Sunday, July 13, 2014

A Few New Zealand Firsts

Last week, Trade Minister Tim Groser made the curious statement that it "wasn't New Zealand's place to position itself out ahead of where international negotiations were at". He's speaking in the context of climate change, of course; but as was quite rightfully pointed out by Generation Zero, it's a statement about whether New Zealand should be a world leader that many Kiwis would look at and go "Eh?"

Everyone's familiar with the really big New Zealand Firsts.

We all know that in 1893, New Zealand did something incredible and world-beating and granted the vote to women. In fact, the carrying out of this particular "first" has become so integral to our national psyche that the woman associated with the campaign appears on our banknotes, and has recently been brought back to front an anti-domestic violence campaign. It's slightly less well known that a year later, we produced the first democratically elected female Mayor in the British Empire, in the person of Elizabeth Yates, or that this was followed up just over a hundred years later in 1995 by the world's first transsexual Mayor, and then world's first transsexual MP in 1999, both in the person of Georgina Beyer. Although given that the 1999 election also saw Beyer beating a young Paul Henry running as a National candidate by three thousand votes in what's usually a pretty conservative and right-leaning provincial electorate like the Wairarapa, I'm surprised this isn't more frequently commented upon.

The extension of the right to vote to women was carried out by the ground-breaking Liberal government of Richard Seddon; and while legislation that finally recognized that a woman is just as capable as a man of doing something immensely stupid like voting for ACT deservedly takes pride of place when we talk about the achievements of that government, I'd feel remiss in my duties as an NZF person if I didn't remind you that this was *also* the government which enacted world leading pension legislation designed to ensure that the state would support New Zealanders in their old age. Of course, it's not *quite* fair to describe this as a "world first", on grounds that the Old Age Pension Act of 1898 was passed some nine years *after* Chancellor Otto von Bismarck's very similar Old Age And Disability Insurance bill of 1889 in Germany; but the idea of a state that actually took care of its citizens through active interventions in the economy and transfer payments so that being too old to work didn't mean a huge drop in living standards and pauper-hood, was an awesome one which apparently hadn't been taken up anywhere else in the Anglosphere to that point.

A genuine New Zealand First, however, was the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1894; which attempted to establish the world's first corporatist bargaining structure for industrial relations arbitration and disputes. Whereas previous models had hinged around an adversarial relationship between workers and unions on one side, and entrepreneurs (and frequently the state) on the other and thus left pay and conditions as a matter for argument between the respective parties, the Liberals instead sought to have a compulsory system whereby the state would appoint representatives from each side to a national Conciliation Board, which would take the lead in reviewing and resolving disputes. This may not necessarily sound too impressive to our modern ears, but it's worthwhile considering that the fundamental principles this act enshrined within our law and way of doing things were to stand basically unmolested for nearly a hundred years - finally giving way in 1991 with the National Party's Employment Contracts Act (this was the legislation so repugnant that despite its party of origin, Sir Robert Muldoon could not bring himself to vote for it due to what it would do to the Kiwi worker). I'm a great fan of corporatist industrial relations and economic planning frameworks, by the way, and would thoroughly encourage readers interested in alternatives to neoliberalism to look into them.

Keeping on the theme of workers' rights, we were also the first country in the world to formally institute an 8 hour working day, again under the Liberals, in 1899. This is why we celebrate Labour Day. The same government *also* established the world's first government-funded tourism organization; which leaves me wondering whether Seddon ever found himself in London, skewered by some British journalist for flapping his guns like some form of introduced pest in the headlights trying to defend a blatantly inaccurate marketing campaign in the tourism sector.

The other big New Zealand First that everybody's aware of is the way our country really took a position of international leadership when it came to nuclear issues during the late eighties under the 4th Labour Government. While it's fair to say that David Lange's position on nuclear ships was potentially a little lukewarm in tenacity up until it became politically ill-advised to do anything *but* give effect to the the broad mass of public opinion about the issue, the fact remains that in that instance at least, New Zealand was *very* quick to "position itself out ahead of where international negotiations were at".

To give you a sense of how well-known, remarked upon, and respected this paragraph in the New Zealand Story actually is ... when I was much younger, I used to hit up international Model UN conventions and things like that. Straightaway, as soon as people from other countries would find out you were a Kiwi, they'd tend to rush to compliment us on our nuclear free stance, and talk about how it was an inspiration etc.
While noting that these were International Relations students and what not, and therefore likely to be slightly better informed about diplomatic history than the average bear - and without meaning to produce a Steinlager commercial - it's definitely fair to say that on this issue, New Zealand carved out a strong and deserved reputation as someone who "positions ourselves out ahead of where international negotiations are at".

See, this is the proud legacy of innovative and principled policy-making that I instantly think of  when New Zealand's record is being talked about - either domestically, or on the world stage. We're pioneers, as a people - so much so we even have a national idiom based around creative things you can do with fencing wire. It therefore absolutely makes my blood boil when Nats like Groser decide to dissipate and denigrate that history by pretending that we're some sort of small and apron-stringed young democracy that's got to wait for the big boys of the international arena to be done talking before we can even pipe up with a whisper about how it's our world and our future that's at stake, too.

Anyway, to return to that Steinlager commercial for a moment ... when Tim Groser says that New Zealand ought not be standing out ahead of where international negotations are at, screaming through a loud-hailer at everybody else to catch up ... Willem Dafoe pops into my head to remind us that "some things are worth protecting".

In this instance, our international reputation as world leaders when it comes to doing what's right ... and our climate and environment.

I'm justifiably proud of New Zealand's record at leading the world. Too bad Tim Groser isn't.

(P.s.: This blog-post has contained my own cutting-edge New Zealand First experimentation with subliminal messaging. Hope you don't mind :P )

1 comment:

  1. New Zealand certainly has been associated with many firsts throughout history. It is interesting that you were among the first countries to give the vote to women. Strange that something so natural has had to be explained to people and that so many other countries are still lagging behind. New Zealand has many more firsts to come and will always excel.

    Abraham @ ASIC