Friday, February 17, 2023

Karl du Fresne: We have glimpsed the best of New Zealand

What an extraordinary week.

I’m not just talking about the devastation, the tragedy and the heroism, although all that was remarkable enough.

What was also exceptional was the manner in which the country responded. Cyclone Gabrielle gave us a tantalising glimpse of a New Zealand that most of us grew up in and recognised – a country where people set aside real or imagined differences and pulled together in the face of a common crisis.

It has been easy in recent years to wonder whether that country has ceased to exist. Ideological extremism, identity politics and the culture wars, compounded by the social stress and dislocation of Covid, have so dominated politics, the media and the public conversation that it often seemed New Zealand was a country at war with itself.

We have been through a sustained and bruising period of division and polarisation, the purpose of which seemed to be to pull us in different directions based on race, gender, sexual identity and other markers of “otherness”.

But in recent days we have witnessed the re-emergence of the old New Zealand: a country in which people recognise that all of us – urban and rural, male and female, Maori and Pakeha, young and old, queers and heterosexuals, immigrants and those born here – are bound by common interests, values and aspirations and need to pull together when our national wellbeing is threatened.

We have seen the very best of New Zealand in the way communities rallied and turned to their own resources, and in the way emergency services personnel, many of whom were themselves directly affected by flood damage, selflessly responded to the urgent needs of others, often at great personal risk – and in two cases, with fatal consequences.

We have seen an outpouring of public support for the thousands of people whose properties have been destroyed and who must now set about trying to rebuild their lives. Farmers, horticulturists and orchardists are some of the worst affected and it’s possible the disaster will have a positive outcome in the form of a greater public appreciation of the rural sector and its importance to the rest of us.

We have been reassured and impressed by the performance of community leaders, sector representatives and local politicians who suddenly found themselves thrust into situations for which there was no chance to rehearse. Four who stand out are the mayors (all women) of Gisborne, Napier, Hastings and Central Hawke’s Bay. It’s notable that in Auckland it was another woman, deputy mayor Desley Simpson, who stepped up, presumably because Wayne Brown either accepts or has been told that whatever his skills may be (and they have yet to be revealed), they don’t include communication.

The crisis has been good for Labour, enabling Chris Hipkins to portray himself as a man of the people, out there hearing their stories and sharing their grief. Of course this is no more nor less than any prime minister should do in the circumstances, but it’s good for his image. National is forced into the position of being merely a passive observer, able to do little more than endorse Labour’s approach. Bearing in mind the old political adage that every crisis is an opportunity, the events of the past few days can only increase speculation that Hipkins will call a snap election.

We have been generally well served by the media, especially the broadcast media, who were tested to the limit. In the first two days the mayhem was so widespread and fast-moving that it was hard for news outlets to keep up. Just as reporters were getting to grips with one major development, another story broke somewhere else. I can’t recall any other crisis when the media focus kept shifting at such a dizzying pace – from Muriwai to Tairawhiti, Northland to Hawke’s Bay. Power failures and communication breakdowns made the job even harder, but reporters rose to the challenge.

Radio in particular came into its own. It’s unique in its ability to keep on top of a fast-moving and fluid (forgive the pun) situation. Radio reporters are highly mobile and can phone in their reports from wherever things are happening. Programme schedules aren't rigid, unlike TV, and can be interrupted whenever news breaks. Moreover, you can listen to the radio pretty much wherever you go and whatever you're doing.

The crisis also served as a striking reminder of the limitations of digital technology. When a smart phone is useless because cell phone towers are out or the phone can’t be charged, a battered transistor radio – as one farmer marooned in a remote area of Northland attested this morning on RNZ – can be a lifeline. To an incorrigible Luddite such as me, all this is very affirming.

To summarise, in the worst of circumstances we have glimpsed the best of New Zealand – a New Zealand many of us feared was changing beyond recognition.

For five days, ideological agendas and their vociferous, mischievous champions have been sidelined. The constant discordant static of division has been silenced. New Zealanders have had far more pressing issues to focus on – practical issues of survival and recovery.

They have been given a vivid reminder of the importance of social solidarity at a time when it was never more desperately needed. The question now is whether this spirit can be sustained once the immediate crisis has passed.

Karl du Fresne, a freelance journalist, is the former editor of The Dominion newspaper. He blogs at


Tony M said...

As usual, an excellent set of observations. I hope that the obvious weakness of any digital currency is also remembered. Not only does the removal of paper money provide government (and other institutions) with an even greater levels of power, outages like the ones that we have seen will mean that it impossible to purchase goods and services.

Helen Swan said...

Yes, New Zealanders needed each other and the call was answered.
Yes, there is a core humanity in our country still.
Yes, we are glad most of us don’t have an electric car, especially living in the devastated regions.
Yes, we are grateful to still have cash, especially appreciated in the devastated regions.
Yes, we need a bi-partisan recovery plan.
No, we are not stupid enough to think this government capable of handling this emergency without politicking as Ardern trained Skippy/Hippy/Chippy so well. The first sign of it was McNulty delivering a televised update in front of a red wall with a dominant Labour logo on that wall.
Ahhh…. the cynic in me is stirred mightily.

Ahwen Boone said...

Yes Helen. Well said! Just as Jacinda was labeled the "Podium Princess" maybe we should tag "Chippy" as the "Podium Prince"...!!