Being Kiwi: So who do we really think we are?

After almost 150 years of reporting on New Zealand life, the Herald marks its rebirth in a compact format witha week-long series on the changing nature of what it means to be a New Zealander.

Ten-year-old Sophie McMillan talks to 98-year-old Harry Bioletti about what they think it means to be a New Zealander. Photo / Greg Bowker
Ten-year-old Sophie McMillan talks to 98-year-old Harry Bioletti about what they think it means to be a New Zealander. Photo / Greg Bowker

At 98, Harry Bioletti is no longer sure whether modern New Zealanders have the qualities our forebears were known for. A typical Kiwi, he says, is willing to "give it a go". "He may not have great expertise, he is a do-it-yourselfer - or he was," he says. "I don't know whether it is changing now."

A few streets away on Auckland's North Shore, 10-year-old Samuel O'Keeffe still has an almost identical image of his generation. "A typical Kiwi kid is very outgoing and has a can-do attitude," he says. "Nothing really matters to them. Lots of Kiwi people, if they don't have something, they make something. If they don't have a rope, they'll use a sheet to tie it up."

Sophie McMillan, who is in the same year as Samuel at Belmont Primary School, feels "really lucky that we can go for bush walks in pretty places".

To an outsider, New Zealand has changed enormously since Harry Bioletti was born.

Sophie's beloved bush has shrunk to a small remnant of our original forest. Our people have changed, too, from overwhelmingly British stock, plus a few mainly rural Maori, to a polyglot mix from many parts of the world.

Economically, we have slid down the ladder from one of the richest and most equal countries when Harry Bioletti's first child was born in 1952 to one of the poorest and least equal of developed nations. Many of today's younger families are struggling.

Yet our common notion of what it means to be a New Zealander is surprisingly enduring. And even though many have gone to Australia for a better life, most of those who are still here want to stay.

A DigiPoll survey of 750 people marking the launch of the new compact Herald, reported elsewhere today, shows that 66 per cent would rather live in New Zealand if they had the choice of anywhere in the world. Only 11 per cent would choose Australia.

A team of Herald reporters asked 91 people across five communities around the country, and 16 New Zealanders in Australia, a slightly different question: "Are you glad you live in New Zealand [or Australia], or would you rather live somewhere else?"

We targeted similar numbers in each of five 20-year age bands, from the over-80s to the under-20s, to look for generational changes, but on this question there was near-unanimity. Only one person, or none, in each age group of our New Zealand sample would rather live anywhere else.

Most of those who have gone to Australia are also glad to be there.

When Harry Bioletti was born, 95 per cent of his countryfolk were European. Just 4.7 per cent were Maori and 0.3 per cent were "race aliens" such as Chinese. Although 29 per cent were born overseas, nearly all were born within the British Empire. An overwhelming 94 per cent were Christian.

Half a century later, in 1961, Maori had increased to almost 7 per cent, but 92 per cent were still European and 89 per cent were Christian. Only 14 per cent were born overseas, still mainly in Britain, and only 3.6 per cent of the NZ-born population lived overseas.

Since then, the changes have been dramatic. Our guaranteed British market evaporated after 1973 when the UK joined the European Community, Australian living standards gradually pulled ahead and New Zealanders began to leave in growing numbers.

Partly this is just what the online NZ encyclopaedia Te Ara calls "small country syndrome". An OECD study last year found emigration rates were highest from small countries, especially island nations. Ignoring micro-states such as Niue and Tonga, Jamaica led the list with 33 per cent of its people living overseas in 2005-06; New Zealand came ninth, below Ireland and Portugal, with 12 per cent.

World Bank data for 232 countries, updated from other sources where possible, show about 750,000 people born in New Zealand, or 18.7 per cent of all NZ-born, now living overseas. The Australian Bureau of Statistics says three-quarters of those, 564,920, lived in Australia in June last year (after allowing for undercounting in last year's Australian Census).

Australia's mining boom may be abating, and rising oil prices must surely drag air fares up eventually, but Statistics NZ demographer Robert Didham expects that the proportion of New Zealanders seeking opportunities in bigger countries will keep growing over the next 50 years as long as borders remain open. "It could well be that it could get up to a third," he says.

At the same time, our immigration policy has adapted to fill the labour holes left by departing Kiwis, seeking people first from the Pacific and then from Asia. Preferences for migrants of British stock were abandoned in 1987.

Three-quarters of NZ residents are still at least partly European, but 8 per cent are of Pacific heritage and 11 per cent Asian, as well as 15 per cent Maori. Many are of mixed ancestry.

Almost a quarter (23.7 per cent) of residents, and almost 40 per cent in Auckland, are now overseas-born.

Those numbers could rise over the next 50 years to about 39 per cent nationally, and possibly over half in Auckland, if the "churn" of departing New Zealanders being replaced by immigrants were to continue at the same rate as in the past decade.

Yet despite all this change, the newcomers describe the typical New Zealander in the same words as native Kiwis: "sporty", "outdoors", "adventurous", "honest" and "friendly".

"More active than perhaps the English and probably more honest," says Rachel Somerville, 38, who came from Britain three years ago.

"Down to earth, friendly, proud, outdoorsy people," echoes Dunedin-born Rhonda Chapman, 52.

Older generations are slightly more likely to describe us as "practical". Cambridge art teacher Zane Holton, 49, suggests that the old image of fixing things with "number 8 wire" has evolved with technology.

"I think we are resourceful. That used to mean practical; I think it means more than that now," he says.

Conversely, younger generations are more likely to describe Kiwis as "easygoing"and "laid-back" - although that goes back a long way. "Wearing jandals, watching rugby, just being fun - I think we are a fun lot of people," says Rotorua rest-home activities co-ordinator June Hamilton, 61.

Cambridge 15-year-old Sara Dodds uses the same imagery: "Kind of laid-back life, not like busy-living life. Wearing jandals to the beach."

Most of the over-60s, with long memories of war and depression, feel New Zealand has become a better place in their lifetimes. So do most of the under-20s. "It's better because we've now got the Sky Tower and it's really a great tourist attraction," says Sophie McMillan.

But most of those in their 20s and 30s say New Zealand has become a worse place in their lifetimes, and those in their 40s and 50s are evenly divided.

"It's more expensive to live here and you get better money everywhere else in the world," says Henderson cinema attendant Rebecca Anisi, 21.

"There's less work. It's hard to find a job here," says Stevie-Ray Clarke, 20, who is unemployed.

In contrast to older urban cultures, New Zealanders' self-descriptions hardly ever refer to history or literature, religion or politics. Only Delcie Uings, an 84-year-old resident of The Gardens rest home in Rotorua, mentions the Queen. But our view of ourselves as "easygoing" has morphed, along with our changing demography, to include a widening awareness of Maori and other cultures.

Most of our sample (65 people) think increased ethnic diversity has been generally a good thing, against only four who see it as a bad thing and 14 with mixed views or indifference.

Ask 11-year-old Rotorua All Black-wannabe Seth Grouby what typifies a New Zealander and he says: "It's just awesome to be one, and like the Maori culture. They are more skilled at sports and everything."

Teacher Rochelle Wolland, 37, says: "It's multicultural, because you have so many different ethnicities and they are born in New Zealand so you can't say they are not New Zealanders."

Hamilton-born Masela Hellesoe, 22, counts Maori, Samoan, Dutch and Danish people among her ancestors. "I can be mistaken for being just white and that annoys me because I'm made of so many different cultures," she says.

"I think people are treated more equally compared to periods like the 1970s, for example. I think people are more accepting of other cultures."

THE QUESTION

Who are we: What does it mean to be a New Zealander in today's interconnected world?

The context: This week's changes in the New Zealand Herald are the biggest in our 149-year history and respond to equally momentous changes in our population and society that question our national identity.

The methods: A DigiPoll survey of 750 New Zealanders plus in-depth interviews with 91 people in New Zealand and 16 NZ-born people in Australia, including similar numbers in five 20-year age bands. The NZ interviews were arranged with the help of primary schools spanning the socio-economic decile range in north and west Auckland, Cambridge, Rotorua and Christchurch. In addition, historians at the online encyclopaedia Te Ara selected 30 key events that helped to shape our identity over the past 100 years.

The team: Greg Ansley, Kurt Bayer, Simon Collins, Yvonne Tahana, Lincoln Tan, Vaimoana Tapaleao.

KEY EVENTS 1912-32

1912 - William Massey becomes Prime Minister. Massey established our tradition of pragmatic conservative leaders, such as Holland, Holyoake, Bolger and Key, and was the great promoter of the quarter-acre suburban property as the essence of the New Zealand dream.

1913 - Wharf strike. The most disruptive, violent labour dispute in our history, it established a pattern of conflict between conservative governments and radical unionists.

1915 - Gallipoli. The first major engagement of New Zealand in World War I, the first time Maori fought overseas as a unit, and the start of our long-term relationship with Australia.

1919 - Prohibition is rejected. By a margin of 0.3 per cent, New Zealanders were able to keep drinking beer in their pubs. Bars now closed at 6 o'clock.

1922 - The Main Highways Act signalled the beginning of national highways and the first radio stations linked New Zealand to the world.

1925 - The Invincibles tour of the UK by the All Blacks established the central place of rugby in our national identity. 1932 On April 14, thousands of unemployed, hungry protesters ran down Queen St smashing windows and looting shops. It created a memory of the Depression and an image of what the country should avoid ever since.

Source: 30 key events 1912-2012, selected by Dr Jock Phillips and his team at the online encyclopaedia Te Ara. More online here.

THE SERIES

Today: Pioneer stock - Aged 80-plus
Tomorrow: War babies - Aged 60-79
Wednesday: Opening up - Aged 40-59
Thursday: Children of Rogernomics - Aged 20-39
Friday: Sport unites the nation - Aged under 20

Video: What is it to be a NZer?

- NZ Herald

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