New Zealand has long been the world’s imagined lifeboat – and increasingly for something more than just escape, writes Elle Hunt.
One Friday morning in January 1847, Charles Dickens wrote to his friend John Forster that he was “disposed to go to New Zealand and start a magazine”. The quote was circulated in an editorial by The Listener last week as the seed of the idea whence it came. But Dickens’ comment – made after a poor review in the “good old Times” of London had left him sleepless, irritable and “hardly able to work – came from a place of exasperation, not serious inquiry. Forster wrote of Dickens: “soon he sprang up, as usual, more erect for the moment’s pressure”.
Dickens’ passing remark reminded me of those I hear with some regularity in London: “Time for the cabin in the South Island,” posted beneath a story about Brexit or Trump or global warming; the cheery chorus of “Let’s all move to New Zealand!” whenever any of the three crop up at the pub or a dinner party. It’s heartfelt, but said with all the sincerity of Homer’s suggestion that the Simpsons flee to under the sea.
No one ever actually intends to relocate to New Zealand, as I find when I launch into advice for aspiring emigrants. Yet we know, whenever there’s a shock upset in global politics – Brexit, Trump, or a new, always equally evil Australian prime minister – Google searches for “how to move to New Zealand” spike. The BBC reality show Wanted Down Under has wrung 13 seasons out of disillusioned Brits imagining a better life in the Antipodes. Even 172 years ago, Dickens’ response to a bad review was to escape to the other side of the world.
For members of the middle classes watching their own countries’ decline with dismay, New Zealand – peaceful, English-speaking and, most importantly, geographically remote – is their imagined lifeboat. This has long been the case, according to 20th century Kiwi critic and historian Eric Hall McCormick, who wrote that New Zealand in the 1800s “became the focus of a stock Romantic sentiment that, though Europe might be decadent or even doomed, in the newer countries across the ocean its civilisation would be renewed and perpetuated”.
Now that at least Britain’s doom seems inevitable, it’s no wonder that New Zealand has been reaffirmed as a distant symbol of hope. Even the global appetite for news of Nigel the lovelorn gannet and frenzies over impending Ikea suggests enthusiasm for a place where those are the biggest stories of the day. Of course locals know that that was never the case, that New Zealand is not a utopia – but it’s understandable that foreigners reach for that faraway fiction when their reality is “Food shortage warning in event of no-deal Brexit” or “How to Get Children Out of Cages” or “Mass shootings: The most American way to kill and die”.
Jacinda Ardern is often received as the physical embodiment of this progressive paradise, regarded with open envy by leftwing voters, parties and media that would love to be led by a “pretty communist” – a recent opinion piece in Guardian Australia swooned imagining Ardern as “prime minister of Australasia”. The reality of her leadership and life under her government is undoubtedly different to what Joe Nunweek called the “good feeling” that surrounds it: poverty remains an intractable problem that disproportionately affects Māori, and the standoff over Ihumātao reflects disillusionment that this government has their concerns at heart.
Nevertheless, the fact remains: at a time when Britain is wilfully pursuing a recession, while the US sits on its hands over gun laws, Australia does the same with its detention policy, and both with climate, New Zealand is taking several steps in progressive directions.
Abortion may, finally, be treated as a health issue, not a criminal one. Next year’s referendum might see recreational and medicinal cannabis legalised. An euthanasia bill passed its second reading, 70 votes to 50. Nearly $2 billion was earmarked in the budget for mental health services, including for depression and anxiety – the biggest investment on record. The PM, the privacy commissioner and chief censor are taking hard lines against extremist and violent forces online, and companies at home and abroad are listening. And the response to the Christchurch attacks, a test of unprecedented tragedy, was swift, uncompromising and compassionate.
Of course, I’m following all this from afar; I am sure that on the ground it is not without controversy or questions, and much of it may not come to fruition or achieve the desired result. But having wondered if New Zealand would ever reform its abortion, drug and euthanasia laws as a student journalist nearly a decade ago, I can’t help but feel cheered to even see those issues now on the table. From where I’m sitting in Boris Johnson’s Britain, doomed to never wake up from this Brexit nightmare, it makes me feel a rare glimmer of hope to see cross-party politicians even debating the possibility of a more humane world. And the rest of the world is paying attention.
This year there has been a notable downturn in “Odd Stuff” escapism coming out of New Zealand, less fuel for idle imaginations longing to escape the world on the shores of Lake Tekapo, and more news of bills, budgets and big ideas to make it a better, fairer place to live, at a time when that seems to be very low-ranking in most governments’ priorities. New Zealand is not a utopia – it never has been, and on many fronts, as always, there is more to be done. But it’s increasingly a place where people might actually, meaningfully aspire to live – and not just in comparison to everywhere else.