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Ideas in New Zealand

by Jock Phillips

Māori developed their own distinctive world view and concepts, and when Pākehā arrived they brought ideas from Europe. New Zealanders have continued to engage with international thinking, developing many ideas in distinctive directions.

New Zealand and the world of ideas

Māori world view

From the time of the first arrival of humans in New Zealand, people have tried to interpret the world around them. For Pākehā most of their ideas have come from outside, and there has been a continuous engagement with international ideas.

By contrast, the first settlers, the Māori, brought many concepts from the Pacific, and then developed those ideas in intellectual isolation for some 500 years after 1300. Their world view became highly specific to New Zealand.

The central principle was whakapapa, the view that the whole world, natural and human, was bound together by family relationships. The key event in this world view was the moment of creation when Ranginui, the sky father, and Papatūānuku, the earth mother, were separated by their children and light came into the world. The children represented elemental forces – the wind, the sea and the forests – which in turn gave birth to the multitude of life in the world. Māori called upon these divinities in their ritual and karakia.

Adapting European ideas

Once Pākehā arrived, Māori once more engaged intellectually with new ideas from outside. They were often highly creative in adapting western ideas for their own purposes.

  • Western religious ideas of a Christian God were transformed into distinctive Māori faiths such as Ringatū and Rātana.
  • Western ideas of governance led to such ideas as a Māori king and Māori parliaments.
  • Anthropological theories were sometimes internalised into Māori traditions, such as the idea of a Great Fleet of canoes arriving in New Zealand from the Pacific around the same time.

Western ideas

Europeans coming to New Zealand brought beliefs and philosophies with them. After arriving they maintained a continuous engagement with the wider intellectual world through letters, books, newspapers and visitors from overseas. From 1769 there have been few, if any, wholly original New Zealand ideas. Ideas in New Zealand cannot be discussed without examining the great intellectual movements of the western world.

However, the particular characteristics of the land and people have led New Zealand thinkers to emphasise some ideas more than others, and develop them in distinctive directions. New Zealanders’ contribution has been more in the local application of international ideas than in the contribution of new or novel concepts – some of the world’s big ideas were given their own meaning in New Zealand.

Enlightenment science

Cook’s scientists

The first people to apply western ideas to New Zealand were British explorer James Cook and his scientists. They came in the spirit of the Enlightenment, which assumed that through observation and reason humans could understand the universal laws which God had used to create the world. In 1758, 11 years before Cook’s arrival, the Swedish naturalist Linnaeus had published his system for classifying living things, which promised to give order to the natural world. This turned the art of collecting into the science of botany.

Why come to New Zealand?

Johann Reinhold Forster, the botanist on Cook’s second voyage, explained why he was keen to join the party: ‘The thirst for knowledge, the desire of discovering new animals, new plants and to be happy to find one or more substances that might be useful to mankind in general and to the Dominions of Great Britain in particular, were the motives that animated me to go on this Expedition.’1

Along with Joseph Banks, a rational science enthusiast and an opponent of mysticism, the scientists on Cook’s ship the Endeavour included botanist Daniel Solander and draughtsman Herman Spöring (both pupils of Linnaeus), astronomer Charles Green, botanical artist Sydney Parkinson and landscape artist John Buchanan. On Cook’s second voyage Johann Reinhold Forster and his son Georg were ardent promoters of the Linnaean system.

Distinguished visitors

These scientists set out to document an unknown natural world and to collect plants which might benefit humans. New Zealand thus became a place of interest to international naturalists. In later years prominent figures visited in pursuit of the unique flora and fauna. Charles Darwin went to the Bay of Islands in 1835. Distinguished botanist Joseph Hooker, son of the director of London’s Kew Gardens, established his reputation on the basis of describing the plants of New Zealand, the subantarctic islands and Tasmania during his 1840–41 visit.

New Zealand correspondents

Subsequently the leading naturalists of Britain corresponded directly with New Zealand collectors and scientists. William Colenso, who had shown Hooker around the Bay of Islands, sent him specimens for many years. Colenso and Richard Taylor also corresponded with Richard Owen, the leading naturalist at the British Museum, who cemented his reputation through announcing the discovery of the previously unknown moa.

New Zealand Company scientist Ernst Dieffenbach had contact with Darwin, Owen and geologist Charles Lyell. Walter Mantell, son of the famous paleontologist Gideon Mantell, sent crates of moa bones across the oceans. In the 1860s and 1870s Julius Haast, the head of Canterbury Museum, used his store of moa bones to establish his credibility and make connections with international science. Thus New Zealand was for some time an important location for western naturalists, and New Zealand residents contributed bones and specimens (often) and ideas (occasionally) to international debates.

From the later 19th century New Zealand was of less interest to naturalists overseas, but the Enlightenment conviction that accurate observation and rational analysis were the way to understand the universe remained a primary principle for New Zealand scientists.


Enlightenment science informed questions about peoples too. Linnaeus had included humans in his classification system. Many philosophers included people near the top of the Great Chain of Being. Collecting artefacts became transformed into anthropology. Although some believed that the races had been created separately, most observers believed in one creation (monogenesis). But how to characterise the races? Cook, Banks and Forster, examining the language, appearance and traditions of Māori and other Polynesians, decided Māori were related to other Pacific peoples. They convinced the pioneering German anthropologist Johann Blumenbach that his division of humanity into Caucasians, Asiatics, Americans and Ethiopians should be expanded to add Malays (which included Polynesians).

Evidence from New Zealand was also used in the French Enlightenment debate between followers of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who considered so-called primitive people to be virtuous and innocent, and those who believed that they were savages, inferior to civilised people. When French explorer Marc Joseph Marion du Fresne and his men were killed in the Bay of Islands in 1772, this was used to prove the folly of ideas about the noble savage. Cook himself was too much the man of observation rather than ideology to take sides. He recognised the cannibalism of Māori, but respected them for their humanity to friends and kin.

As with natural history, New Zealand was an important site for Enlightenment debates about anthropology.

    • Quoted in Michael Hoare, The tactless philosopher: Johann Reinhold Forster (1729-98). Melbourne: Hawthorn Press, 1976, p. 102. Back


The second set of big ideas from the west were those of Christianity. With the arrival of Samuel Marsden in 1814, the country became a site for the propagation by missionaries of the Christian faith. Christianity became an important force in New Zealand for the next 200 years. New Zealand has not been a significant site of new Christian ideas, with the exception of some new forms of Māori religion and the occasional lone theologian like the late-20th-century radical thinker Lloyd Geering.

The beauty of science

At the end of his life William Colenso explained his love of science and its relationship to religion: ‘There is a joy in contemplating the manifold forms in which the All-beautiful has concealed His essence – the living garment in which the Invisible has robed his mysterious loveliness.’1

Missionary scientists

Missionaries did contribute significant ideas in other fields besides theology. William Colenso and Richard Taylor were important early recorders of the geology and natural history of New Zealand. They saw science as unfolding the beauty of God’s creation.

Missionary ideas of race

Missionaries also added to the debate about the nature of Māori. Initially they came with the simple view that Māori were depraved and barbaric and had to be brought into civilisation. Thomas Kendall accepted that Māori, like all people, were predestined to damnation, but could be saved from damnation by being ‘twice-born’ through Christ. Drawing on the Encyclopedia Britannica, he claimed that Māori must have originally been Egyptian.

Most early missionaries drew on the biblical idea that all peoples were descended from Noah’s sons after the Great Flood. They argued that Europeans were descended from Noah’s oldest son, Jephet, and supposedly primitive people like Africans and Aborigines from the youngest son, Ham, but Polynesians (like Indians) descended from the middle son, Shem. Samuel Marsden suggested that Māori were indeed semitic (sons of Shem) on the basis of what he saw as their Jewish characteristics.

Who were the savages?

After the Taranaki war broke out in 1860, Richard Taylor attended a meeting at Pūtiki, where Māori expressed their loyalty to the Crown. He then went on to another meeting with settlers, many of whom were drunk. Taylor wrote that ‘one was a meeting of gentleman savages, the other of savage gentlemen’2.

Later some Māori, such as the prophets Te Ua Haumēne, Te Kooti Arikirangi and Te Whiti-o-Rongomai, drew on this idea to liken Māori in New Zealand to Jews fleeing captivity in Egypt.

The missionary Richard Taylor also believed that Māori were one of the lost tribes of Israel. He adjusted his initial thoughts contrasting savage Māori with civilised Europeans, and decided that they were indeed a noble people.

    • Transactions of the New Zealand Institute 29 (1896), p. 129. Back
    • Quoted in J. M. R. Owens, The mediator: a life of Richard Taylor, 1805–1873. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2004, p. 218. Back

Darwinism and anthropology

On the origin of species

In 1859 Charles Darwin published On the origin of species, which brought into conflict the intellectual traditions of science and Christianity. By explaining evolution as a consequence of the natural selection of characteristics through a struggle for survival, Darwin challenged the need for a creator and contradicted the Bible. In New Zealand there was quick interest in Darwin’s ideas. Samuel Butler published a succinct outline of the theory in the Christchurch Press in 1862.

The Darwinism debate

In Europe and America Darwin’s ideas led to fierce debate. In New Zealand until the 1860s scientists had accepted the idea of a great creator, while missionaries had contributed to science. Darwinism only partially destroyed this cooperation. Some religious conservatives strongly opposed the new ideas, including the Dunedin pamphleteer J. G. S. Grant, Anglican Archdeacon Robert Maunsell and the Presbyterian Reverend William Salmond. Some intellectuals – including John Macmillan Brown, Robert Stout and Edward Tregear – considered that Darwinism undermined religious theories, and argued for a secular point of view.

Paying the price

In 1861, while still in the army, Frederick Hutton had favourably reviewed Darwin’s Origin of species. He came out to New Zealand, where he became Otago’s provincial geologist and worked at the museum. But when he was appointed professor at the University of Otago, the Synod of the Presbyterian Church declined funding for the chair. It was an unfair judgement, because to the end Hutton believed that evolution expressed God’s presence and will.

But many religious moderates accepted evolution as simply the mechanism that God used – creation on the instalment plan. Many scientists held on to Christian faith while accepting Darwinism. They included Frederick Hutton in Otago, James Hector at the Dominion Museum in Wellington and Julius Haast at Canterbury Museum. In the long term, however, Darwinism undoubtedly strengthened secular perspectives.

Survival of the fittest

Darwinism affected other thinking. The concept of survival of the fittest was applied to the economic world and reinforced New Zealanders’ views about the importance of economic competition.

Age of the world

Along with earlier geological discoveries, Darwinism revolutionised ideas about the age of the Earth. The orthodox Christian view was that the world was less than 6,000 years old – beginning in 4004 BCE. Natural selection required much more time, reinforcing the ideas of European geologists and paleontologists. In 1847 the French had uncovered flint tools on the Somme. The theory emerged of a Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age) period, in which people used crude unpolished tools. This lasted until about 10,000 BCE, when the Neolithic (New Stone Age) peoples emerged, using polished tools.

Unruly employee

In 1870, while excavating Moa Bone Point at Sumner under Julius Haast’s supervision, Alexander McKay discovered polished chisels amid moa bones. Haast was unhappy since this threatened his theories that moa had disappeared long before the arrival of Māori. Eventually McKay’s paper ‘On the identity of the Moa-hunters with the present race’ was read out by James Hector to the Philosophical Institute and then published in 1874.

In 1869 Haast found crude flint blades with moa bones at the Rakaia River mouth. So he concluded that a Palaeolithic people had lived in New Zealand and disappeared with the moa about 10,000 BCE, long before Māori, a Neolithic people, arrived. However, this was quickly rejected.

Fatal impact

Darwinism had other effects on local anthropology. Early in the 19th century some argued that Māori were suffering from the ‘fatal impact’ of civilised Europeans. In 1859, the year of Darwin’s book, historian Arthur S. Thomson accepted this theory in the first history of New Zealand. Darwinism gave the argument added force. Weaker peoples such as the Polynesians were thought to be doomed to extinction by the survival of the fittest. The declining Māori population seemed to confirm this – indeed Darwin himself in The descent of man (1872) had used Māori depopulation to suggest ‘inferior’ races would be extinguished by ‘superior’ ones.

Once again the major theories of Europe were applied to local speculations, and in turn informed overseas thinkers.


If Darwinism could suggest negative judgements about Māori, other European ideas provided different conclusions.

In the mid-19th century international linguistic studies suggested affinities between European languages and the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit. Extending these theories, philologist Max Müller claimed a common Aryan ancestry for Indians and Europeans. These ideas were supported by study of comparative mythologies.

In New Zealand, Edward Tregear argued that Māori were also an Aryan people and their culture had Aryan ‘survivals’. The Māori language, he claimed, preserved the speech of Aryan forefathers and included echoes of the Sanskrit word for cow. The theory attracted some withering criticism, but it had wide influence locally, and received support from writers like S. Percy Smith, who pointed to similarities between Māori mythology and Egyptian myths.

It was not until the 1920s that the archaeologists H. D. Skinner and Roger Duff and the ethnologist Raymond Firth rejected such diffusionist models and explained Māori culture in functional terms, as local adaptation rather than Aryan survivals.

Wakefield and the ‘better Britain’

Wakefield’s ideas

New Zealand was the most important setting for the experimental ideas of Edward Gibbon Wakefield, a child of the Enlightenment. His central idea was that if land in colonies was sold at a ‘sufficient price’, this would cure major problems for both colonies and the home country.

For the colony, the price would provide funds to pay for the free migration of labourers, who would then be available to work for wages on the land before eventually becoming landowners themselves. Thus the dispersal of the population and the creation of frontier anarchy would be prevented. Drawing on philosopher Adam Smith’s division of labour, Wakefield suggested that available wage labour would give landowners the leisure for civilised pursuits.

For the home country, the system would provide a valuable use of surplus capital, challenging the ideas of social reformer Jeremy Bentham and economist James Mill on the dangers of capital outflow. As the colony developed it would provide cheap food and a flourishing market for home exports, in contrast with Smith’s suggestion that free trade made colonies unnecessary. Colonisation would also ease cleric and scholar Thomas Malthus’s fears that population growth at home would create a crisis as food and resources ran out.

The New Zealand vision

Wakefield’s settlement scheme was applied, not always successfully, by the New Zealand Company in the 1840s, and his ideas spawned long-term utopian aspirations. His vision suggested a New World which preserved the best of British civilisation while avoiding its problems. In place of a society of penurious landless labourers alongside a decadent aristocracy, there would be hard-working wage-earners who might graduate to land ownership.

This vision – a property-owning democracy in which people could earn land ownership, and a colony free from the inequalities and urban decadence of the Old World – was promoted by the New Zealand Company and then by provincial and national governments as they advertised for immigrants. These ideas became central to New Zealand thinking for the next century – not spelled out in theoretical treatises, but expressed in newspaper editorials, reminiscences, pamphlets and political speeches.

Fear of ferns

Missionary Richard Taylor’s 1867 book The past and present of New Zealand expressed well the central New Zealand ideal – that the frontier of gloomy fern and frightening bush would be replaced by a cheerful land of wheat and English grasses, of homesteads and gardens.

A society of small landowners implied a ‘middle landscape’ – sitting between bush and city. Large cities would be avoided by settling people on the land, or encouraging suburban, not inner-city, living. It was a vision that left little place for Māori ownership of the land, unless Māori too could become individual yeoman farmers.

Social laboratory of the world

These ideas took another step in the Liberal governments of the 1890s and 1900s. New Zealand traditions were strengthened by some overseas ideas. New Zealanders read the American thinker Henry George on the importance of the single tax on land, which was designed to tax the ‘unearned increment’ on land (the increased value which followed from closer settlement rather than any improvements in the land itself).

The result was an effort to break up large estates and settle people on the land, although these government actions followed from shared beliefs rather than high-flown works of theory. The heart of the vision echoed Wakefield’s ideal of New Zealand as a pastoral paradise, ‘God’s own people’, who had escaped Old World evils of class conflict and large cities and established a just society in which people could progress through hard work, not privilege.


Socialism without doctrines

The government of the 1890s extended itself into new areas such as labour laws, immigration restriction, housing, liquor legislation and protections for women and children. The unspoken assumption was that the state represented ‘the people’ and should be used to protect citizens from monopolies and unfair competition.

Socialism New Zealand-style

John A. Lee’s 1938 volume Socialism in New Zealand was no more than a list of forms of government ownership and operation, particularly as expressed in the laws of the 1935 Labour government. These included the telephone system and the national radio. Lee wrote that ‘there is no more glittering example of successful socialism than New Zealand Hydro Power’.1 He emphasised that New Zealand socialism was based on ‘expediency and not on socialist philosophy’2.

The measures were described systematically by overseas observers such as Albert Métin and André Siegfried, who came to report on the ‘social laboratory of the world’. The only New Zealander to pull them together in a focused way was William Pember Reeves. In his 1898 history and then his 1902 book State experiments, he located the Liberal government’s achievements within a wider Australian and New Zealand context. State experiments was read widely overseas by American progressives and English Fabians. What had begun as ad hoc legislation based on common assumptions in New Zealand entered into western thinking.

Métin described what he saw as socialism without doctrines. In the mid-19th century the word ‘socialism’ represented an ideal of cooperation and altruism, as distinct from the individualistic values of pure capitalism. By the late 19th century, when Métin and Reeves used the term, it meant any extension of the state to assume new functions for the welfare of the whole.

Radical socialist theories

Yet there was much socialist theory being expounded in western circles from the mid-19th century, and some of it reached New Zealand. Edward Bellamy’s utopian novel Looking backward, which imagined an industrial army working in nationalised factories, was read in the 1890s, and from about 1900 more radical ideas arrived. In origin they derived from Karl Marx with his idea of a working-class revolution which would lead to socialist ownership of the means of production. These ideas entered New Zealand through a range of sources.

  • In 1900 a group of socialists led by William Ranstead arrived in New Zealand, which they believed was the ‘workingman’s paradise’. They established a socialist party and published a journal which became increasingly radical.
  • From Britain came touring unionists like Ben Tillet in 1907 and Tom Mann the following year.
  • From North America came influences from the International Workers of the World or ‘Wobblies’, especially brought by a Canadian, H. M. Fitzgerald, and New Zealander Pat Hickey, who had travelled in the United States and joined a mining union in Utah.

From these influences came ideas of revolutionary industrial unionism – of class solidarity and one big union to resist capitalist monopolies. Out of union conflict at West Coast coal mines in 1908 came a New Zealand Federation of Labour (known as the ‘Red Feds’). The federation expounded these ideas, leading eventually to a major strike at Waihī in 1912 and a general strike in 1913. Australians like Paddy Webb and Bob Semple helped Hickey spread the new gospel, and in 1911 the Red Feds took over the Maoriland Worker to expound their ideas. Before long New Zealanders were being exposed directly to the writings of Karl Marx and William Morris.

Socialist slogans

The 1910 constitution of the Federation of Labour was headed ‘World’s Wealth for World’s Workers’; it proclaimed ‘an injury to one an injury to all’ and aimed ‘for the complete abolition of the present wage system, and the substitution of the common ownership of the means of production’.3

There was not always unanimity. Some took their inspiration from the American Daniel De Leon and focused on political activity. Others, inspired by the Wobblies, emphasised revolutionary industrial unionism, sabotage and the general strike. New Zealand did not contribute many new ideas to the socialist canon, but for a few years debate was strong, and a distinct (although never large) group emerged who believed in revolution and the primacy of a class analysis.

The Russian revolution, followed after the Second World War by the Cold War, further isolated radical socialists. However, at times of crisis such as the 1951 waterfront lockout, appeals to class conflict and to the common ‘manhood’ of workers were heard in radical circles in New Zealand.

    • John A. Lee, Socialism in New Zealand. London: T. W. Laurie, 1938, p. 121. Back
    • Socialism in New Zealand, p. 14. Back
    • Quoted in Erik Olssen, The red feds: revolutionary industrial unionism and the New Zealand Federation of Labour 1908–14. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1988, pp. 34–35. Back

The new right

Classical economics

The Enlightenment thinker Adam Smith had articulated in Wealth of nations the importance of economic individualism and the dangers of state intervention in the form of mercantile regulation, legal monopolies and subsidies. New Zealanders inherited this belief in the virtues of individualistic economic activity and competition.


However, the state’s ad hoc responses to crises developed a growing acceptance of government intervention, and the economic depression of the 1930s discredited classical economics. In Britain John Maynard Keynes argued that capitalist economies developed market failures which the state should remedy. Keynes emphasised the importance of demand and the role of the government in regulating demand to maintain prosperity and full employment. Keynesian economics prescribed a central role for government, which was followed in New Zealand after the Second World War.

New neo-classical ideas

In the 1970s western economies such as New Zealand experienced both high unemployment and inflation, which according to the Keynesian model was not possible. Economists, especially in the United States, developed new ideas which revived neo-classical economics.

  • They suggested that the market, not the government, should be the major driver and determinant of the economy.
  • Inflation was caused by too much money. Therefore monetary policy, not the government’s fiscal adjustments, was the key policy tool.
  • Rejecting Keynes’s emphasis on demand and therefore on controlling inflation through an incomes policy, they suggested that wages should be left to settle at a market price.
  • Infringements on the free operation of the market, such as trade restrictions, subsidies or a fixed exchange rate, should all be abandoned.
  • Private enterprise and the price mechanism were always more efficient than government interventions or picking of winners.
  • Public choice theory emphasised the dangers of ‘policy capture’ and the importance of separating policy makers from providers of services.

New right in New Zealand

Economics as a profession emerged strongly at New Zealand universities in the 1960s. Before long, trained economists began to have an impact on such institutions as the Reserve Bank and the Treasury. There was a group of young economists who were well versed in the new ideas. Many had spent time in the United States. They included Graeme Scott, Rod Deane, Bryce Wilkinson and Roger Kerr.

Economics II

One place where new-right economics flourished was Economics II, a think tank in the Treasury in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was staffed by young economists (many of them US-educated) and was responsible for many of the new ideas that began to surface.

In the early 1980s new-right economics was aided by the evident failure of Robert Muldoon’s Keynesian and interventionist fiscal policies. These had included controlling wages, prices and interest rates; establishing new subsidies; and promoting ‘think big’ industrial projects. The New Zealand economists did not significantly add to the ideas coming from overseas, and the debates echoed those internationally, but this group became highly influential in a small society. Critics gravitated to the circle around Opposition finance spokesman Roger Douglas, who was especially influenced by Treasury official Doug Anthony.

New right in action

In 1984 a Labour government was elected. The ‘New Zealand experiment’ began. It included:

  • removal of protective tariffs and subsidies
  • floating the exchange rate
  • introduction of an indirect tax on goods and services (GST) and a flatter income tax
  • selling off or corporatisation of government-owned services in energy, transport, forestry and communications
  • an exclusive mandate for the Reserve Bank to control inflation through monetary policy
  • the Employment Contracts Act (after the National government was elected in 1990), which allowed freer setting of wages and individual labour contracts.

These measures were hailed around the world as among the purest applications of new-right economic ideas. Once again New Zealand became a much-watched social laboratory. Some ideas, such as the corporate model for the state sector, were copied elsewhere. However, as in earlier examples, New Zealand’s role was more to comprehensively implement ideas sourced from abroad than to develop the ideas in the first place.

Identity politics

In the mid-1960s and especially in the 1970s new ideas about identity began to have a profound impact on New Zealand. They took root especially among younger people and those at universities or with a university education. As with other significant ideas, the original inspiration came from overseas, and the theories were developed further within New Zealand and expressed in social and political action rather than in major intellectual contributions.

Independent foreign policy

New world views were first prominently expressed in relation to foreign policy, especially in response to New Zealand’s token involvement in the Vietnam War. Following overseas (especially American) examples, there were teach-ins (educational discussions), which spread ideas questioning Cold War assumptions. New Zealanders gave this a strong nationalist slant by arguing for an independent foreign policy. In the long term this bore fruit in the break from the ANZUS alliance with Australia and the United States in 1985.

Māori rights

Some urban Māori, inspired by civil rights and black power ideas from the United States, and decolonisation movements in Africa and Asia, began questioning old assumptions about the place of Māori in New Zealand. Academics like Ranginui Walker applied these ideas to New Zealand, while younger activists campaigned for such issues as promotion of the Māori language, the protection of Māori land and the need to take seriously the promises of the Treaty of Waitangi.

Brown dreams

Donna Awatere emphasised the ‘cultural hegemony’ of white ideas. To free themselves of these, she argued Māori had to think differently – to dream. Her book Maori sovereignty concludes: ‘It is the right of all peoples to dream dreams for themselves, believe in them and make them a reality. This is the right we reclaim in reinforcing the separate reality of our tipuna [ancestors] and making it our own. To do this is to take the first step toward Maori sovereignty.’1

There were some important intellectual contributions such as Donna Awatere’s Maori sovereignty (1984). Awatere drew on international theorists such as Frantz Fanon and Antonio Gramsci to emphasise the power of cultural imperialism.

These ideas found expression in such developments as the creation of the Waitangi Tribunal to review infringements of the Treaty of Waitangi, as well as the establishment of kōhanga reo (Māori-language preschools) and Māori radio and television. There was considerable international interest in such institutions.


From 1970 feminist ideas spread quickly. Again initial inspiration came from overseas writers – particularly Betty Friedan in the USA and Germaine Greer, an Australian academic resident in Britain. Early New Zealand feminists put energy into study groups and circulating books. Significant overseas thinkers such as Greer, and the American health activist Lorraine Rothman, visited and spoke to large audiences. By the early 1980s there were feminist bookshops in the main centres. From such intellectual ferment came an impressive periodical, Broadsheet; local books such as Sue Kedgley and Sharyn Cederman’s Sexist society (1972); and penetrating critiques of women’s health by Phillida Bunkle and Sandra Coney. The new ideas inspired political and social change – equal pay, reproductive rights, childcare provision and women’s growing visibility in public life.


Gay men and lesbians also took their lead from overseas ideas of gay liberation. Gay rights activism led to greater tolerance, homosexual law reform in 1986 and the introduction of marriage for same-sex couples in 2013.


Even in the 19th century some people expressed conservationist ideas, initially encouraged by American publications such as George Perkins Marsh’s Man and nature. In the early 20th century people like the botanist Leonard Cockayne, the author and farmer Herbert Guthrie-Smith and the activist Pérrine Moncrieff articulated strong conservationist sentiments.

In the 1960s the ideas became more widespread, with a focus on the whole environment, not just the protection of indigenous species. Academics and scientists like John Morton, John Salmon, Charles Fleming, Ian Prior, Alan Mark and Lance Richdale were influential. Salmon’s Heritage destroyed (1960) and Morton’s To save a forest (1984) became classics, while the younger ecologist Geoff Park wrote eloquently of particular places in N uruora (1995). These writers were openly indebted to overseas thinkers such as the Americans Henry Thoreau and Aldo Leopold, and to visitors such as the Briton Graham Searle, whose 1975 book on beech logging had a major impact.

The new ecological thinking had a profound effect – in new legislation such as the Resource Management Act 1991, and in pioneering work to save endangered species, especially birds. Such measures attracted some international attention.

Anti-nuclear ideas

The nationalist drive for an independent foreign policy and the new environmentalism combined in a strong anti-nuclear movement. There were few intellectual reflections of this, but there were powerful political acts such as the frigate sent to oppose French nuclear testing in the Pacific in 1973 and the 1984 refusal to admit nuclear-powered or -armed US ships, which culminated in the passage of anti-nuclear legislation. As so often in the past, ideas that had emerged internationally took on unusual strength in New Zealand and through their implementation attracted interest from the wider human community.

    • Donna Awatere, Maori sovereignty. Auckland: Broadsheet, 1984, p. 107. Back

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How to cite this page: Jock Phillips, 'Ideas in New Zealand', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 April 2024)

He kōrero nā Jock Phillips, i tāngia i te 22 o Oketopa 2014