Is This The Real New Zealand?

One day last year I took a train from Wellington to Masterton. It was a beautiful day and a lovely journey. I have always liked the Wairarapa, but I have to say that after a year of living in Auckland, emerging from the tunnel into South Wairarapa felt like coming back to New Zealand.

It was funny to find on that research trip out of Auckland, how reluctant I was to describe myself as being ‘from Auckland’. I either said “I live in Auckland but I’m from Dunedin” or “I’m from Dunedin but I now live in Auckland”.

It’s not that I hate living in Auckland – I love living there. As long as I don’t have to drive on motorways at rush hour it’s absolutely lovely. But it’s the effect that saying you’re from Auckland has on others.

In research, the last thing a researcher wants to do is influence the way people will respond to your questions. You draw on whatever common threads you have with your research participants, encouraging them to speak their truths. You are as bland and as interested as you can possibly be.

In Masterton I got brave and shared my Auckland identity issue with group participants at the end of the session.  I asked them if it would have had any effect. They’d assumed I was from Wellington, which probably brings its own share of prejudices anyway.

But they agreed that there was a stereotypical ‘Aucklander disses the Wairarapa’ scenario, along the lines of: “I’ve been here three hours and I’m totally bored!” or “I needed to get a replacement because mine broke, but they said it’d take six weeks!”  It seems Aucklanders pack extra sighs and exclamation marks  when they travel to the regions.

On that trip I also stopped in Greytown for a very specific couple of groups, exploring the effects of gentrification on that small Wairarapa town. One group were long-term locals, the other were more recent arrivals.

How Deep Are New Zealand’s Social Divisions?

I wanted to specifically compare these two groups with a study run by long-term US pollster Stan Greenberg in Macomb County Wisconsin.

In Greenberg’s study he made the point that it wasn’t just the coastal elites that the Trump voters were against, it was the local variants – hipsters, downshifters and lifestylers who’d moved in from nearby Minneapolis-St Paul. The quote below is from an article in Politico that I can no longer locate:

. . .the resentment isn’t just directed at the coasts. It’s local. Here, the urban elite isn’t a faceless, distant other: It’s the enclave of liberal. . . newcomers who have moved here over the past few decades—not just an abstract political imposition, but an actual physical presence. It has spawned anger and bitterness, a simmering undercurrent of alienation among many people locally born and raised.”

They feel patronised and displaced by these people and like their county isn’t theirs any more. The ‘outsiders’ are perplexed. Can’t these people see that their organic, localised, eco-conscious values are good for everyone?

I can see how that could happen but I certainly didn’t find the same level of anger in the Wairarapa –  there was some talk that farmers were angry – though that was mainly a mix of drought, debt and dairy price fluctuations back then. Now they have a Labour Government to contend with, but at least there’s been rain.

But as in Wisconsin I did find examples of liberal enclaves in the towns of Southern Wairarapa, and there was some barely disguised eye-rolling on both sides. [We kiwis are so much better than Americans at passive aggression.] Wairarapa does have significant gaps between the expectations of newcomers and locals and also between the experiences of rich and poor.

But there is hope for a brighter future.

The Wairarapa seems to be transitioning from ‘best-kept secret’ to desirable destination. It’s being talked about as a great place to retire and it has all the elements of a great tourist area – natural beauty, sunshine, wine, food, history, charm and adventure. It’s already happened in other lifestyle provinces like Central Otago, Nelson and Hawkes Bay – almost like it was a natural result of establishing a local wine industry – if you plant vines they will come?

Apart from our general distaste for confrontation, I think it’s that spirit of shared opportunity that makes the difference. There’s no sense here that if you ‘win’, I will lose – no sense of a zero-sum game. With the significant internal migration of people seeking wealth and success towards Auckland and other major cities, preserving this spirit of opportunity through gentle infiltration of downshifters from the city and local investment to equalise things like access to health and education or utilities like broadband and water supplies is important. It’s the most sensible thing we can do here to prevent extreme divisions from emerging.

[This blog post was originally a newsletter to the Windshift Network. To join the network and get my monthly newsletters, well in advance of publication on this website, please subscribe below.]

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