“Population NZ's population is increasing by one person every five minutes and 26 seconds. In the next few months we'll have five million people. This five-part series looks ahead to what the nation will be like when that milestone is reached and recalls what it was like every time it added a million people to its population. Lincoln Tan talks to some of those who were here for the four-million mark in 2003

The population clock hit four million in 2003, but it was sex in New Zealand that made headlines around the world, recalls Kiwi event specialist Shaughan Woodcock.

Woodcock, an LGBTQ advocate best known for being a producer for the Auckland Pride Parade, remembers it as a time when the rainbow community was fighting for a voice.

"We had just lost the Hero Parade a couple of years earlier, which was a major vehicle helping the community gain acceptance," he said.

The annual Hero Parade, which started in 1992, was attended by about a hundred thousand people annually, but had to stop in 2001 due to financial constraints.

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Woodcock, who was then in his late 20s and working as Air New Zealand's information technology call centre manager, says big strides were being made in the country's sex industry.

Rainbow community was struggling for a voice and fighting again for acceptance without the Hero Parade. Photo / File
Rainbow community was struggling for a voice and fighting again for acceptance without the Hero Parade. Photo / File

In June 2003, New Zealand became the first country to decriminalise sex work.

With the Prostitution Reform Act, New Zealand's sex industry became one of the most liberal in the world.

The law decriminalised brothels, escort agencies and soliciting and sparked worldwide interest.

"The sweeping sex industry changes were the big news, no one really thinks of it as being a landmark year of the population hitting four million," Woodcock said.

"Within the rainbow community, there was a lot of talk about how sex workers were starting to feel safe again and no longer had to feel like they were criminals."

What began in 2003 continues to attract world-wide interest.

Joep Rottier, a researcher from Utrecht University in the Netherlands, spent five years researching New Zealand's sex industry. He has just released his report.

Rottier described the prostitution legislation as "the most progressive law of its kind in the world".

"New Zealand decided to choose a pragmatic sex industry policy in 2003 - the only country in the world to decriminalise the entire voluntary commercial sex industry," he said.

"In many countries, sex workers often have no other choice than to carry out their profession in illegal and dark environments," Rottier said.

His research found that the laws had greatly improved the lives of sex workers. Rottier said other countries could learn from New Zealand.

"Without romanticising the sex industry in New Zealand, I was impressed by how this policy could improve sex workers' lives and work conditions in health, safety and self-determination."

The Prostitution Reform Act decriminalised sex work in 2003. Charlotte Ama (L) of the HOSS team at Auckland City Mission and Annah Pickering (R) of NZ Prostitutes Collective Photo / File
The Prostitution Reform Act decriminalised sex work in 2003. Charlotte Ama (L) of the HOSS team at Auckland City Mission and Annah Pickering (R) of NZ Prostitutes Collective Photo / File

It took a long three decades for the population to climb from three million in 1973 to reach four million in April 2003.

The Trans-Tasman Travel Arrangement, which allowed citizens of Australia and New Zealand to travel, reside and work between the two countries without the need of passports saw Kiwis leaving for Australia in droves.

By 2001, eight times more New Zealanders were living in Australia than Australians living here, and NZ became the second largest source of immigration to Australia.

For many years since the late 1970s, New Zealand's population went into decline.

Fertility remained at or just below replacement levels since the late 1970s, and an increasing number of Kiwis continued to leave the country for Australia and beyond.

The Government made drastic changes to immigration policy to address the problem of declining population.

Actor Orlando Bloom shows off his NZ T-shirt during the world premiere of the Lord of the Rings. Photo / File
Actor Orlando Bloom shows off his NZ T-shirt during the world premiere of the Lord of the Rings. Photo / File

The Immigration Act 1987 radically changed the criteria for migrant entry to New Zealand, resulting in a surge in people coming from non-traditional source countries.

Asia and the Pacific Islands replaced the United Kingdom and Europe as the main source of New Zealand's immigration.

Massey University sociologist Professor Paul Spoonley said 2003 was when the impact of major inward flows of migrants was widely felt.

"After 2003 ... migrants have been the major source of population growth," Spoonley said.

The presence of ethnic communities - from the Pacific people who arrived under a work permit scheme established in the mid 1970s, to the Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees who resettled here in the 1980s - were being more strongly felt.

Economic and skilled migrants, mostly from Asia, were starting to arrive in large numbers as a result of the immigration policy changes.

A crewmember cuts off the sails after Team New Zealands mast snapped during their fourth race against Alinghi. Photo / Glenn Jeffrey
A crewmember cuts off the sails after Team New Zealands mast snapped during their fourth race against Alinghi. Photo / Glenn Jeffrey

Spoonley said the presence and influx of migrants from Asia made many uncomfortable.

Some politicians, he said, capitalised on this by making inflammatory remarks about Asian migration to win votes.

Woodcock, however, remembers enjoying the diversity of food and other businesses that these new migrants had brought to New Zealand.

"They changed Auckland. For the first time we had real dinner choices other than fried rice and spring rolls from the local Chinese takeaway," he said.

"It added colour and a whole new dimension, and grocery shopping could be done at places like Tai Ping and not just Woolworths or Foodtown."

The news in 2003 included the stranding on July 5 of 350 skiers and 70 skifield staff on Mount Ruapehu overnight at Top o' the Bruce when a sudden snow storm blew up.

Within a few minutes, the access road was deemed too dangerous to descend.

The people spent the night on the mountain, but all came down safely the next day.

On the Hauraki Gulf, Team New Zealand gave the country one of its biggest sporting heartaches that year.

Alinghi, skippered by Russell Coutts, hammered Dean Barker's Team NZ 5-0 to win the America's cup.

Race four was sailed in strong winds and rough seas, and Team New Zealand's mast snapped on the third leg.

In the final race on March 1, Barker's boys broke a spinnaker pole during a manoeuvre and lost the race and the cup to the Swiss syndicate set up by Ernesto Bertarelli.

Netball fans, however, had a reason to celebrate as the Silver Ferns beat Australia 49-47 in a nail-biting final to win the World Netball Championships in Jamaica.

In Wellington, an estimated 100,000 Lord of the Rings fans turned up to celebrate the world premiere of the Return to the King, the final part of the trilogy.

The event was attended by stars including Ian McKellen, Elijah Wood, Liv Tyler and of course Kiwi director Peter Jackson.

The movie, shot entirely in New Zealand, went on to become one of the most critically and commercially successful films of all time.

Helen Clark was then Prime Minister in a coalition Government between Labour and the Progressive Party with United Future supporting supply votes.

Bill English was National's leader but was rolled by Don Brash who became Leader of the Opposition.