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, after a year of living in Auckland, emerging from the tunnel into South Wairarapa felt like coming back to New Zealand.

The Auckland Effect

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 here. 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. It’s either “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.

How Deep Are New Zealand’s Social Divisions?

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. I wanted to  compare them with a study run by a US pollster 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?

Enclaves and Eye Rolling

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 huge gaps between the expectations of newcomers and locals and also between the experiences of rich and poor.

Nevertheless 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 New Zealand lifestyle provinces like Central Otago, Nelson and Hawkes Bay. Perhaps it’s related to the presence of a local wine industry – if you plant vines they will come?

Can We All Win?

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. There is significant internal migration of people seeking wealth and success towards Auckland and other major cities. So it’s important to  preserve this spirit of opportunity through the gentle infiltration of downshifters from the city.

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. And yet, gentrification displaces poor people. If they all end up together in rural ghettos, we have achieved nothing.

[This blog post was originally a newsletter to the Windshift Network. To join the network and get my monthly newsletters, please subscribe below.]

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