment (that's what happens after 50 years of benefit waste).
And yes it will be terribly expensive for us poor wealth creators. So what else is new?
What we have done for the poor and stupid over the last 50 years has not worked. Even if you are dumb enough to think that wasting even more money will change things I have a news flash - there is no more money left!
The left has to come up with a new plan that involves less money and better results. It is the left who have created the underclass, not the right.

Anonymous said...

Hopefully tonight you will dream about weeding the garden

larry of puhoi said...

The classic confrontation of rea'l politics Chris! (BTW superb writing, pity about the gloom-laden retrospective-nostalgia but!) The polls reflect the peoples will, not any of our/your personal reminicinces eh? And so what is the "classic" (above) part? It is ... DA DA ... individual initiative! verses nanny state! but note, our social fabric nestles in the best lil country in the world and all is supported by the best lil people-state funded health and welfare system in the world. Seems fair does it not? As for your views of Quote: privilige being confined to a NZ' ers birthright" Spare me! ... what prejudice. And what a tired ol bleeding heart liberal and totally devalued stance that is? Ever heard of Auckland Grammar/University or observed the proportion of brown skins in the AB's and on the floor of the House of Representatives? And BTW ol' fossil, Oamaru is a nostalgaic and charming town ... that time has passed by. Ring a bell? In 10 hours we will know what the power of the people delivers. So get over it Chris its called democracy whatever our/your views.

Larry of Puhoi

Peter Wilson said...

How lovely to read about Oamaru and its surrounds. I was born in Waimate on July 11, 1984 (a date which makes me an "Old New Zealander" by your definition), down the road from the Norman Kirk Memorial Swimming Baths, and then subsequently moved to Oamaru for 8 years, and then finally Dunedin. And try as I might, I can't leave.

There is a real democratic socialist heartbeat to this part of the country, and yes, it doesn't just apply to older New Zealanders. To spend time down here, whether in a political party, or in any one of the numerous long standing volunteer organisations or clubs, educates you in that.

So, I think there is always hope that the egalitarian values of your older New Zealand will continue to be handed down, and acted upon. It may only be a committed few who make it their life's mission, but in New Zealand, as we all know, a few can make a big difference.

Michael said...

Nice lyrics, Chris.

Richard said...

From afar in Australiaand a decade after moving west I scarcely recognise the NZ of Key and Co. Shrinking the State and sorting out all in the populace who do not "contribute". But I do not agree that it is inevitable hat the egalitarian values will wither, the plain fact is National tighting the screws at the expense of all but the nobs has its limits. Key presents as the Captain who is going to pull the rabbit out of the hat with a band playing on the ships dance- floor- but there is no rabbit...

In fact the safety valve that has kept the pressure off Key & Co is no longer working -heading off to get a job in Australia is over. And from this the reality might shortly be a re-run of the events of 1932 and 1933 as the positions of "the elite" and the rest polarise. So old New Zealand might return.

Anonymous said...

Get a life Chris, we went to bed with a publicly funded everything and we woke up with a publicly funded everything.

Concentrate your ramblings on saving the labour party from further sectarian blood letting.

Scouser said...

And here was I thinking NZers made a simple and pragmatic decision

Traditionally right of centre parties spend less - left of centre spend more

We're skint thus try and spend and borrow less

cue irony ->
nice to know it was all about abandoning our fellow NZers because so many people are just so evil

Victior said...


As you should know from the history of Scouseland and surrounding districts, governments that spend less in depressed economic circumstances, stifle their countries' economies and make people progressively poorer.

What do you think happened to your native city during the 1930s?

Predictably John Key has made much of recent days out of Germany's bond failure and the alleged consequent pitfalls of over-spending.

Just remember, though, that Germany's government debt to GDP ratio is more than twice as bad as ours. So we have some leeway.

In other words, government debt, whilst an issue of importance, should not be the be all and end all of policy debate, as it is now becoming.

Anonymous said...

Great Words Chris.

Labour is not ever going to get traction until they go back to their grass-roots support and return to being the Party that supports the ordinary Working Person not the party of Middle Class Academics. They have lost their way.

Goff was never the one to lead them as he still is a Douglas Accolite and people remember that.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Mark Wilson. Shock, horror - I am a National voter, Chris, and I will bet that I donate more each year to various causes (Cancer society, school-building in Afghanistan) than you do.
Being rightwing doesn't automatically translate to "bad", and being leftwing doesn't translate to "good" - or, I might say, *intelligent*.

This is the real world, Chris. You can NOT "legislate away" poverty.

Do you remember the old saying - "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." Remember that?
Labour is the "give a man a fish" party, and I KNOW that you are intelligent enough to realise that that does NOT work. All it does is make the guy dependent on fish-givers (welfare).

The answers are education and hard work, Chris. There are NO shortcuts. There are NO guarantees, and no-one is owed a living.

National is moving to get those on the DPB and sickness benefits into work. Is that "cruel", Chris, or is it actually kind?
I see it as KINDER than leaving those people to rot on the benefit (which is what Labour would do, and you know it).

Dion said...

> they are alien to the true shape of humanity....

Chris, I hope I've misunderstood you here.

Peoples' political views are the result of how they've been brought up and lived their lives - it's not that left wing views are the natural "shape" of humanity.

However, I must say that I really do enjoy your writing style - I couldn't say that about too many lefties :-)

V said...

Did you also dream about the giardia infested water supply Oamaru used to have and the local council that refused to do anything about?

Brendan McNeill said...

Nostalgia has its place for sure.

However, growing up in the 1950's meant being subjected to foot powered dentist drills, warm school milk, the strap, and an infant mortality rate many times what they are in New Zealand today.

I thought it was only the right who dreamed of a 'golden age' that never really existed? You know, when people refused to go on the dole, because they didn't want to bludge off their mates, when we didn't need to lock our doors, or our cars, and a man's word was his bond.

Times of course do change.

Mark Wilson's analysis of the impact of 50 years of left inspired welfarism is instructive.

No system of politics is perfect. There are unforeseen and unintended consequences in all public policy settings, however we have now seen enough of the western world's welfare experiment to draw reasonable conclusions.

Let's see if National, along with the Maori Party, can address this question to the benefit of all New Zealanders.

H Stewart said...

Actually we lost the battle but won the war for old New Zealand version II last night as some of the less smug and loony right wing bloggers are starting to realise.

Today National led governments joined the list of endangered species.

The best result we could have hoped for was a minority national government and we nearly got that.

TM said...

Nice prose. But a bit negative.

The left got over 40% of the vote.

Over 25% of voters didn't vote, and I suspect most of them were Labour supporters disallusioned with the disharmony in the party.

That means the National coalition will rule with the support of about 37% of the eligible voters.

Hardly everyone abandoning the Old Ways.

Just wait until 2014 when there will be a backlash against this term's policies. Hopefully Labour will be in some condition to take advantage of it, otherwise I hope the Greens will move even further to the centre.

FreshyNZ said...

I'm not an Old New Zealander, but a New Zealand born Pacific Islander... But I'd probably be waving farewell to JK's ship too, but mourning that so many of my people are those working the engine rooms of the ship - "and smell the champagne and caviar wafting through the ventilation shafts".

Olwyn said...

I had a look at the 2008 result last night, and there appears to me to be little or no left-to-right shift. National has gone from 45-48% which is roughly explained by the collapse of the ACT vote.

Labour has gone down a significant 7%, while the Greens have gone up about 4% & NZ first 2.7%. Meanwhile Mana, who has just appeared, got 1%.

While the Greens have done well in gaining middle-class support, their polling, along with NZ first's, includes some tactical voting on the part of those who thought Labour didn't have a hope in hell.

National's strategy was successful in depriving Labour of oxygen for the better part of 3 years, and then having a shortened campaign period whereby Phil would have less time to gain traction, and the Key myth would have less chance of coming undone.

The most significant aspect of this election is the number who did not vote, many of whom may well have been put off voting by the conviction that Labour was dead in the water.

So we have a National government, two by-elections away from being in snooker, constituted of the highest party vote percentage since 1951 out of the lowest turnout since 1888.

All of this leads me to think that old NZ is not dead, it has just been out-shouted. The rise of NZ first, sans financial backing and media oxygen, can perhaps give the rest of us hope. Even if we reject Winston's politics he has shown this to be possible. And with a bit of luck he will find a skeleton or two to rattle in the National party closet.

Victor said...


I don't regard neo-liberal values, or any other values, as alien to the true shape of humanity.

They are human constructs and therefore limited and sometimes otiose. My wife, quite sensibly, prefers cats.

But the crucial point about neo- liberals is that they are profoundly wrong about the very source of their values, viz. economics.

Anonymous said...

@Mark Wilson

"We just say that the emperor has no clothes.
Society is moving irrevocably to a position where more and more of the population will become unable to keep up with the rate of change and the intellectual and educational requirements to compete will become tougher and tougher. And the right is tougher than the left."

"Society" has not moved irrevocably anywhere. Much of the change in the last 40 years was the result of political decisions made by elites and to a lesser extent the voting public. To say otherwise is to deliberately ignore the sheer variety of ways in which different countries have organised their political settlements in response to late capitalism. Some countries (e.g. Canada; Australia) have made mostly good decisions. Others, such as New Zealand, have made poor decisions.

The Scandinavian social democracies are well to the "left" of New Zealand, yet manage to preserve a relatively egalitarian and prosperous society. No amount of right wing moaning has been able to explain that away (I used to save articles predicting the imminent and final collapse of these welfare states, but there are now decades worth of them and it gets boring after the first few years).

What happened to New Zealand was not inevitable, nor was the credit crunch, no matter what the Marxists say.

What happened to New Zealand is that it has a feral, ignorant population, whose instinct is to try to get something for nothing and to rapturously believe every snake oil salesman who promises them that this will happen. John Key is, in essence, just the CEO of another failing finance company.

In the end, we're just dumb and faddish – a lethal combination.

Anonymous said...

"Traditionally right of centre parties spend less - left of centre spend more

We're skint thus try and spend and borrow less."

Wrong. ROC parties tend to tax less than LOC parties. As the libertarians (who I don't normally agree with) continue to point out, the right wing parties keep spending in the vague hope that government will have to be cut back at some time in the future, but never actually do it.

The existence of a NZ share of the plutonomy demonstrates that "we" are not skint.

Victor said...


You are, as per normal, quite correct.

However, the election result does pose a significant challenge for the Left, as there are now four separate parties broadly representing it in parliament.

A battle of the brands to the Left could keep the Right in power for a few more terms, beyond their current (and likely to be short-lived)electoral zenith.

This is not , to my mind, a welcome development, albeit that Winston Redux is a strangely comforting phenomenon.

Anonymous said...

Hi Chris.
I would like to know your views on this.
It is possible that the government may set aside a portion of each asset-sale (maybe 20% or so) to go to the iwi.
I see this as a very positive thing - a hand-up for the iwi, not a handout.
Would you agree that doing such a thing for the iwi would be positive?
If not, why not?

Anonymous said...

>>>the highest party vote >>>percentage since 1951

Only for National (and it's likely to drop below 1990 and 1975 when specials come in). Labour got 48.0% in 1987.

Mark Wilson said...

Anonymous and your comments re the Scandinavian countries - bad choice as an example of left wing success -their success is not built on their economic policies but purely because of their homogeneous population and their racist immigration policies. If you exclude Maori and Pacific from all NZ social statistics we outperform the Scandinavians everytime. Any country such as Japan, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland etc who have a single culture and race and maintain them by restricting immigration have always done better than multicultural countries. Which is why Merkel, Sarkosy and Cameron say multiculturism has failed.
Turning our back on multiculturism is not an option for NZ but given Turia's regular comments that Maori and Pacific people have been permanently damaged by being colonized we have to come up with way better options than the country has used over the last 50 years and which are proven failures.
The problem for the left is that there is no money for them to propose we spend even more on failed policies.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful words Chris. As an even older Old NZer I take considerable heart from the fact that there are still wonderfully intelligent, caring and realistic writers and commentators like you out there who encourage me to believe all in not lost.

Olwyn said...

@Victor: I agree with you, especially since the right's present strategy seems to involve attempting to co-opt the Greens while convincing the public that Labour is a spent force. Meanwhile they seem to be nurturing a replacement satellite for the dying ACT in the form of the Conservative Party.

However, the fact that the left's vote has been reshuffled rather than collapsed means that the population has not been entirely won over by the neo-liberal dream.
Labour may need to take a leaf from Winston's book and rebuild support in the old-fashioned way, rather than putting their best face forward and waiting for the media to take a shine to them.

Anonymous said...

Hi Chris, it seems your dreams were heard; are you sure you didn't miss the bit in the dream of Winston on a white horse for his last stand (albeit slightly tarnished armour...) Who knew ? Regards, Robbie