Age of

A journey through NZ with David Fisher

David Fisher and videographer Mark Mitchell spent almost a month driving round New Zealand in a campervan. Their mission: to find out what it means to be a New Zealander.



Dear New Zealand...

The winter sun rises over Bluff at 8.33am, an unexpected warmth spreading with a brightening, blue sky.

Our search for identity begins here, 2081km from Cape Reinga by State Highway 1. In the end, it takes more than 6000km in a campervan. What I find is that, right now, we are a fundamentally decent people.

To travel New Zealand is to plunge through 100 different worlds – but there are common themes that unite us. Auckland and its rising property prices loom over the entire country; immigration and multiculturalism touches almost every corner; Wellington’s bureaucracy rules and frustrates; there’s rugby, of course, from the paddocks to the stadiums; homelessness shook us to the core because we care deeply; we’re proud; and we still dare to dream.

But these are only unifying strands. They link us but they don’t define us.

Because I don’t really think we know who we are today. The reason is that many of the national myths to which we have clung are no longer relevant in the way they once were, and I think we know that.

Let me explain. There were times in years gone by when we had confidence in our national identity. We saw ourselves as a nation of equals, albeit using a monocultural vision to justify our egalitarianism as one enshrined in our founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi.

Early settlers were lured here with the promise of “a fairer Britain of the South Seas” — a nation where your worth was in what you contributed, not the blood in your veins.

Our self-image was framed by farming, largely sheep. It was an industry which drove the country’s fortunes from the provinces. Those communities were bonded by rugby, which wrote a story of how we “punch above our weight” on the world stage.

Significant individual achievements like that of Tuakau beekeeper Sir Edmund Hillary underscored not only our extraordinary abilities, but also that we could apply them to opportunities open to any of us.

In 1972, soon-to-be British Labour MP Austin Mitchell, wrote The Half-Gallon Quarter-Acre Pavlova Paradise, a book which described us as an internationally provincial wonderland of equals.

The nation described by Mitchell, who worked as a university lecturer here for almost a decade, was one in which a boy could grow up in a state house and rise to be its multi-millionaire Prime Minister. The “Quarter-Acre” described a country in which every New Zealander could expect as birthright that plot of land on which to build their home and hopes.

In winter 2016, I found a nation comforted by these stereotypes, yet distant from them too.

There are lots of Aucklands, there are lots of New Zealands.

Dr Mike Stevens, of Bluff, at Otago University

Dr Mike Stevens, who studies communities at the University of Otago, one of the places Mitchell taught, doesn’t believe in nationhood.

“National identity at its least offensive is lowest common denominator,” he says.

“At its worst it’s nationalistic, chauvinistic with suspicion of others. I’m deeply sceptical of the nation as a unit.

“People in Auckland don’t think about Bluff. People in Bluff don’t think about Auckland. People think about intensely local issues ... or big, big things (on a global scale).

“There are lots of New Zealands. This is the problem with ‘the nation’. It effaces the local to force you to think of something big but puts up boundaries to so you can’t see the global. It’s a no-man’s-space.”

I went searching for that space.

It’s easy to see New Zealand as little more than distinct, individual community nations when driving the road to Middlemarch.

The campervan is nothing more than a speck of white crawling along a black ribbon of road casually thrown across Otago’s vast landscape.

It's very hard to put a fair view over of rural New Zealand, especially when it comes to environment, rivers, and things like that.

Sheep farmer Callum Wilson, Otago

Sheep farmer Callum Wilson also talks of different New Zealands. City kids don’t know farms like they used to, he says. Rural and urban New Zealand have crept apart to the point where the country is forgotten to those in the city. Politicians follow the people and the provinces fade from sight.

Queenstown itself is a tale of an isolated community. It has become, particularly in recent years, an exclusive resort town to which skifield workers are bussed in from Cromwell, 45 minutes away. Property values have spiralled beyond the reach of most.

Business owners talk of building dormitory style accommodation for staff while homeowners thank Airbnb for turning them into landlords for tourists.

It is teetering on the edge of becoming New Zealand’s Aspen, the most expensive place in the US to buy property and location of one of Prime Minister John Key’s property investments.

We head for the coast, through Haast Pass and an apricot-coloured sunset which fills the valleys approaching the wide emptiness of the West Coast.

At Jackson Bay, the southernmost settlement on the West Coast, crayfisherman Shane Metcalf’s isolation is posing an immediate concern. The sea is threatening to wash away land at the edge of his property and those of his neighbours.

The local council won’t contemplate a sea wall at $2.5m. Everything which carries a cost, it seems, must have a return of equal or greater tangible value.

This was a question for the entire trip — what value a home beyond financial?

On we go, up the West Coast. There are whitebait fritters, glaciers, mountains, roaring rivers and the occasional drop of rain. Hokitika has reinvented itself with the brilliance of Eleanor Catton — the same sort of weird validation Arthur’s Pass enjoyed as a result of the Lord of the Rings films.

Through Christchurch, a city reinventing itself around the scars it still carries, we head for Kaikoura and then Nelson and across Cook Strait to Wellington.

There I met Ben Bridgman, 18, who had just finished his first-year law exams. “Words matter in Wellington,” he says, pondering the word that for him sums up being a New Zealander.

He’s right — it’s a city of bureaucrats, journalists, lawyers and politicians. Travelling north, there has been genuine frustration with Wellington and its rules.

But we needed those rules. In 1976 we had 3.1 million people. Our GDP was $13.5 billion. In 2016, we have 4.4m and a GDP of $186b. The two great disasters this decade, Pike River and Christchurch, saw large numbers of people die because rules were not followed. Our health and safety statistics are terrible compared to other Western nations.

Rules also meant a true equality — one where each gender is free as the other to be what they will. Former Black Ferns captain Farah Palmer amazed me with her equanimity over equality in rugby. She was winning World Cups before Richie McCaw pulled on a black jersey, just with less noise about it. No disrespect to Richie, but Farah’s the role model I want for my daughters.

We talked rugby, and the separation between the game the All Blacks play and the game played by 109,000 other people. Such is the distance between club rugby and the international game, they could be two different sports.

I don't think people would outwardly laugh at women playing rugby these days. But in those days that was considered okay.

Former Black Ferns captain Farah Palmer

Those heartland myths dissolve as the kilometres roll by. We pass a string of abandoned cheese factories, rural relics of the days when milk was carted about in cream cans and farming connected rural communities to those in the city. Technology centralised dairy and Fonterra made it big business. Sheep yards stand empty in many places, the ground nearby churned to mush by dairy cows even as the promise of Fonterra is challenged by world markets.

We made a company which manufactured ingredients instead of products, Sir Graeme Avery told us. Sir Graeme, business leader and innovator supreme, met us in his Soleni vineyard in Hawke’s Bay, telling us how concerned he was about a coordinated lack of leadership in the provinces.

Today, common sense is the hardest thing to find in people.

Sir Graeme Avery, President of Sileni Estate

Change in the provinces is marked in many ways. Taihape, that gumboot-throwing heartland of rural New Zealand, is also altered from when I lived there as a boy. The town now has a mosque, care of police officer Constable Saifudin Abu who moved from Singapore. Very welcoming, he says of the town.

Later that night, one resident confides her daughter’s concerns that the Muslim migrant might blow something up. “Don’t be silly,” she told her daughter. Everybody in this land came from somewhere, and few had a seamless arrival.

Some things don’t change. New Plymouth mayor Andrew Judd marched a three-day “peace hikoi” to Parihaka after the town’s reaction to his desire for Māori representation on its council. He’d been sworn at, spat on.

Our shared history starts long before colonisation but nothing has shaped it more. For all that, we don’t really talk about it. Is there anything more significant in New Zealand than Māori making up 15 per cent of our population but 51 per cent of the prison population?

I speak to hundreds of people the length of the country, noting names. It is striking that only those with Māori surnames spell their names before saying them out loud. If you’re looking for a sign the majority has not embraced that intrinsically important minority, there it is. Not only are the most indigenous of names foreign in their own land, but those who carry them have conceded this is so. How tragic.

But this is not the story of Māori in 2016 — it is only the story of how non-Māori interact with Māori. In several interviews there is evidence of an emerging, redefined, tino rangatiratanga (self-governance).

It has taken a different form from the rallying cry directed at the government for so long. Instead, the children of the renaissance fill their Māori world so completely they rule it. In truth, the government never had anything to give — tino rangatiratanga belonged to Māori when the Treaty was signed and that has never changed.

It’s hard to rule your world when it’s drowning in an ongoing tsunami of colonisation. You see it break free from the tide of history in places such as Hicks Bay. The kura kaupapa there has more students than the school it replaced. There was some white flight, just as occurred at neighbouring Onipoto when a wananga branch set up. Pakeha have seldom been at ease eye-to-eye with Māori.

We knew once selling out of Auckland, you're likely to never get back into that market.

Kat Jensen at her Mt Maunganui home

As we head north, we encounter those who escaped Auckland. Among them, Richard Smart and Kat Jensen. They took their capital gain on a Takapuna house and exchanged it for a mortgage-free life in the regions.

Auckland looms for the length of the country. Even in Bluff, it sits large in the distance — unwieldy, wealthy, but also home to poverty.

Here is such a free land. That's why I can say I dare to dream.

Video Production Company Owner, Joyce Liu

Our biggest city is such a contrast to the land as viewed by migrants. New Zealand offers such opportunity, they say.

Joyce Liu, who moved to Auckland from China 10 years ago, told me that living in New Zealand meant she was free to think. “I know I’m a New Zealander because I dare to dream.”

But people in most parts of New Zealand find it extraordinary that families are sleeping in cars in Auckland. It amazes them that Te Puea Marae stepped forward to help. And it stunned them that the Government had no answers.

Oh yes, says Blaine Hoete, a committee member at the marae, we’re doing the Government’s job here. Soon after we pass through, John Key gives an interview in which he acknowledges homelessness has got worse under this Government.

This is Auckland’s story immediately and most painfully but it is New Zealand’s story too. Look at Kaikohe and Kerikeri, two towns just 25 minutes apart. One wealthy, the other worn-out. The fairer Britain of the South Seas isn’t so fair anymore. In this Pacific paradise, only some get pavlova.

And this is where our national identity founders. Inside the borders of New Zealand, the different worlds are increasingly at opposite ends in a nation of extremes.

Yes, New Zealand, we had an idea of who we were. But those stereotypes and fantasies of yesteryear are easily challenged by the increasingly divergent reality in our communities.

Instead, on the many roads we travel, there’s a lack of certainty in who we are today. I believe that comes from the realisation of things happening which are at odds with how we like think of ourselves as a nation.

As those stereotypes of days-gone-by fall away, we are left with an inner core of decency. We are a decent people.

It is that decency which leads to so many people to speak to us of Te Puea Marae, and to express disbelief that large numbers of families are sleeping in cars for want of a home.

That core of decency is discomfited by the oddity of Housing NZ shutting its public offices and the Ministry of Social Development posting guards at its doors. Have we ever looked so unkindly on those in need? When last were there such barriers to help?

And would that discomfit be so sharp were it not for so many enjoying a wealth for which they didn’t work? A wealth that came not from effort or clear thinking but from buying a house at the right time?

And that, I think, is why so many have mentioned Te Puea. Auckland’s wealth is touching all our lives. It is driving up Queenstown house prices and causing rents to increase in our small towns, where Auckland capital gain is turning into investment property purchases.

Small-town New Zealand has a new landlord. We now have a landed gentry, and it’s anyone in Auckland with a house. That’s a long way from the decency and equality we value.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The decisions we make now will define who we are.

And we can make those decisions. New Zealand has always been a nation of hope and possibility. We are small, flexible and independent enough to change our destiny if we choose.

This is our Age of Reality. What sort of nation do we want to be?


David Fisher