Migration has made New Zealand a great country - now we have a chance to become a cultural world leader

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How we can make New Zealand even better - diversity. Photo / Chris Gorman
How we can make New Zealand even better - diversity. Photo / Chris Gorman

A new year is about new perspectives, and from the perspective of the rest for the world, there are many reasons why record numbers of tourists come to New Zealand and migrants want to settle here.

We can breathe the air and drink water from the tap. Friends just back from visiting Beijing coughed their way around the Forbidden City and climbing the Great Wall. Corruption is not the modus operandi and if you try it, our enforcement system generally catches you. We have an independent judicial system and we have tough regulation and regulators to protect the public interest whether in financial products or food. But there is potentially another great market advantage New Zealand has of greater cultural competence than other parts of the world due to the large number of indigenous people and Auckland being the largest Pacific City in the world. Now with the growing number of migrants allowed into New Zealand as international students, essential and highly skilled migrants (to work on the Christchurch rebuild, to work on farms and in the health sector, for example) and business investor migrants, we have now become one of the most superdiverse countries in the OECD.

Cultural competence is the ability to work with and relate to people who are not like us. If we want to increase exports, find more lucrative markets for our produce and attract the best talent and foreign investment, then the ability to understand and communicate with people not like us is essential. Even judges need more cultural competence as the ethnicities of those turning up in court continues to change.

New Zealand already does relatively well in comparison with other countries. We have a sad history of racist laws but we do have a good record of trying to redress racial wrongs, although my Master's Thesis at Harvard Law School confirmed that, once the law has been used on Maori to create a racial underclass, using the law to restore the indigenous people is hard. I still argue a lot of cases before the Waitangi Tribunal and the courts on Maori and Treaty of Waitangi grievances against the Crown, but the fact that we have a justice system that allows it and rights from laws passed by Parliament to form the basis of cases shows progress. Never as much as Maori require, but never as bad as it is in many other countries. The same can be said for discrimination experienced by people of colour in New Zealand. It is generally worse in other countries.

Then Prime Minister Helen Clark said sorry for exacting a poll tax on the Chinese and we are now rated as number 4 in the 2015 Global Peace index, which includes a measure of racial harmony. We are perceived on the world stage as a neutral, independent, peaceful country, who has a sympathetic ear for the issues faced by small states, being one ourselves. Our success in getting on the Security Council is evidence.

I am often asked how you get cultural competence. Like anything else - through practicing (an attitude of openness, of being interested in other people and why they think and act the way they do), experience, exercising your cultural capability muscles and building up your strength. For example, I started yoga last year as my back, knees and hips were perpetually injured through running. It has been hard work, but a year and 3 Mande White yoga classes a week later, I have built muscles I haven't had since I was a gymnast in my teens. My back is strong and my knees don't hurt. The most important characteristics to succeed in yoga are discipline to practise and the ability to withstand pain. I used to joke before I ever did yoga that it seemed to require you to get into positions that hurt and to hold them for 5 minutes. How true I found that to be!

Building cultural capability is no different. You need to work at it. New Zealanders now have the best possible opportunity to do that given its superdiversity - over 200 ethnicities, 160 languages, 25% of New Zealanders not born here, and growing rates of intermarriage between different ethnicities. Having to adjust to Treaty of Waitangi obligations in legislation and policy and a growing Maori population, including through intermarriage, has built a cultural capability base. The question is how to leverage off that and to use migrants as bridges to make cultural capability a success factor for business, government and New Zealand. Answering that question, and how to build cultural intelligence and measure its success will be the subject of the Superdiversity Centre for Law, Policy and Business' next publication in November 2016. It will also be the focus of the Culturally Competent Leaders video series starting this week in the Herald online and the "What next after the Superdiversity Stocktake?" Conference supported by AUT University and Auckland Council. The Superdiversity Centre has already built a survey tool for the Committee for Auckland to allow organisations to measure their cultural capability, and created first time cultural capability modules for Southern Institute of Technology to train their staff to succeed with international students, and for the International Travel College to train tourism operators. The Superdiversity Centre is also working on the legal and policy framework needed to consider the implications of superdiversity.

New Zealand can become world beaters not just in rugby but also in our cultural capability to maximise the economic and social benefits of being one of the most ethnically superdiverse countries in the OECD. When an open attitude is combined with accumulated experience and knowledge about other cultures, you are heading towards cultural intelligence, which is a journey rather than a goal.

• Mai Chen is Chair of the Superdiversity Centre for Law, Policy and Business and Chair of Chen Palmer

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- NZ Herald

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