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Upton-on-line Diaspora Edition

Upton-on-line Diaspora Edition

In this issue Some ruminations on military and trading battlefields in France in the wake of the Prime Minister's visit, Peter Walker's fascinating story of Ngatau Omahuru/William Fox and Elizabeth Rata's sternly Kantian retort to post-modernists run amuck in our teacher education colleges.

A New Zealand Prime Minister in France

Prime Minister Helen Clark’s recent visit to France shone a spotlight onto battlefields past and present. Those of a now-distant era lie in the largely featureless plains of Northern France. Upton-on-line took the opportunity to travel north from Paris to Le Quesnoy to join the annual commemorations attended this year by our Prime Minister. It was well worth an otherwise tedious trip up what must be one of the most boring motorways in Europe, the A1 from Paris to Lille.

Clark had come from the north over the Belgian border not just as a visiting Prime Minister but as the great niece of a kiwi killed in action during the First World War. It must have been an especially poignant experience for her to see - as so many New Zealanders have done - the scene of a tragedy that no doubt became a central element of her family's story as New Zealanders. But even for those who have no such tragic connection, the gap between the murderous wastelands we know from photos and the peaceful towns and wide gently rolling landscapes makes a powerful impression. There is something still and missing despite the apparent normality of daily life 90 years on.

Le Quesnoy holds a special place in NZ military history that is well known - the town freed from German control just a week or so before the end of the war by New Zealanders who scaled the town's fortifications on ladders. (The story is well-known and upton-on-line will not repeat it for fear of an avalanche of e-mails from military historians who seem to be among the world's most demanding sticklers for detail!) But it can safely be said that the town is well worth the pilgrimmage. Despite utterly unprepossessing countryside, the small town's fortifications are genuinely impressive. Towns such as Le Quesnoy must be among the last towns to be fortified in an essentially age-old way with high walls and deep ditches - physical obstacles to physical human encroachment rendered meaningless by aerial warfare. (France has an extraordinary number of these border towns on every land frontier dating back at least a millennium - there are some hugely impressive ones in the Pyrenees dating from the 17th century that upton-on-line chanced upon recently...)

New Zealanders visiting Le Quesnoy will not be disappointed. A large stone memorial to the New Zealanders who fell is mounted on exterior wall of the ramparts and is beautifully conceived. As the Prime Minister and local dignitaries presented wreaths in light rain, we heard the New Zealand national anthem sung perfectly in English and Maori by an unaccompanied choir hidden behind the spring greenery that now makes a park out of what was once a stern defensive structure. It was all very peaceful and poignant. And the French are, if nothing else, masters of protocol and ceremony. Everything was executed perfectly.

Every year these commemorations take place with New Zealand firmly in local minds. A town that has its own Rue Nouvelle Zelande and puts NZ flags up in shop windows has grown up aware that its history and ours became for a time closely inter-twined. Certainly, it was a special day with Helen Clark present, but the large number of kiwis there - some quite by accident - indicated the building interest in our wartime engagements that has been remarked upon throughout New Zealand at ANZAC day commemorations and in Gallipoli. Le Quesnoy is now twinned with Cambridge (Waikato) - a town that should be visually comprehensible to European minds - so the link has been given on-going, community-based foundations even as the Great War passes from living memory. (We were told the last surviving serviceman in the region is a 104 years old). As Clark noted, the growing numbers of descendants of war victims just about guarantees a growing number of pilgrims to this quiet corner of northern France.

Battlefields military and agricultural

Being just two generations removed and closely related to a casualty of the 1914-1918 war, Helen Clark is probably the last New Zealand leader able to draw on reasonably proximate family links to talk about the sacrifices New Zealanders made defending France. The simple fact of her family connection underlined an emotional bond that could not lightly be set aside. From here on the distance of generations will mean that, notwithstanding tourism and twin-city links, history rather than heart will be the connecting point. And history is subject to all sorts of revisionism and frailties. So what does history hold for the way things will unfold on the other great battlefield - liberalising trade in agricultural commodities, a battlefield we share with the French from opposing sides of the lines?

Here, our history is not shared. We were a casualty of British entry into the European Union. The emotional bonds were always between Britain and New Zealand. (And they were real, once; as a young MP upton-on-line can still remember visiting Brits being quite open about feeling they had betrayed NZ. The fact that it was probably the best thing that happened to us in terms of cutting long out-dated umbilical cords doesn't detract from the reality that our economy was built as an integrated part of the British economy and was recognised as such by many Britons). From the point of view of Europeans like the French we were a colonial relic whose trade dependency had no claims on the greater European enterprise. Despite the fact that NZ's values and institutions made us and still make us (if it weren't for geography) a much more eligible candidate for EU membership than some current aspirants, it was never considered that we were owed anything.

So the trade access deal we inherited at the time of Britain's accession relied on an emotional bond that had virtually no resonance in continental Europe notwithstanding all those imperial war memorials dotted across northern France and in cathedrals like Amiens, Laon and Notre Dame in Paris. There we are alongside Canada, Australia, South Africa and (now defunct) Newfoundland. Many New Zealanders must wonder why it is that a country that spilled so much blood defending France should never have known anything from it other than unrelenting hostility on the single issue of economic connectedness to Europe that mattered to us most. The laying of wreaths and the lowering of trade barriers have been conducted in separate realms of time and space. And as the emotional connection with Britain atrophies, so will the last pangs of guilt on which we might have been able to play. In the light of recent indications at last week's OECD trade minister's meeting one would have to have a pretty bleak view of any significant change on this front.

Agreeing to diagree

Notwithstanding some bizarrely rosy reporting, practiced hands would draw little comfort from the OECD ministerial. New Zealand's wins were reputational. The Prime Minister chaired the meeting with characteristic competence and firmness. Meetings like these can drift awfully if the chair isn't focussed. There were no such problems with Clark clearly having her mind around the key issues and an understanding for the various sensitivities. (The last NZ PM to chair the ministerial was (then Mr) Robert Muldoon 20 years ago - one imagines he was equally competent and firm although presiding over a far more shambolic home front!) In persuading countries to dispense with the nonsense of a negotiated list of platitudes and rely instead on a summary from the chair, our diplomats also scored a minor victory for sanity in the surreal world of inter-governmental organisations. Most surprising was the meeting's willingness to join the Chair in stating that agriculture was one of the crucial issues for the current trade round. Upton-on-line had wondered whether a New Zealand chair might arouse extra caution on the part of other countries but that didn't seem to get in the way.

That said, it's one thing to agree that an issue is crucial - it's entirely another to agree on what to do about it. New Zealand's trade minister, Jim Sutton, was typically forthright in describing EU offers on reducing agricultural trade barriers as "comical". Along with the Aussies he pulled no punches. The response from a number of EU ministers was to make it quite clear that they considered the offer generous. Some suggested we should all take another close look to find the treasure trove we had apparently missed. Not a word from countries like France or Belgium suggested there was anything other than an invisible Maginot line behind which continental agriculture would be defended. And there was no evidence that anyone even felt bad about it. These policies have been defended for so long that clever attacking lines can be laughed at with good humour and quietly forgotten. So it was with the lady from the World Bank who recycled a (now famous) New Zealand line that there's enough subsidy running around OECD farms to give every OECD cow a round the world first class air ticket plus $1400 spending money (or $2800 spending money if our bovine passengers are prepared to go business class)! Guffaws all round, after which everybody went back to munching their subsidised cud.

Gilding the subsidy

None of this should really have come as any surprise. But it has pushed the EU to try a spot of damage limitation. On April 1st, Franz Fischler and Pascal Lamy were moved to publish a joint apologia in the Financial Times, ostensibly to excuse missed deadlines on agriculture in the WTO. It was a defensive little piece which spoke volumes about the impossible internal EU pressures these two highly competent and intelligent European Commissioners face. (An outraged correspondent a few days later, branded it a "delightful April Fool spoof"). Their advocacy was designed to position the EU as a friend to developing countries ranged against the brutal forces of agricultural free traders. It was a little hard to identify exactly what mischief countries like New Zealand were supposed to be in league with but the Commissioners insisted that for Europeans "agriculture is more than just a matter of economics". Cairns Group countries, on the other hand, were crusading for nothing more than "an unlimited right to exploit its members' undeniable comparative advantages".

Europe, apparently, doesn't exploit its comparative advantages. It is busily defending other values as the next paragraph revealed: "For societies from Mauritius to Malta, from Bangla Desh to Sri Lanka, from South Korea to Sweden, farming also concerns the environment, food safety, safeguarding the food supply and protecting the rural way of life. Strong exporting countries flatly refuse to accept these concerns, conveniently ignoring the Doha declaration which clearly states that they have to be taken into account..." If pandering to rural voters is a way of protecting rural life then clearly the EU is doing a good job. But the environment is harder to take seriously. A recent article in Le Figaro on farming in Normandy, for instance, specifically identified the CAP as the principal driver of erosion which has seen parts of the region inundated - the pays de Caux in particular - hit by floods carrying heavy loads of soil. Quite simply, generous subsidies for crops like wheat have seen land go out of grass and into crops.

Since everything is subsidised, it's a question of comparing more or less subsidised land uses. Maize, for instance, attracts over €400 per hectare whereas grass for cattle attracts only €80. Even then, there's a problem because the €80 subsidy is only permitted up to a certain carrying capacity and unfortunately, in the pays de Caux, the soil fertility and climate conspire to make the grass grow more quickly than Brussels has ordered standard subsidised pastures to grow. Result: you need more animals per hectare to manage the pasture than you're permitted so everyone is switching over to cropping! To Upton-on-line's practiced rural eye, much European agriculture has the look of NZ farming back in the 1980s when quite small farms somehow found the wherewithall to support monstrously large tractors and bits of equipment.

Where is all this leading?

The difference between New Zealand and the EU is that the EU can afford to pour subsidies into farming almost forever. Breezy talk about the CAP collapsing under its own weight is 30 years old and running out of conviction. There'll be some trimming of course. But in France at least there's not the slightest hint that politicians of any stripe would say boo to a rural constituent. The latest tack seems to be one of divide and rule. The EU has decided that its priority - and who can argue with this - is very small developing countries. These pose absolutely no threat to European agricultural interests so it is easy to be large and liberal. But the so-called "big exporting countries" don't need any such favourable treatment. It's a bit embarrassing that the Cairns Group includes developing countries like Brazil and Argentina - but only a bit. Along with Australia and New Zealand, these countries which are only interested in economics, must be kept firmly at bay.

It is not a situation without risk for New Zealand. It is entirely possible that the EU could sweeten its selective developing world concessions enough to buy support from that quarter without doing anything for the rest of the world. And despite US rhetoric, it has shown that it's prepared to spend up with the best of them on farm bills. So a round in which New Zealand gets almost nothing is not beyond imagining. Worse, the EU could decide to make some modest reductions in its own production and create quotas for developing countries with a great show of beneficence and effectively devalue the quota rents that New Zealand has enjoyed to date. It would be so easy to argue that "rich" countries like New Zealand can't complain when it is much poorer countries who would benefit.

It would be interesting to know whether New Zealand's trade negotiators are thinking about how they might insulate New Zealand from a gradual erosion of the benefits we currently have through the expansion of development friendly quotas for others. What, for instance, is being done to take the Europeans at their word and show that, compared with present or future competitors, we actually do a better environmental job? Do we even know whether we do? It's not a question of cravenly mimicking European sensitivites. It's a matter of being hard-headed about what it could take to differentiate ourselves in what will continue to be a very wealthy but very ticklish consumer market.

Meanwhile, one wonders how poor New Zealand would have to get for Europeans to start thinking about special treatment for us. Is it only failing economic status that finds a way to the European heart? The fact is that New Zealand built its first world status by being part of a European colonial enterprise. Europe still expects us to buy cars, consumer durables, and all manner of frippery from them in imitation of their lifestyles. But what if we can't afford to keep up? Do we then apply for a compensation deal on the basis of breached expectations? Whatever sacrifices New Zealanders made on behalf of Europeans over the twentieth century, they apparently didn't earn us the right to share European living standards by the best means at our disposal. Such a pity our islands weren't parked somewhere in the Balkans waiting to be enfolded in the CAP, or failing that somewhere off the coast of Africa with a chance for special trade access.

A must read

Upton-on-line readers will have noticed a fair measure of treatyological commentary in these pages, much of it related to fairly indigestible tracts. By contrast, accessible writing that can move the heart is thinner on the ground. So it is a pleasure to recommend The Fox Boy: The Story of an Abducted Child by Peter Walker. At at a little over 300 paperback pages, it is infinitely more desirable than the normal block busters weary inter-continental travellers can be seen battling with at passport controls and security checks. Easily consumable after your meal and before the next sleeping leg, it is at once a uniquely New Zealand publication and a satisfyingly detached piece of Maori/European history that doesn't wallow in portentous guilt statements.

The book is ostensibly the story of Ngatau Omahuru or William Fox, a little Maori boy abducted during the Taranaki wars in 1869 and adopted by the then Prime Minister Fox (who gave him his European name). It is, more accurately, an account of the tide of events that led the provincial conflict to the gates of Parihaka and some of settler New Zealand's darkest days. Ngatau Omahuru provides a convenient lens through which Peter Walker reveals the wild west of New zealand politics in the 1870s. (And wild it was with, at one stage, the NZ parliament passing legislation to hold Te Whiti without trial and deny him any possibility of self defence. So much for ancient British freedoms!)

By writing the story as an account of his trip sleuthing through the provinces in search of evidence about the life of the young abductee, Walker also provides some deft portraits of provincial New Zealand today. How's this for a take on Hawera:

"Hawera ... has always turned its back on the mountain [Taranaki]; the snowy peak may be glimpsed from the town only by accident, by planners' oversight as it were - from the car park outside the Price Chopper supermarket, or down an alley by the public toilets or over the washing line in someone's back garden. The town's major landmark is a huge concrete water tower, sketchily embellished as a Norman keep, which dominates the main street and is visible much further away out in the country on the roads that approach Hawera from north, east and west ... Just outside the town is the largest dairy factory in the country or in the universe, I forget which, and it is that which has made the town prosperous and rather smug compared to other country towns in the area. The plant is closed to visitors for security reasons, although who, you wonder, would want to bomb a nearly infinite Cheddar cheese?"

There is a brilliantly funny description of the trials of a sophisticated Hawkes Bay farmer's wife who has her 'electricals' stolen by the Mungies who, when confronted, thoughtfully return her CDs but make the unpardonable error of replacing them with an extensive but unlistenable collection of light opera discs. Walker's touch is wry and displays the innoculation against political correctness that being an ex-pat permits (he is a sometime journalist living in London). Here's how he describes his reaction to the charge that he shouldn't have been researching the life of a Maori:

"There is a theory among some Maori that whites have no right to tell stories which relate in any way to their on race. It is seen as a kind of theft, not unlike the land thefts of a hundred years ago. An angry Maori poetess, to whom I outlined this tale while I was beginning to research it, glowered upon me. 'That's one of ours,' she said. 'He's just another Pakeha stealing our stories,' she said after my back. I thought about this for a long while. Then I thought about the clever and curious long-lost gaze of Taunoa Kohere and I knew that the poetess was wrong. It seemed to me that I was dealing with the one thing in the world that can not be stolen. A story is like the moon: it is either hidden, or it is out. And when it is out, it can be seen anywhere or everywhere at once, across the rooftops, down freeways, on a puddle in the woods; not even a poetess may restrict its reflections."

Walker can allow himself the odd observation along these lines without any fear of misinterpretation. The story is so horrific - and so awe-inspiring at the same time - that it needs little in the way of authorial homilies. Where Walker succeeds so brilliantly is the way in which he casts his characters - from the emotionally anaemic Sir William Fox through the egregious John Bryce and the rollicking Darwinian Walter Buller to the visionary and elliptical Te Whiti (who at times seems like a cross between William Blake and an Old Testament prophet). All of them inhabit the same time and space. We aren't presented with two moral universes or some juxtaposition of fallen materialism ranged against innocent virtue. This is the inevitable and unidirectional collision of the modern and the tribal. And it is messy, appalling and occasionally uplifting. Nothing is calibrated to suit 'safe' ranges.

The tale of Parihaka and Te Whiti has been told before and it will be told again. It has all the elements needed to be an iconic source of national reflection and soul-searching. Those for whom history is a dispensary full of labels will find few comfortable palliatives in it. Unlike so many academic studies that make New Zealand sound like some inaccessible laboratory in which the chemicals got muddled, Peter Walker reconnects our colonial history with what was an historic collision between the leading edge metropolitan culture of the age and one of the most peripheral and cut-off cultures on the planet - a collision that revealed on both sides, the full familiar gamut of human idealism, frailty and squalor. Reading The Fox Boy, you realise just how far we've come - and yet just how familiar our reflexes often are.

The Fox Boy - The Story of an Abducted Child, by Peter Walker (2001) is published by Bloomsbury ISBN 0-7475-5805-1

Not quite a must read (but an impressive challenge nonetheless)

Upton-on-line's musings on the way in which we don't teach New Zealand history have generated some interesting responses. One aggrieved correspondent asked where he had been over the last decade (a matter which is pretty unambiguously established in official sources). A less rhetorical response was in the form of a slim blue monograph that arrived through the mail entitled Democratic Principles in Teaching and Learning - A Kantian Approach by Elizabeth Rata of the Auckland College of Education.

This is decidely not the sort of thing with which you would slump into a plane seat or a garden hammock. But for people who believe that ideas can be decisively influential (and/or corrosive) this is, if not a 'must read', a 'must grapple with'. Its terse 109 pages are a carefully mustered attack by a Kantian philosopher of education on the (alleged) post-modern pedagogical paradigm being pedalled in our teacher training colleges. And for those like upton-on-line who are plain scared of Kant (whose austere logic can have the feel of cold polished marble about it), Rata manages a level of passion that will come as a pleasant surprise.

Trying to paraphrase someone else explaining Kant is a hopeless task. But one particular target of Rata's attack is very topical: kaupapa Maori education. In essence her charge is this. Kaupapa Maori embodies a neo-traditionalist theory of knowledge that is essentially impervious to critical scrutiny and inimical to an open, free society. The charges laid are pretty heavy and form part of a wider critique of educational theory that she describes in these terms:

" the last three decades democratic principles have come under attack from a strange alliance of postmodernism, neotraditionalism and neoconservatism. The notion that all knowledge is subjective and culturally determined has replaced the commitment to objective, rational knowledge. The belief that local, ethnic differences are fundamental sources of human identity has replaced commitment to a universal humanity. The idea that creativity and knowledge can develop from group-based conformist pedagogies belies the source of creativity in the turbulence of the autonomous rational individual."

Those brave enough to turn the heater off, open a window and commit themselves to a couple of hours of hard concentration will have to decide for themselves whether they are kantians or acolytes of the Counter-Enlightenment. But this is a good deal more subtle than simple name-calling and deserves to be taken seriously. Rata expresses her hopes for her readership in these terms:

"My purpose is not to change the reader's mind about such issues as cultural relativity or the effects of postmodernist ideas on education studies. My purpose is merely to raise a prickly feeling of doubt. That disturbance is sufficient because if it unsettles and irritates then there is a possibility that it will provide the motivation to ask one's own questions."

This, of course, is what Rata believes is not being encouraged. She refers to "the creation of an essentialist ethnic boundary between Maori and Pakeha through such devices as separate ethnic pedagogies" as having created the conditions for "the emergence of a privileged tribal elite" the maintenance of which encourages the "silencing [of] critical scrutiny ... supported by a culture of political correctness or intellectual dogmatism."

Upton-on-line suspects that the risks are not as serious as they are painted to be. In the same way that all sorts of his contemporaries were exposed to some fairly barmy ideas at law school but emerged to be perfectly sane legal practitioners, a large measure of cultural common sense immunises teacher trainees from some of the stuff they are forced to suffer. The whackiest stuff usually takes itself so seriously that everyone else,students included, is reduced to helpless laughter!

But Rata is pushing the boundaries of intellectual freedom and debate in exactly the way they should be pushed. The fact that she is prepared to wade into pretty controversial territory - and risk the sort of ostracisim that only academic communities know how to mete out - suggests that there's more of a debate here than some of us may have realised. Certainly, those busily building New Zealand's knowledge economy would do well to ask some very searching questions so as to reassure themselves that, pedagogically, we are generating in our young people critical faculties that are fearless and committed to a free and open society.

Democratic Principles in Teaching and Learning - a Kantian Approach, by Elizabeth Rata (2002) is published by the Faculty of Postgraduate Studies & Research in the Auckland College of Education, Private Bag 92601, Symonds Street, Auckland 1035.

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