Changing times

My parents met in the early 1950s. Dad was on the verge of getting a scholarship to the UK; Mum was training to be a nurse. He got the scholarship and – so the family story that I heard goes – mum’s choice was to leave her training and go with him or lose him forever. I’ve never known the real details but it possibly points to a wider social norm where women were expected, in some cases required, to leave employment or training when they got married.

I was reminded of this when over summer I read Jenny Carlyon and Diana Morrow’s Changing Times: New Zealand since 1945. It’s a good read and as a general history it covers a lot of ground, from the post-war political consensus of a state focused on prosperity for the nuclear-family, to the social uncertainty of the late 60s through early 80s, followed by the reinvention of New Zealand through the deregulation of the 80s and 90s. The overarching theme is one of change from the hegemonic Pākehā landscape of the 1950s to the diverse and more tolerant yet still-not-perfect society in which we now live.

(As an aside, I’m curious about those latter two periods and the changeover between the 60s/70s and 80s/90s prompted by claims in last year’s election campaign from Bill English that ‘Labour intends to take New Zealand back to 1970s industrial relations’ (Jacinda Ardern shows every sign of being the real deal after first debate, accessed 5 February 2018). Seen more broadly, many on the Left now roundly criticise neo-liberalism. Were the economic changes inevitable? Could social progress have happened without them? Or was social liberalism so closely entwined with economic liberalism that neo-liberalism was unavoidable? But I’m venturing into territory I don’t know much about…)

What interests me most about this book is the handling of gender and race issues. Each of the periods above are discussed in roughly the same progression: what was the period like for the mainstream, Pākehā, and male-dominated ‘traditional’ society, followed by sections or chapters on what it was like for others, notably women and Māori. A good example is the handling of political awareness and protest throughout the 70s. Chapter 5 (‘In Ferment’) and 6 (‘Schisms) give a run-down on major protest movements, ranging from anti-Vietnam war protests, to the environmentalism of the Save Manapouri campaign and debates about nuclear weapons and nuclear power, wrapping up with race-relations evidenced through protests about sporting contact with South Africa.

But no mention of the 1975 Land March, surely one of the most far-reaching actions of the decade, with ramifications that are still with us today in the form of ongoing Treaty settlements. That protest of course is covered (and covered well) in a later chapter, ‘Race Relations’. It’s hard to overcome this type of ‘othering’ (and it’s something we’re dealing with in relation to Te Ara – see my talk from NDF last year). To combine all the chapters that deal with this period would have created a 120-page monster of a chapter, but the separation undermines how central second-wave feminism and Māori land rights were during the period.

We’re at an interesting period in the way we see and write about our history, with an expectation that people set out their perspective and acknowledge the weaknesses in it. Which is not to say that people shouldn’t attempt to write about other perspectives; in fact, it’s crucial particularly in a general history that the broad range of people’s experiences are included. It needs however some kind of framing that sets out explicitly the approach a writer is taking, as well as an overview of the significant changes across a period of history. In this book, a more explicit overview of each period could have helped by drawing attention to the connections between different forms of protest while acknowledging the ‘othering’ approach.

Perhaps though, one day soon, we’ll go further and start to see less light between ‘mainstream’ and ‘other’ histories. Not in an assimilation sense but in the sense that the diversity of other stories are seen as a core part of the mainstream story, and not an extra or add-on. One day our history might not be distinct stories of different views but one story that binds all the many strands into one rich and many-threaded story.

To that end as a society we’re in a process of change. I can see where this has come from. When you move from a hegemonic story to one that brings in other viewpoints, for a while those new viewpoints need their own place to make themselves heard. This is the approach that saw the bi-cultural model of a website like Te Ara tell predominantly Pākehā stories alongside separate stories about Māori aspects of New Zealand life: two narratives alongside each other rather than woven into each other’s fabric. And that probably reflects where New Zealand history was at the time: Māori stories needed space to breathe, and for a light to be shone on them to impress their importance upon New Zealand readers. But at some point we need to accept those new viewpoints as a central part of the main story and leave the othering behind.

I’m writing this the day before Waitangi Day. Our prime minister has just spoken on the marae at the Treaty Grounds. Jacinda Ardern, our third female prime minister and first pregnant prime minister, talked about the new Crown-Māori relations portfolio and the need to extend the Crown and New Zealand’s relationship with Māori beyond the negotiating table (PM to Māori at Waitangi: hold govt to account, accessed 5 February 2018). That Ardern’s pregnancy is beyond criticism in most civilised mainstream forums in New Zealand is a mark of just how far we have come as a society, as is the the partnership with Māori that she advocates. The demonstration that women can hold the highest office, and the acknowledgment that Māori are a central part of New Zealand, part of the mainstream and not some other, are perhaps the real changes we can be proud of.