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How it felt to be stranded in a Kiwi fortress

Prime minister Jacinda Ardern and finance minister Grant Robertson cook breakfast for crowds after a dawn service on the Waitangi Day national holiday - Credit: Getty Images

New Zealand has attracted the envy of many European liberals, not just for its handling of Covid but – perhaps not unconnected – also its political leadership. Returning native Garth Cartwright reports back from a nation experiencing a very different pandemic.

Imagine a land where the populace is enjoying a long, blissful summer; theatres, cinemas, art galleries are all open (as are pubs, cafes, restaurants); dozens of music festivals are under way, and schools have just started the new term without a murmur.

Meanwhile, now the holidays are over, the new Labour government has begun implementing progressive policies. And Covid-19 has been, for the most part, extinguished. Yes, this paradise is New Zealand and in prime minister Jacinda Ardern it has its anti-Johnson, a politician whose wise instincts bend towards compassion, her gift for communication ensures everything from embracing a Muslim community shaken by a murderous far-right terrorist attack through to explaining why lockdown needed to be strict is understood and appreciated.

And – thank my lucky stars – I happen to be here right now. I’m a Londoner but also a Kiwi – one who flew from Aotearoa (the Maori name for NZ – it translates as ‘the land of the long white cloud’) in 1990, popping back on occasion, even writing a book about doing so (Sweet As: Journeys In A New Zealand Summer) but never spending longer than six weeks in the South Pacific before returning to an SE15 council estate I now call home.

Then, as the world went into lockdown #1, my father’s health began failing. Talk about bad timing – even if I had got a flight and done the compulsory 14 day quarantine required of all arrivals there was no possibility I could have got to spend time with him: lockdown here meant I would not have been allowed access to his retirement community, hospital and, finally, care home.

Aware a parent is slowly dying, yet being unable to see and console them, is an awful experience. In London I went through several stages of lockdown anguish, feeling more isolated than ever before in my life.

Dad died at the end of June and I immediately promised mum I would return to spend Christmas with her. Booking my ticket – a seven week stay this time – I looked forward to my visit, never imagining Covid would return with a vengeance to envelope the UK. Or how well New Zealand would recover and re-embrace what might be called “normal” life.

I landed on December 3, having changed my return flight to early March once the NZ government passed legislation ensuring visitors who stayed less than three months would have to pay $3,100 for their fortnight’s quarantine. In late-January I extended the return flight for another month: the huge freedom available here stands in stark contrast to being confined in a council flat.

What living in my former homeland has reinforced is how important good government is: Ardern’s leadership proved exemplary across 2020 while so many others were tested and proved wanting.

Still, I don’t want to mislead you into believing NZ is a hotbed of visionary leaders: until 2017 the country endured three terms (three years each – our parliamentary cycle is amongst the world’s shortest; its MMP voting system one of the world’s most democratic) of John Key’s National Party (Tories), a motley crew who favoured the wealthy/farmers and left the nation with both a housing and environmental crisis.

Labour have a huge job ahead and, at the start of their first term (when they were part of a coalition government with the Greens and New Zealand First – an anti-immigrant party), promised to build 100,000 new, affordable homes.

Their failure to do so brought much opprobrium: as in the UK, previous governments’ neglect of state housing has led to a shortage of affordable housing and wildly inflated house prices – property inflation in Auckland currently outstrips London (and, as a friend trapped in the brutal rental market observed “Auckland isn’t exactly London or Paris”).

When NZ was a destination for long-distance tourism the slogan “100% Pure” was its hook, accompanied by images of stunning beaches, forests and waterfalls (an eco-wonderland, of sorts. With hobbits). Of course, that’s not quite accurate. NZ is, in many ways, a stark example of how a once mammal-free island has been harmed by the arrival of humans. The Maori, arriving likely 700 – 900 years ago, ensured the moa, now famous for being amongst the world’s tallest birds, were rendered extinct before Europeans landed. Once they did land, Europeans’ made short shrift of many remaining indigenous birds, alongside the destruction of native forests.

Today, New Zealand has the world’s second highest rate of car ownership, its sprawling cities and towns following the US ideal of everyone driving. Public transport is the occasional bus (and, more recently, some rail). Being a primary producer with agriculture dominating the economy – colonised as a farm for Britain, dairy/beef continues to return huge yields – intensive agriculture has reduced huge swathes of the country to paddocks while ensuring our rivers are polluted with cow s**t and fertiliser while obscene amounts of methane get released into the atmosphere.

Labour have published an ambitious set of environment policies: this is a step forward, if one that still finds NZ lagging far behind internationally (New Zealand First pulled the handbrake on coalition government environmental policies). Which is all to say that while there is plenty to be excited about Ardern’s government, ministers need to use their huge majority to actively pursue progressive policies.

The issue of a Maori underclass who come top in all the worst statistics (prison numbers, poor health, gang membership, unemployment) and the institutional racism that remains in a nation that is officially bicultural remains a blight. And one that won’t easily be resolved.

Yet appreciation of Maori culture among New Zealanders has increased a great deal since I lived here. In 1984 Naida Glavish, a telephone operator who answered her calls with “kia ora ” (‘hello’)  was, initially, stood down when she refused to stop doing this. Glavish’s determination to use a Maori greeting sparked a debate on what role Te Reo Maori (language) had in NZ – and helped revitalise bilingualism.

Today, Maori words and phrases pepper Kiwi speak – broadcasters on radio and TV regularly use them, as do people when speaking, both amongst friends and in a professional capacity.

Currently on at the Auckland City Art Gallery (remember them? art galleries?) is Toi Tū Toi Ora: Contemporary Māori Art, the largest exhibition ever staged in this edifice.

As a monumental overview and celebration of Maori visual art, the show is testimony to the value such culture is now given by the establishment. I was writing about visual arts here in the 1980s and Maori and Polynesian (Auckland is the world’s largest Polynesian city) art was then largely ignored or tagged ‘ethnic’.

Toi Tū Toi Ora’s expansiveness is a result of foreign exhibitions being postponed by the pandemic, leading to locals embracing a sense of “we can do it”. Reports that popular local band SIX60 were the biggest ticket sellers in the world – shifting 50,000 for one Auckland concert alone – became a news sensation.

That this was due to there being almost no concerts in Europe and the US wasn’t overlooked but it reflects a growing confidence in a nation that has, for too long, looked overseas rather than embracing homegrown.

Observing the UK and US flailing has helped Kiwis’, famously shy (both the birds and the people), project a self-belief previously largely absent (beyond in sporting prowess). Inevitably, a certain smugness can be detected (“aren’t we special!”) but also a sense that the cultural cringe – which for so long weighed heavily – is fading. 

In years to come “Team Five Million” – as Ardern addressed the nation when the pandemic first hit – may decide that along with giving women the vote in 1893, the slaughter at Gallipoli, the 1975 Maori land march, 1981’s South African rugby tour (which huge numbers of protestors fought to stop), French agent’s bombing of the Rainbow Warrior, that the nation’s handling of Covid-19 has helped define us. Or maybe not. Anyway, for me, Aotearoa feels both exciting and inspiring – the opposite of how I feel about my inevitable return to SE15. 

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