Monday, 4 July 2011

This Is New Zealand - American Edition

Who is the bloke in the dark suit sitting opposite Bob Muldoon?

The two leaders eye each other. They smile wryly, but do not speak. A large china vase could fall on their heads at any moment.

There is no caption, but the photograph must have been taken in June of 1981, when New Zealand Prime Minister Robert Muldoon visited the United States, six months into Reagan’s presidency. Muldoon himself was to be re-elected later that year and receive the mandate to further his ‘Think Big’ response to the international energy crisis just as the price of oil reached an all time high. New Zealand needed American technology and capital for its infrastructure investments, and this is likely to have featured in the talks.

The photograph itself is less straightforward to read. The exchange of smiles is more guarded than it is cordial, and one is drawn to the differences: of physical stance, sartorial, of demeanour. Muldoon, ten years Reagan’s junior, looks the elder statesman; Reagan, the brasher one. But there is no mistaking which leader and whose country is the more powerful.

In 1982, the image was featured in the introduction of a book that documented and promoted the economic ties between the two nations. This one.

I’ve covered books like this one before – including one in this very series – but it bears repeating that you generally cannot buy them, but only receive them as gifts, typically in the context of a business trip or a trade fair. When as in this case they promote national interests, as opposed to a single company or industry sector, they never fail to establish an interesting and often telling ideological background. Making the case for why it is a good idea to trade with your country always requires that its national character be described first, along with the country’s principal attractions. So the promotional book ends up resembling an odd kind of tourist guide or history book, whose overarching message is: we can do business together.

And so the country’s social and historical backgrounder may include mention not only of its political stability, but also of the fact that it has never defaulted on a loan. Social conflict will be downplayed and unionism left unmentioned, while anything that suggests ideological commonality without prejudice to the business environment will likely be emphasised. Hence for instance the extensive section on the army museum at Waiouru, where we learn amongst other things that
probably no other nation has been so remote [as New Zealand] from world events, yet so involved in international wars and warfare.

Diorama with New Zealand soldiers in Korea at the Amy Museum in Waiouru

At Waiouru, where ‘war is not glorified’, but rather presented as ‘accurate record’, experientially, the museum is kept nonetheless ‘at an even 19° Celsius and the humidity at 50%’. This is ostensibly to preserve the artefacts, but the idea of the air-conditioned battlefield fits within the sanitisation of society and the economy operated by this book for the purpose of packaging New Zealand for foreign consumption. Thus for instance the contribution of the Hawke’s Bay Farmers’ Meat Company begins as follows:

The word slaughterhouse conjures up a rather gruesome image, but step into the processing department of a New Zealand meatworks and you'll be surprised at what you see.

In spite of the chains of carcasses being processed and readied for export, the pervasive atmosphere is a clinical whiteness: white caps, white washable aprons, white rubber overboots, white butchers' uniforms, tiles around the walls and flex stainless steel hand basins, stainless steel sterilisers for washing knives at 80°Centigrade after each processing operation.

In a country that exports meat to EEC and American markets, and whose inhabitants are among the most enthusiastic meat consumers in the world, hygiene is to be a number one priority. The whiteness and gleaming stainless steel ensure that the highest standards are maintained — standards that will satisfy countries who buy New Zealand meat.

What counts here is the image as much as the substance: the function of the whiteness and the gleaming stainless steel is as much to produce the correct perception amongst consumers as to ensure actual hygiene.

This clean, white image is a subtext to many of the books’ contributions, in which industry produces prosperity without any adverse effects on the wider society or the environment. With hindsight we may recoil especially at the entry paid for by Union Carbide, boasting the company’s pervasive yet understated presence in almost every sector of the New Zealand economy, including of course pest control in agriculture. But long before its own mother of all disasters, the Gulf oil spill, another company was at the forefront of this kind of obfuscation.

After all, what could possibly go wrong?

The contribution by the New Zealand subsidiary of BP is the one that best articulates the view of globalisation espoused by the book, of capital flows in the service of industry and industry in the service of society, of transnational corporations whose local presence is always sensitive to the indigenous culture and its needs, whose interests are always consonant with if not secondary to those of the host nation. ‘A company that would employ New Zealanders to the maximum extent and generally identify itself with the country it serves’ – this was BP New Zealand, a corporation ostensibly not in the business of selling oil but of promoting alternative energies and conservation. Between 1978 and 1980, BP New Zealand sponsored a conservation award, a public relations idea so inspired that it was turned into a global affair by its British HQ. The artwork on the award itself, inspired by Māori mythology and motifs, offers an exemplary image of the oil company that goes beyond petroleum and harnesses the sun itself,

while BP executive David Kendall, unique amongst the book’s contributors, appears in a family picture that is the epitome of clean and white.

In reality BP New Zealand’s business is an example of the puzzling diversification that characterises the mega-conglomerates of late stage capitalism, and includes a foray in ‘the promising field of salmon farming’. However outside of BP, Pfizer and Union Carbide, the roll of contributors/advertisers to the American Edition comprises companies that are decidedly less eclectic – such as Amalgamated Marketing Limited, exporters of beef, orange roughy and bull semen – or stick to a single knitting: growers, manufacturers, traders or insurers of things, companies that our grandmothers would recognise.Compared to the Asian Edition – which was produced by the same publisher four years later, in the thick of the first round of neoliberal reforms under Roger Douglas – the domestic economy and its nexus of international trade as depicted by the American Edition appear therefore almost quaint, with finance and informatics playing a conspicuously subdued role. This, in spite of my copy of the book coming with the compliments of NCR (NZ), the local division of an American company that was poised to benefit from the taking over of banking and investment functions by digital networks, but that at this point could not even visualise the coming revolution except by slapping a circuit board onto a night time cityscape.

Nowhere else does this book appear more outdated than in that single image. But on a personal level this is also the New Zealand before my time, of my childhood lived elsewhere, a country that I cannot experience except through books and in conversation. Only I’ve found that people don’t talk about it very much, and when they do it is often to recall its drabness, its lack of sophistication and choice.

I regret to say that the American Edition does little to refute this image. It begins by enticing the reader to tour the country on a flaming beige Honda.

And proceeds through a series of dubious fashion statements and worrying portents of the prevailing food culture.

The recipe for toasted chicken requires that blue eye shadow be worn at all times.

Whether or not this apparent lack of style, this all too easily stereotyped Eastern Bloc-like patina (I swear there is an actual paragraph in praise of Ladas) was implicated in contemporary ideas about one’s proper place in society, and conversely whether the reforms that rewrote the social contract in the latter part of the eighties also propelled the country forward in terms of its taste for fashion, cuisine and the arts, as well as making it more tolerant of difference generally, is an interesting question, and on this count too people’s answers tend to vary. In the American Edition it all comes together, rather fittingly, in the section on the then recently inaugurated new seat of Government, the Beehive. This, unlike its Australian counterpart, is located in the centre of the capital, to be close to the people, and its interiors are designed to suit by order of the very ministry that was the guarantor of full employment.

New Zealand is an egalitarian society and the Beehive's decor reflects this. With the single exception of the ministerial area, the different dining rooms are furnished almost identically, conveying an atmosphere of equality deliberately aimed at by the design team from the Ministry of Works and Development.

Within this brief, what counts as sophistication is the three, count them, three shades of brown used in the carpeting (‘the coordinated colour scheme creates a restful, earthy effect reminiscent of the land on which the economy of this essentially farming nation rests’), or the fact that in the occasion of state banquets – when Canterbury lamb invariably ends up on the menu – the chef at Bellamy’s will ‘let his imagination run riot’ by serving it with something other than mint sauce.

I am rather incongruously fond of this New Zealand I never got to know, in spite of its obvious shortcomings, and remain very much interested in the question of how we can reclaim its egalitarian ethos and some of its attendant social policy goals without also restoring the conservatism that marked the Muldoon years, or the lack of vegetarian options and good coffee. But wholesale nostalgia is obviously misplaced, and the American Edition reminds us why when it gestures at those egalitarian aspirations to mask the lack of social and political imagination that preluded to the neoliberal turn.

There is one final thing to note: the American Edition may be the only illustrated book about New Zealand in history not to include the image of a rugby field. It’s not even that sports are wholly absent – lawn bowls, mountaineering and sailing are amongst those featured. Perhaps it’s that to speak of rugby in 1982 without mentioning the Springbok Tour of ‘81 would have been awkward, and the authors wanted to avoid the association. I can only speculate. Be that as it may, what makes books of this sort valuable documents of their time are also the omissions, wilful or otherwise. It’s not the history is wholly absent, it’s that it’s selectively recalled. It’s history in the service of industry and commerce. And that’s far from the least interesting kind.

This Is New Zealand - American Edition. Sheffield House: Wellington, 1982.

Also in this series:
This Is New Zealand - Asian Edition
Reshaping the Invisible


W. Kasper said...

Excellent stuff, as per. You've also got an uncanny knack for evocative images - do they come from your own personal archive?

Wasn't aware that the Springbrook tour was that big a controversy. We had loads of controversy and protests in the UK over S.A. sports tours during the 80s, but not it seems as big as the NZ ones.

Giovanni Tiso said...

All the images are from the book, I should have mentioned that.

The Springbok Tour of 81 was a watershed moment in New Zealand history, it split the country down the middle and formed an entire generation of activists. Which makes our current Prime Minister's claim that he doesn't remember whether he was for or against all the more incredible.

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