Robbie Nicol, aka White Man Behind a Desk, has just launched The Citizen’s Handbook, a webseries dedicated to teaching New Zealanders how their country actually works. Here’s five things he learned while making it.
It’s probably a failing of our education system that I left high school without knowing how New Zealand’s political system works. It’s definitely a failing of my work ethic that I left university with a bachelor’s degree in politics still not knowing how New Zealand’s political system works.
To be honest, I still don’t know most of it. If you asked me the difference between the attorney general and the solicitor general, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. (Please don’t tweet me.) But thanks to a bunch of experts like Dr Rawiri Taonui, Dr Tze Ming Mok, and Gone By Lunchtime‘s very own Ben Thomas, I was able to learn enough to co-write the webseries and podcast, The Citizen’s Handbook.
It’s been a wild journey, and I think I’m a better citizen because of it. I certainly know more than I did. So, in the spirit of the series, here are five things I learned about New Zealand while making The Citizen’s Handbook:
The guy who invented how to colonise New Zealand was arrested for marrying a child
Edward Gibbon Wakefield was a rich Englishman with the spirit of a con artist and little regard for anyone but himself. In 1826 he tricked the 15-year-old schoolgirl Ellen Turner into marrying him by telling her that her dad was going broke (he wasn’t).
Eventually he was caught and sent to prison, and it was while he was in prison that he wrote ‘A Letter From Sydney’. In the hopes of re-entering high society, he wrote a book about how to colonise better, arguing that you should charge rich people for the land they’re colonising so that you can afford to bring poor people over to work for them. He went on to run the New Zealand Company, putting his theory into practice. He died in Wellington, sad and alone with his two dogs.
The settler government (also known as ‘the government’) was not secretive about how much it hated non-European immigrants
In 1953 a memo was sent from the Department of External Affairs that explicitly stated how racist it was:
“Our immigration is based firmly on the principle that we are and intend to remain a country of European development. It is inevitably discriminatory against Asians — indeed against all persons who are not wholly of European race and colour. Whereas we have done much to encourage immigration from Europe, we do everything to discourage it from Asia.”
They actually wrote that down. It wasn’t unconscious bias; it was overt policy. My ancestors arrived, decided they should be in charge, and then stopped people arriving if they looked different. I always knew it was bad – I just didn’t think it would be so explicit.
I now know what the Official Cash Rate is
OK, let’s see if I can do this… the OCR is the rate at which the Reserve Bank lends money to the other banks. The Reserve Bank magics money into existence to lend to the normal banks. If there’s a recession, then they lend money out at a low rate – to encourage banks to lower their rate, so that you can get a low-interest loan and buy that house or start that business! If there’s too much inflation, they can raise the OCR so that people don’t get loans. So people buy less stuff and prices go down. That’s what the OCR is for! Sort of half get it? Me too!
If you want to get the government to do something, act like an old person
If you want to get the government to do something, act like an old person. All of the best strategies for getting your representatives to do stuff are things millennials and Generation Z hate to do. Politicians know how easy it is for you to sign that online petition, so online petitions are less effective than writing a letter or making a phone call or going to meet them at their electorate office.
According to Ben Thomas, during the marriage equality debate in 2013 lots of MPs just put a filter on their emails for “marriage”, so the thousands of emails generated by activist websites just went straight to junk. But MPs can’t do that with letters! They don’t know what a letter says until they’ve opened it! Unless you write extra stuff on the envelope. Don’t write extra stuff on the envelope.
New Zealand can change really, really fast
New Zealand doesn’t have a written constitution where we put all the rules about how to run New Zealand. One bad thing about that is it means that people can change our constitution really fast. In the 1980s, when Robert Muldoon lost a snap election, he refused to devalue the dollar. Our constitution includes a convention that he shouldn’t do that, but because it was just a convention – it was basically only public pressure and a good deputy prime minister, Jim McLay, that got him to back down. That probably wouldn’t have happened if our constitution was all written down in one place.
On the other hand, one good thing about not having a written constitution is it means that our constitution can change really fast. The current system of government is only in place because my ancestors used the might of the entire British Empire against the Māori people to install a system of economics, law, and culture. And if that system isn’t working for you, or people around you, you can change it.
New Zealand has drastically changed time and time again. We cut the top tax rate in half in the 80s, we changed our entire voting system in the 90s, and a few weeks ago we closed almost every business for a month and gave away billions of dollars. You can change New Zealand in any way, if you want to – the tricky part is deciding what that is.
You can watch The Citizen’s Handbook on RNZ right here.