8 Nov 2019

14: Modern New Zealand

From The Aotearoa History Show, 7:00 am on 8 November 2019

The 1984 election is a tumultuous tipping point; the start of a new New Zealand with a more open, less equal economy; a new style of democracy and a more diverse population. 

You can LISTEN to the audio only podcast

Or WATCH a video version of the show!

As I've been releasing episode after episode of The Aotearoa History Show over the past few weeks, a colleague has taken to asking me, "how's New Zealand history going today?", writes Tim Watkin, RNZ executive producer, podcasts and series.

I think I must have looked a bit brow-beaten by what has been a mammoth piece of work. I mean, who in their right mind tries to tell the entire history of a nation in 14 15-20 minutes YouTube videos?

But each time I've replied, something like "oh it's getting there. A bit different from yesterday" or "still changing".

Because one of the great mistakes people make when they discuss history - be it the history of New Zealand or indeed anywhere - is to assume that facts are facts and what's done is done. The truth is quite the opposite. History is forever changing, morphing, evolving into something new. 

At least, our understanding of it is. Excuse me if this sounds a bit Fight Club-esque, but one of the few unchanging facts of history, is that there are few unchanging facts in history.

Our willingness to be open to that is going to vital as we prepare to teach New Zealand history in our schools. It's so important that young New Zealanders will get to learn how we got from here to there, but just as crucial for us to keep an open mind as we do it. 

The risk is always that we fall into the trap of insisting there is only one way to tell our stories or only certain stories that can be told. There are heroes and villains, triumphs and disasters in all times, cultures, genders, classes, faiths and more. 

Sure, there's no excuse for simple inaccuracies. The stubborn myth that Moriori were the first people of New Zealand pre-dating Maori and conquered by them should be a cautionary tale to anyone wanting to dismiss the facts of history altogether. 

The truth we know is quite different… and explained in episode two, by the way. But when we talk about events covered by the mist of time, culture, politics and any number of human failings, we must always be open to how much we don't know and how much our understanding can change.

The Aotearoa History Show is hopefully going to be a useful tool for teachers and lecturers figuring out how to tell our stories; at least until those evolving interpretations render it too dated. For a generation used to watching YouTube, this part-animated series will, we hope, be a good starter for ten. And while it's aimed at under 30s, it's really a useful primer for anyone wanting to know more about how New Zealand came together.

In the spirit of bi-culturalism, it tries to give more weight than many previous histories to Māori experience. We've tried to talk about what have often been distinct histories of both Māori and Pakeha New Zealanders, rather than simply talk about the experience of 'New Zealanders' as if we are a single whole. 

That means there are stories in the show - and emphasis placed on some events - that may be unfamiliar to many.

It's also meant some interesting debates amongst the team making it. What you see is compromise of competing interpretations, as all histories must be. There is no right way to see history; we all have a different lens. 

For example, the story of the battle for Rangiaowhia, which features in episode six, has in recent years become one of the most hotly debated events of the New Zealand Wars. It has been labelled a 'genocide' by some, but is remembered quite differently by others.

 We've tried to limit our tale of the fight to what we know for sure, because the events of that day are disputed. British troops certainly invaded the village in a surprise dawn attack; a village left undefended because Māori thought it was outside the theatre of war. But what happened that morning is a source of dispute, even within our team.

And that's OK. 

As long as we keep an open mind and acknowledge the difference between the few things we know for sure and the many things that are open to interpretation. Because we all look at the past through a different lens. 

Currently, we are hearing more Māori oral histories and our understanding of Aotearoa's history is being enriched by a greater emphasis on the experience of tangata whenua. That lens of history has been prominent recently during the Tuia 250 commemorations. 

When I was studying New Zealand history at university there was a greater emphasis on, say, seeing our history through the lens of class. Going back further, the settler/pioneer lens was more dominant. 

The lens we view history with shifts with the times and the current focus on ethnicity will evolve into something else in time, as well as we keep learning.

So The Aotearoa History Show is itself something of a time capsule. As co-host and writer William Ray says in the final episode, out today, people will look at this series in decades to come and wonder why on earth we focused on so much one this thing, which to them seems so trivial, and so little on something that has grown in importance.

That's as it should be. Because our view of history will always change depending on the lens of our time. The important thing is that we stay curious and keep asking the question my colleague has been asking in recent weeks; "how's New Zealand history going today?".

Topics covered in episode 14:

  • Fourth Labour government and Rogernomics 
  • Jim Bolger and the “Mother of All Budgets”
  • The impact of “Rogernomics” and “Ruthanasia” on workers.
  • The sharemarket boom and bust of the mid 1980s
  • The 1991 Employment Relations Act and the effect on unions.
  • Introduction of MMP.
  • Changes in rural New Zealand, decline in sheep and rise of dairy.
  • Rise of tourism.
  • The role of the Waitangi Tribunal, foreshore & seabed debate and success of post-settlement iwi. 
  • Future challenges faced by NZ, with a particular focus on climate change. 
RNZ/NZ On Air Innovation Fund logos

Photo: RNZ/NZ On Air

Get the RNZ app

for easy access to all your favourite programmes

Subscribe to The Aotearoa History Show

Podcast (MP3) Oggcast (Vorbis)