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New Zealand Shepherds In A Contentious Revolution

THEY call the dome-shaped building in the heart of Wellington The Beehive - a good name for parliamentary offices where legislators and officials have spent the last decade or so busily working to refashion the fabric of New Zealand society.

Economic analyst Colin James calls the result ''a revolution in the true sense of the word.'' Starting in the early 1980s, he says, New Zealand operated on the assumption that the politics of the past were no longer viable. ''It used to be believed that 3 million people in the South Pacific could go on running and paying for a modern welfare state out of the proceeds of farming, but it came to be realized that just could not continue,'' he says.

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Instead, Roger Douglas, finance minister in a Labour government in the early 1980s, spurned socialist principles, abandoned farm subsidies, opened the manufacturing sector to international competition, and began cutting back on state-paid medicine and social welfare.

Subsequent Nationalist (conservative) governments have followed much the same ''Rogernomics'' policies. ''The most significant decision,'' Mr. James says, ''was to give up the traditional commitment to full employment.''

The country's economy today is thriving. But unemployment among pakeha, or European, New Zealanders has risen to 5 percent - a level unimaginable a few years ago. Unemployment is about 15 percent among the indigenous Maori people and settlers from Pacific Islands.

New Zealanders are divided about the impact of Rogernomics on a once-egalitarian society. John Roberts, a leading political analyst in the capital Wellington, says the changes delivered ''a much-needed kick in the pants'' to a country that had been ''failing to respond properly to trends ... elsewhere in the world.'' But he also laments that ''today, our heroes are the entrepreneurs and bankers who take the chances and take the money.''

Rosanne Meo, chairman of the New Zealand Forestry Corporation, which is soon to be privatized, has no such reservations. She says the reforms of the past decade ''are definitely healthy.''

Forestry is one of the industries New Zealand is relying on to reduce its traditional dependence on lamb and dairy exports. ''Forestry today is an enterprise in which your typical worker is highly skilled and expects to be highly paid,'' says Ms. Meo. ''I believe New Zealand had no option but to ... embrace reform.''

For Prime Minister Jim Bolger, such words are music to his ears. The government faces a general election next year, and is insisting that reform continue.

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Maori leaders, however, have a different perspective. Many, like Jim Perry, a teacher of mixed racial descent in Auckland, focus their resentment on the ''Waitangi issue'' - the claim that an 1840 treaty guaranteeing the Maori people the right to retain their land has been widely abrogated.

''The land issue and high unemployment among my people leaves me angry,'' Mr. Perry says. ''For the Maori, the economic reforms have not been good news.''

Whaimutu Dewes, a prosperous Maori businessman with a string of university degrees, is angry too. But he sees the salvation of his people in fostering their own culture within the new social structures.

Describing himself as ''an aging Maori radical,'' Mr. Dewes sends his children to one of a growing number of schools in which Maori is the main language of instruction. ''They will learn to be proud of their own culture and still gain the skills of the majority community,'' he says.

New Zealanders widely say resolving the racial issue is fundamental to economic success. James says the pakeha majority ''perhaps resent attempts to satisfy Maori grievances about land, but accept that there is no alternative.''

For political analyst Roberts, the question is more urgent. ''Unless within the context of the reforms racial tensions are avoided, this society could all too easily move to the brink of violence,'' he says.

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