For thousands of proud Kiwis watching the telly, Oscar-winner Bret McKenzie couldn’t have said it better. McKenzie told the world New Zealand was a great place to grow up, somewhere you could live your dreams. But how accurate is that assessment in 2012? Cliff Taylor asks if Godzone is still a place that nurtures talent

Proudly clutching Hollywood's most prized trophy, Bret McKenzie used his moment in the global spotlight this week to heap praise on his homeland. Back at home, watching the Oscars on TV, we swelled with pride, the warm fuzzies still glowing the next morning. Tourism industry bosses must have been hugging themselves silly.

"I grew up in New Zealand watching The Muppets on TV," McKenzie told the Oscar night audience and the billions watching around the world, thus firmly grounding himself in this little corner of the Pacific. He'd just won Best Original Song for writing Man or Muppets for the movie.

Later, when asked backstage how a small country could produce so many award-winning artists, such as Sir Peter Jackson, Sir Richard Taylor, Jane Campion and Anna Paquin, he observed: "It's a great place to grow up. You can do whatever you want there. Whereas in America I think everyone's obsessed with their careers, in New Zealand you get to just live your dreams."

The rest of the world could be forgiven for thinking that New Zealand truly is God's Own country, a bohemian hothouse where gorgeous and talented people simply wander from school into bands and the film industry and nonchalantly take on the world. But how realistic is that view? Are New Zealanders really free to "just live their dreams"?


In his interviews, McKenzie also made a point of thanking his parents for "not telling me to get a real job". His mum Deirdre Tarrant put a slight caveat on his gushing praise for Godzone. "'I think you can follow your dreams anywhere," she said. "It's all about how hard you work at it."

McKenzie certainly bears that out. Born in 1976, he had already achieved international fame, with his Flight of the Conchords co-star Jemaine Clement, before winning the Oscar. The pair met at Victoria University when they were flatmates and dabbled with all kinds of musical and dramatic ventures long before their breakthrough with the Conchords at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2002 and later with their HBO television series in 2007.

Both immensely talented, they focused on what they wanted to achieve. And their laconic, Kiwi demeanour in no way diminished their work ethic. But, looking back, many people would perhaps view the 80s and 90s, when McKenzie and Clement were growing up and going to university, as a more innocent, less-competitive era, when we could all be eternal students, pick up jobs easily and go on the dole to hone our creative skills before unleashing them on the world.

The dole was the unofficial grant for struggling artists and helped launch the careers of many of our best musicians and actors. Try that today in our leaner, meaner social welfare system and you'll quickly be under investigation and sent on an interview for some highly uncreative menial job.

My parents, who arrived here in the early 60s, "when they were needing 'em, not feeding 'em" as my father likes to say, describe a country where you could quit one job in the morning, and walk into another job by the afternoon.

Today, the idea of spending years doing some kind of BA (bugger all) degree, and an OE before even thinking about a career in our 30s is less of an option in a highly competitive job market and in a world where the prospect of buying a home is increasingly unreachable for many.

The arrival of many immigrants with strong work ethics and career ambitions would also have been a wake-up call to many Kiwis. In today's academic and work environment, you snooze, you lose.

A friend who has just turned 50 put it this way: "I think when we were growing up, New Zealand was predominantly a socialist country and the lifestyle was great - plenty of bush to explore and beaches and doing stuff with your mates then, as teens, surfing, parties, adventures. In many ways we lived the dream. But I'm not so sure young people can do that now. There are no jobs, yet if you're unemployed you're viewed as a miserable drain on the economy. If you're uneducated, your only hope is the mines in Australia. But good on Bret McKenzie."


Cartoonist and designer Peter Bromhead emigrated to New Zealand from Britain in the 1950s. The country he found here was isolated and "uptight". He was warned not to talk to anyone about politics or religion.

"Three things have changed," he says. "Computers, containers and air travel. They've attached us to the rest of the world and changed how young people think and feel."One of the key attributes he believes New Zealand can lay claim to is a kind of flexibility which doesn't occur in other parts of the world.

"It's very easy to launch an idea, and if people like it they will go for it. It's been comparatively easy to get into TV comedy, cartooning, curating, lecturing at university and writing. I'm very grateful to New Zealand, because it's taught me this flexibility, that I could go anywhere, do anything and be anything."

Bromhead is in an ideal position to evaluate his adopted country. He has grown-up children who have gone into theatre producing, glider flying and snowboard instructing. He also now has two young sons-one 6 years old, the other just 4 months. "Overall," he says. "I feel this is a good place to bring up children. Compared with the stress children feel in places like Germany or Britain, it's pretty relaxed here." So, how would he feel if one of his young boys left school and "lived the dream". Would he tell him to get a real job?

He laughs. "That's what my snowboard instructor son is doing. There's no snow so he's down on the coast doing some surfing and catching lobsters, thinking about going back to university, leading that casual kind of life. It's that Kiwi dream thing again, like 50 years ago. Nothing changes." Entrepreneur Tony Falkenstein reckons McKenzie's comments about New Zealand are accurate, but he is concerned at changes he sees in our society, driven by cultural influences from overseas.

On the line from Singapore, he explains his view that over-zealous parenting and schooling is stifling the creativity which has made New Zealanders able to excel in the first place. "Parents are really pushing their kids and they are losing their creativity too early. Every kid is born with a great imagination, and slowly education takes it out of them. They are inherently creative, but the parents are pushing the kids into all sorts of other things."

The founder of Just Water and majority owner of companies including Bartercard, Falkenstein says he didn't do particularly well in school, and that may have saved his imagination.

"I'm a 4-year-old in a 64-year-old body," he laughs. "I still like being a kid, and anything I want to do I can do it." He says the NewZealand can-do attitude is still intact: "And I'm keen that we don't lose that." He wants to see the education system encourage more creativity and entrepreneurialism.

"That's why I'm big in support of charter schools, where kids can learn by doing. If they're no good in the classroom, they can do these other things. In the classroom they may just be seen as a loser." Falkenstein takes students from the business school he started at his former college in Onehunga to New York to "open their minds" to the possibilities out in the world. "I see these kids just grow amazingly," he says. "Everywhere they go there are Kiwis, and they say 'there's no reason I can't do that'."

Daljit Singh, spokesman for the NZ Sikh Society in Auckland, says this country has been a land of opportunity for many in his community. "It's the best country in the world, that's why we picked this country to live in." He says there are an estimated 30,000 Sikhs in New Zealand, up to 20,000 in Auckland. And although the openings are certainly there, no migrant is going to sit around waiting for opportunity to knock.

"The immigrant always feels pressure when they migrate to this country as they always have many dreams and to achieve their goals they try to work hard, long hours, sometime seven days a week, with more focus on their careers. Many parents have goals fortheir children, and while they are not always achieved, they try their best to make their children's future bright."

Singh says in our relatively peaceful environment, people can pursue their ambitions, while maintaining contact with the rest of the world. "I came as a 17-year-old, I've been here 22 years. I feel like a Kiwi."

But, he says, there are pitfalls and pressures here, like in all countries, and the challenges can be pretty similar. "It's our responsibility as parents to make sure children don't get into drugs or other issues."

Gaye Miller, who runs Kids Friendly Travel based in Matakana, believes New Zealand still offers young people an egalitarian environment to grow up in. "We don't put people into categories. If you talk to people from overseas they say it matters if you don't go to the right school etc. But that doesn't matter in New Zealand. Everyone starts off on an even footing-it doesn't matter who you are, you can get somewhere."

However Miller agrees this is changing, due to greater pressures and higher expectations on young people. "There's not as much freedom as we had.We were allowed to go off and disappear for hours and when you have that freedom you can really explore and test your limitations.

"It's perfect for the imagination. When I grew up, after school you could take a year off, go and pick fruit or whatever. These days it's quite a bit different with the expectations on children leaving school. They need to have higher qualifications. As a parent of a 16-year-old I think children need to have a good education, and I try to encourage that."

Miller says she is concerned about the gap developing between well educated and poorly educated people, although she still feels "100 per cent" that it's a good place to grow up. Dame Lesley Max, founder of the Great Potentials Foundation, has years of involvement in a wide range of family- oriented organisations. I asked her if she believed New Zealand was really a place where we can fulfil our childhooddreams.

"The way I see it, for the fortunate it's true. And for those whose horizons are very narrow, because of the circumstances in which they are brought up, it's not really very true at all." Dame Lesley says her long experience working with struggling families has convinced her there are increasingly "two New Zealands" existing side by side.

"There is one New Zealand where children are nurtured and where opportunities abound and where people have a chance to try and live their dreams, and there's another New Zealand, which may be separated by a couple of kilometres from the first, where life is much more narrow.

"Places where it's hardly known what happens in the next suburb, let alone an environment in which they can aspire and hope to realise their aspirations. There are kids who have lived in Auckland all their lives and never been over the Harbour Bridge." She believes previous generations of New Zealanders enjoyed more opportunities than many in today's society, and is calling for change.

"We had the background to dream. An average Kiwi upbringing, as we used to understand it, provides a fantastic launching pad. Let's make an effort to ensure that other young people whose lives are confined by bonds which can be broken - that they are given a chance to aspire and hope." Clearly not everyone is convinced that everything is rosy in the garden of New Zealand. The nature versus nurture debate remains unresolved - the truth is that Bret McKenzie would probably have excelled wherever he was born.

But, if any inspiration was required to ignite the minds of young New Zealanders to take on the world, the image of McKenzie triumphantly waving his Oscar aloft undoubtedly provides it.