Editorial: Country folk know true values of their nation

Road trip draws out real concerns and loves of New Zealanders living in the heartland.
The white sand at Rarawa Beach, Northland. Photo / Mark Mitchell.
The white sand at Rarawa Beach, Northland. Photo / Mark Mitchell.

For the past two weeks, reporter David Fisher and photographer Mark Mitchell have taken us on a journey through New Zealand as it is today.

They set out to talk to people and describe the places they enjoyed. As city dwellers it was the country that caught their interest, other cities were given barely a passing glance. We are not unusual in being a predominantly and increasingly urban society that still looks to the country for its character and its soul.

The characters they have photographed and described over the fortnight have been phlegmatic, fair-minded, decent and undemonstrative. Handed a chalkboard, they were invited to sum up New Zealand in a word.

They had been asked to do something similar by the flag consideration panel not so long ago. In each exercise they nominated words such as "green", "peaceful", "unique".

No single word can probably capture the depth of their sense of New Zealand but they nearly always relished the invitation. None more so than a man in Rotorua confined to a wheelchair who, when approached for his thoughts, indicated he was unable to speak. Given the chalkboard, he wrote, "Good place. Massive".

As the country is seen from outside Auckland, the main cloud on New Zealand's horizon lies over Auckland. The rest of the country hears and reads of homeless people there living rough and families living in cars. They wonder why urban marae are having to come to the rescue and what the Government is doing. They also know all about Auckland's rocketing house prices and some of them are seeing the real estate bubble reach their own towns as Aucklanders, they suspect, are buying up vacant houses.

The pressure of speculation outside Auckland cannot be blamed on immigration. From that distance it is easier to see the real causes of this crisis: the ability of Auckland homeowners to turn their new equity into cheap loans that enable them to buy more houses.

Outside this false bubble economy of paper wealth, out on the back roads of New Zealand, Fisher and Mitchell found people making real things. Craft industries and farmers' markets offer tasty samples of what New Zealand could be - and may need to be when, inevitably, the Auckland housing bubble bursts, wiping out equity and leaving most mortgaged households with a debt they cannot meet. The fine products of our farms, forests, orchards, vineyards and fisheries still point the way to a more authentic economy once those products receive the presentation and promotion their taste and quality deserve.

Tourism is already up there. It is impossible to do a road trip in this country without wanting to stop at times, as our travellers did, just to marvel at the sublime beauty of so much of the country. Population growth has been rapid in recent years but their reports carried no hint it is beginning to intrude on our open spaces. Nor did they notice the fouling of the countryside from "freedom camping" or the degrading of rivers and streams by dairy farms. Rural dwellers are right that these must be brought under better control but they do not yet detract from the sights visitors enjoy.

From Bluff to Cape Reinga, Hokitika to East Cape, positive words were written on the chalkboard. They reflect the condition of a country that can be thankful when it looks around the world at present. Dissension and terrorism seem a long way away, which is one reason people are coming here. They are contributing to a house price bubble that has reached outlandish proportions and there seems no end to it. But at least it is a problem of prosperity.

Populations of most countries are becoming ever more concentrated in one or a few cities. With sealed roads and adequate air services no part of the country is too remote, though it might not seem so to those in distant regions. We are, in a word, mates.

- NZ Herald

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