Leading the world
New Zealand is not a large or powerful country. Nevertheless its political culture includes a view of the country – part of its attractive self-image – as capable of inspiring others. The idea of New Zealand leading the world by example, through idealism and pragmatic innovation, is an attractive one. It gives New Zealand a ‘mission’ – a wider purpose – that does not involve aggressive endeavour or the use of force. As imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the idea that New Zealand’s social, economic or political policies might be emulated by others – particularly by the more powerful – is potentially a deeply satisfying one.
Examples of New Zealand’s world-leading role are:
- being the first country in the world to give women the vote, in 1893
- the development of a welfare system, beginning with old age pensions in 1898 and including the welfare state of the 1935 Labour government, which earned New Zealand a reputation as ‘the social laboratory of the world’
- the country’s race relations – relations between Māori and non-Māori – were traditionally a source of pride, but have become less so
- the liberal economic reforms of the 1980s – not viewed positively by some New Zealanders.
In October 1997, Prime Minister Jim Bolger noted that New Zealand was working to find a solution to the war in Bougainville by organising peace talks in New Zealand. ‘It’s not glamorous work’, he said, ‘it’s called helping your neighbours’.1 In New Zealand’s political culture, being a good neighbour is a central virtue, and most New Zealanders would support New Zealand efforts, through aid and other programmes, to help the country’s Pacific neighbours.
New Zealand’s place in the world
New Zealanders’ values also encompass perceptions about the country’s place in the world. New Zealanders have never been ‘isolationist’. A remote island nation, dependent on external trade for its prosperity and, ultimately, on the support of larger powers for its security, could hardly adopt such a perspective. At the outset New Zealanders took pride in membership of the British Empire, and would have seen little alternative to it. A taste for military adventure and a degree of colonialism of their own in the Pacific were also among the values honoured by 19th- and early 20th-century New Zealanders.
Since the 1980s, New Zealanders have valued independence more highly – once a virtually unthinkable (if not treasonable) concept when compared to the benefits of being a dominion within the empire and (later) the Commonwealth. They now treasure the opportunity to chart their own course in regional and world affairs. They no longer value the idea of being an ‘ally’ – the word is now associated not with loyalty and reciprocity, but rather with subservience and militarism. New Zealand’s political vocabulary tends to emphasise friendship and the virtues of being a small, non-aligned country, ostensibly acting more on principle than out of self-interest.