HOW WOULD YOU set about unmaking a country? If you were in the same position as “Mr Phelps”, listening to a tape-recorded message at the beginning of every episode of the 1960s TV series Mission Impossible, and this was your appointed task, how would you do it?
The first question asked of your “Impossible Missions Force” is straightforward enough: “How old and how strong is this state?”
The answer supplied does not fill you with confidence that this mission will be easy.
“It’s not that old, but it’s pretty strong. In fact, it’s said to be the oldest continuously functioning democracy on earth. It was the first to enfranchise its indigenous people. The first to enfranchise its women. And among the first to enfranchise all of its men.”
Seeing your shoulders sag, another member of the team pipes up with the information that for many years the country was referred to as “the social laboratory of the world”. Its progressive legislation was admired and copied around the globe.
“Fantastic!” you exclaim. “I suppose the next thing you’ll tell me is that the place boasts a homogeneous population, is unblemished by extremes of wealth and poverty, guarantees every person a house and a job, along with health care and education, all provided free of charge by the state.”
You notice immediately that your team has brightened. With obvious relief, the same bright spark replies:
“Now, if you had asked that question 50 years ago, the answer to just about all of your questions would have been Yes. From the mid-1980s on, however, two crucial decisions have produced a profound series of changes in this nation. The first was the decision to open up its economy to the full force of globalisation by implementing a series of extremely radical neoliberal reforms. The second, much less well known, was to dramatically re-orient the country’s immigration policy. Rather than continue with a regime dedicated to preserving the ethnic and cultural status quo, the government of the day opted to transform the country into a multi-ethnic and multicultural society.”
“Brilliant!”, you exclaim – this time without the slightest trace of irony. “So more than half of our mission is already accomplished! Nothing beats neoliberalism for dissolving the bonds of community and leaving in their place a collection of selfish individuals. And nothing beats multiculturalism and the creation of isolated ethnic enclaves for fostering economic and cultural division.”
“It gets better”, another team member responds. “Just before the introduction of neoliberalism and multiculturalism, the indigenous people, whose lands were taken to provide the economic foundation for the colonial society which took off rapidly in the second half of the nineteenth century, embarked on a cultural and political renaissance, using as their battering-ram a hitherto ignored treaty negotiated more than a century earlier to facilitate the colonisation process.”
“Perfect!” You exclaim, slamming your right fist into the palm of your left hand. “And, let me guess, the left-wing intelligentsia bought the whole kit and caboodle?”
“Well, yes, that goes without saying,” says the bright spark. “What makes this country different, however, is that the anti-colonial ideology of the indigenous people has been taken up with bewildering speed by the judiciary, the civil service, the universities, large numbers of the country’s leading artists and writers, the news media, and most of the political class. The formerly moribund treaty is now officially recognised as the nation’s ‘founding document’ – guaranteeing ‘partnership’. A recent report, presented to the incumbent government by a collection of scholars, even goes so far as to recommend a revolutionary restructuring of the state. A new constitution of ‘co-governance’ is proposed, involving the indigenous people and the descendants of the original colonisers ruling together.”
You study the faces of your Impossible Missions Force.
“And the voters have simply gone along with this? Everybody in the country is just deliriously happy with the idea of sharing power with the people their ancestors conquered way back in the nineteenth century? Happy, too, presumably, to return all the land and resources they stole to construct – what did you call it? – ‘the social laboratory of the world’?”
“Actually,” murmurs the bright spark, “the elites’ grand plan hasn’t been publicly disclosed yet.”
“Jeez!”, you exclaim. “This mission just went from being ‘impossible’ to a walk-in-the-park! All we have to do is tell them!”
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 27 August 2021.