Story: The New Zealanders

Page 13. Multicultural New Zealand

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New immigrants

While Māori were presenting New Zealanders with a bicultural perspective, immigration was making the country multicultural. Until the 1960s most immigrants to New Zealand were British and easily adjusted to New Zealand life. The considerable Dutch community who arrived in the 1950s were expected to adopt local customs. But in the 1970s there were two important changes.

First, the end of assistance to British immigrants in 1975 challenged expectations that the British were the best potential New Zealanders. From then on, immigrants were to be chosen on non-ethnic grounds.

Second, there were significant migrations from other countries. There was an influx first from the Pacific Islands, and from the mid-1980s an increasing number from other places – predominantly Asia, but also, from the 1990s onwards, from Africa and the Middle East. In 1986, over 80% of New Zealanders identified as European, and this dropped to 72% in 1996. During that period, the proportion of people identifying with Māori, Pacific and Asian ethnicities increased. In 2013, 74% of New Zealanders identified with one or more European ethnic groups.

The multicultural idea

Many of these people, from a wide range of cultures, settled down, took up citizenship and brought up New Zealand-born children. This was a major challenge to the idea of who New Zealanders were. Initiated in Canada and picked up in the 1970s in Australia, the concept of multiculturalism quickly spread to New Zealand. It was proposed that people could be legitimate members of the New Zealand nation while retaining their own language, foods and traditions. At the first New Zealand Day ceremony at Waitangi in 1974 there were ostentatious efforts to put New Zealand’s ethnic variety on display.

Non-British New Zealanders

As the numbers of non-British people increased, their cultural differences became more evident. In South Auckland, Pacific Islanders congregated and evolved a distinctive New Zealand Pacific culture which was more than the sum of their different cultures. Large Asian communities who had originally been settled throughout the country came together in areas with their own schools and styles of housing.

Not everyone accepted these developments with equanimity. A new political group emerged, significantly called the New Zealand Party, which expressed unease at the challenge to older traditions of New Zealandness. Yet the issue was made more complex because by the early 2000s in some very traditional areas, particularly sport and music, Pacific Islanders were playing an important role. Prominent figures such as All Black rugby players Tana Umaga and Jonah Lomu, Silver Fern netballer Bernice Mene, discus champion Beatrice Faumuina, and hip hop artists Che Fu and Scribe had become national heroes, and it was difficult to argue they were not ‘real New Zealanders’. In another arena, Cambodian bakeries were now making a classic New Zealand dish, the meat pie, and winning national awards.

Challenge for a new century

At the beginning of the 21st century it was not easy to define the New Zealander, nor even to explain the origin of many New Zealand characteristics. The character of the country’s people had been in part shaped by the physical environment – the outdoor climate, the proximity to beach and bush, the location in the South Pacific. No less important were the very different cultures brought to the country by waves of settlers – Māori who arrived some 700 years ago from the Pacific, the British and Irish who dominated the population for over a century from 1850, and more recent immigrants from Asia and the Pacific. All of these groups would have agreed that each were New Zealanders. All would have accepted that New Zealanders were no longer ‘Better Britons’. But the cultural meaning of the New Zealander had become uncertain. How it would evolve was one of the major issues for the new century.

How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'The New Zealanders - Multicultural New Zealand', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/the-new-zealanders/page-13 (accessed 22 November 2017)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 20 May 2015