Dionne Christian is the NZ Herald’s arts and books editor

Young New Zealander writes new book for a new world

People power at Matarangi Beach in the Coromandel in 2011 was part of a successful protest against proposed development at iconic New Chums Beach.  Photo / Paul Estcourt
People power at Matarangi Beach in the Coromandel in 2011 was part of a successful protest against proposed development at iconic New Chums Beach. Photo / Paul Estcourt

A near-death experience is always going to change your outlook on life, especially if you're just 26, miles from home and learning you've got a life-threatening heart condition and, perhaps, a genetic disorder which could kill you before the aortic aneurysm does.

So it was for Max Harris.

In 2014, Harris was having the time of his life as an intern in former Prime Minister Helen Clark's executive office at the United Nations in New York.

Born and raised in Wellington, he'd already worked at the Supreme Court of New Zealand as a clerk for Chief Justice Sian Elias and at law firms, institutions and non-government organisations in New Zealand, Australia and the US.

But if his life was to be short, he wanted to ensure it would mean something.

Now, three years after he collapsed in his New York apartment, Harris is very much alive and well on the way to reaching his goal. His book The New Zealand Project comes out on Monday, outlining ideas to make our country better.

"This work was born out of an instinct that something is not right in New Zealand society, that politics is partly to blame for this, and that collective political action might be able not only to address these challenges but to create new ways of thriving together," he writes in the book's introduction.

In straightforward language, Harris reflects on New Zealand's place in the world and makes suggestions for dealing with the future of work, climate change, race relations, social infrastructure like health, education and housing and new frameworks for economic policy.

He uses interviews with academics, experts and activities to add to his own anaylsis and makes efforts to point out the interconnectedness between specific areas. He says it's not meant to be an "egotistical manifesto" but it an attempt to amplify others' voices and an invitation to debate.

Harris hopes the book will start conversations and make politics more appealing to those who believe it is unimportant in their lives.

Heart surgery to fix the aneurysm was successful and he should now be able to live a long and normal life.

Harris has since spent the past two and a half years writing the book, which pulls together ideas for bringing "the love" back into politics in the Trump, Brexit and post-truth politics era.

He says care, community and creativity must be the foundations a new style of politics is built on. Calling for a strategic intervention, he sees politics dominated by pragmatism at the expense of values-based policies with decisions increasingly made by "technocrats" who have highly technical knowledge and expertise but don't represent the majority of people.

"I'm really worried about the problems we are facing; I don't think there's not enough commitment to tackling inequality, which will further impact on how the next generation sees its place in the community," says Harris, who first became interested in politics at primary school when his class learned about elections.

"I believe we're teetering on the edge and going over because we're not addressing our problems."

Now 28, he acknowledges there's often a belief that the young haven't lived long enough to earn the right to speak up and out about issues confronting the country.

"There are a lot of reasons people give for youth not to speak out and I am sure if I were writing this book 20 years from now, I would write it differently but I don't want to wait because change needs to start happening now. The more voices we encourage, the better."

As he writes in The New Zealand Project, being young is perhaps an advantage as he isn't old enough to have lost a sense of hope or possibility. That optimism helped when he was ill.

When Harris learned how sick he was, rather than draw up a bucket list that included travel and high living, he decided to sit one of the world's hardest exams. The Rhodes Scholar, with degrees in law, arts and public policy, wanted a University of Oxford All Souls Prize Fellowship.

This would give him seven years of open-ended funding for writing and research. He wanted to devise a plan for a fresh approach to politics which would lead to widespread discussion about how we make our country better.

"I was already scared of death so I figured if there was something that I could contribute that went beyond myself, then I should do it. I thought about setting up some sort of think-tank then I thought maybe I could interview as many people as I could find sticking their heads above the parapet - then I remembered the All Souls Prize and it seemed like a good starting point for me."

He sat the exam - six hours of writing on a specialist subject, six hours of answering general questions and an interview in front of 50-60 academics - and obtained the All Souls Prize.

"I think more and more, we've become a country that makes it harder for people to get involved, but I believe most New Zealanders have strong opinions and want to express these. I really hope people start having more conversations about the ideas in the book."

Harris speaks today at the Festival of Colour in Wanaka and on Tuesday at the Royal Society of New Zealand. He'll also give the Michael King Memorial Lecture at the Auckland Writers Festival in May.

Max Harris wants to bring values back into New Zealand politics.
Max Harris wants to bring values back into New Zealand politics.

The New Zealand Project's Max Harris:

On health and housing: "We need to expand and improve our social infrastructure in a way that recognises the interconnectedness of policy areas, aspires to comprehensive provision, partners with local government, and respects cornerstone values of care, community and creativity."

Education: "There could be a need for significant policy change to lift the average quality of public schools, so that a chasm does not emerge between the best and worst public schools. This might entail increased funding for struggling schools. For now, an independent inquiry into school zoning, enrolment schemes and educational inequality would be a useful start."

Climate change: New Zealand could "...seek to establish opportunities for Pacific heads of state and others to speak at global conferences on climate displacement and gaps in the existing international law framework. We could also convene a meeting of interested states in the Pacific to discuss short-term management of emerging climate displacement problems."

Race relations: "...the Whanau Ora model of family-focused, Maori-led, community-centred approaches to social policy might be extended to other relevant areas of policy. There has been some criticism of Whanau Ora. But it is a relatively new initiative, and it is not clear that its alleged weaknesses run deep. It is even less clear that its weaknesses outweigh its benefits." He also says iwi, hapu and urban Maori authorities need to be sufficiently resourced so that they are able to lead and the Government should be willing to support iwi projects to address Maori policy challenges. Te reo should be given pride of place in the national curriculum.

The New Zealand Project
by Max Harris
(Bridget Williams Books, $39)

- NZ Herald

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