WE ARE IN the early stages of a revolution - much like the one New Zealand went through in the 1980s. Traditional leftists will, of course, object that “Rogernomics” was not a revolution. Others will insist that what New Zealanders actually experienced in 1984 was a “bureaucratic coup d’état”. Some will even claim that between 1984 and 1993 this country underwent a “counter-revolution” against the radical economic and social changes that characterised the thirty extraordinary years between the end of World War II and the mid-1970s.
Revolution, at least for me, isn’t about ideology, it’s about how decisively the revolutionaries are willing to break with the doctrines and institutions of the existing order, and how successful they are at replacing them.
By this definition, Rogernomics definitely qualifies as a revolution – albeit a revolution undertaken from the top down. Before the revolution New Zealand was an unabashedly social-democratic country. The state owned a substantial chunk of the economy and the workforce was heavily unionised. Economic regulation was heavy-handed and the domestic market heavily protected. New Zealand’s welfare state guaranteed the overwhelming majority of its citizens a job, a home, healthcare, education and generous financial support in times of adversity.
After the Rogernomics Revolution, New Zealand’s economy was proudly market-driven. State-owned enterprises were privatised and the unions reduced to a shadow of their former strength. Regulation became so light-handed that many businesses simply ignored it altogether. The domestic market welcomed the merchandise of the whole world. New Zealand’s welfare state had been (to use the language of the new regime) “downsized”.
What’s more, these changes stuck. Regardless of whether National or Labour occupied the Treasury Benches, the doctrines and institutions of the Rogernomics Revolution remained firmly in place.
In many respects, Rogernomics resembled that other great “top-down revolution” – the English Reformation. It was King Henry VIII who ploughed under the old feudal order and replaced it with a new, recognisably modern, approach to governance. His separation of the English church from Rome raises thoughts of Brexit; and his ruthless dissolution of the monasteries may count as History’s first great privatisation programme. What’s more, the King’s changes “stuck”. In spite of her best efforts, Henry’s daughter, “Bloody Mary”, could not reverse her father’s transformation of English society.
If Rogernomics represented a revolution in the way New Zealand’s economy and society was run, what may end up being called the “He Puapua Revolution” will thoroughly reshape New Zealand’s constitutional and political institutions and decisively reconfigure its culture. Like Rogernomics, He Puapua’s will be a top-down revolution: conceived and implemented by political and bureaucratic elites – with encouragement from the country’s most innovative and dynamic economic actors.
The He Puapua Revolution, like most revolutions, will be made possible by the glaring failures of the system it promises to replace. The New Zealand state, born of this nation’s colonial past, has consistently failed to serve the interests of Maori. Even when it became obvious that the country’s indigenous population was not going to disappear quietly into history, the sort of political and cultural concessions so clearly required to construct a bi-cultural nation failed to eventuate. If New Zealand is to have a peaceful and prosperous future, however, these long-delayed concessions must be made. Pakeha New Zealanders simply have no choice: the colonial state no longer possesses the power to deny Maori the co-governance they seek – except by ripping New Zealand apart.
Unsurprisingly, it was among the people charged with running the New Zealand state that this impasse first became apparent. Among its senior judges; its more perspicacious bureaucrats; its shrewdest politicians. All of them informed, it must be acknowledged, by its most radical academics. These latter, naturally, passed their insights down to their best and brightest students.
Thus was the doctrine of “Treaty Partnership” born. Thus was the “Treaty Settlement Process” launched. Thus emerged the successful iwi corporates and their dynamic business and political protégés. Thus began the necessary process of building up an ideological cadre capable of making the revolution a reality. Assembling patiently the sort of talent responsible for conceiving the revolutionary constitutional transformations set forth with such disarming candour in the He Puapua Report.
Are people marching in the street for He Puapua’s revolutionary changes? Of course not. The street demonstrations will only assemble, with ever-increasing determination, if the He Puapua Revolution fails.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 14 May 2021.