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Go With The Flow

Go With The Flow

By Jamie Neikrie

“Sweet as.”

“It’s all good.”

“You’re sweet.”

“Cheers.”

Since I arrived in Wellington all I’ve heard about is how laid back New Zealanders are. After all, any country that has so many expressions of satisfaction must be fairly content. Social scenes are friendly, devoid of competition, access to politicians and businessmen is unparalleled, and every work day feels like a Friday.

But I have found that the Kiwi attitude and outlook goes beyond sheer approachability. New Zealand is a culture defined by adaptability and it pays off.

American gun control advocates struggle to gain any traction for reform, even in the aftermath of a record-breaking year for gun violence. And yet in New Zealand, as in Australia, gun control action was swift, decisive, and bipartisan.

After the Aramoana massacre in November 1990, New Zealand passed a law requiring permits to order guns or ammunition mail-order, restricting ammunition sales to firearms license holders, adding photographs to firearms licenses, ordering license holders to have secure storage for firearms at their homes (which would be inspected before a license was issued), and requiring all license holders to be re-vetted for new licenses which would be valid for only 10 years.

In a country with considerable rural and hunting influence, the actions taken by the New Zealand people and government were staggering.

In preparation for the 2014 midterm elections in the United States, Barack Obama and the Democratic party have made income inequality their rallying call. So far, this debate has largely been directed toward raising the U.S minimum wage to a living standard, from $7.25 per hour ($9.00 NZ) to $9 per hour ($11.14 NZ). While profits for American businesses soared to all-time highs in November and CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies make 204 times what the average worker makes–a pay gap that is up 1000% since 1950–the U.S minimum wage remains stagnant and largely inadequate. Since 1997, the U.S federal minimum wage has risen only $2 ($2.48 NZ) and is worth 25% less than it was when Reagan was president.

Even if Obama manages to raise the minimum wage, it will likely be a minor change, one that fails to adapt to the current economy. New Zealand, on the other hand, has remained exceptionally pliable on the minimum wage, continuing to raise it fifteen times sine 1997, from $7.00 to $13.75.

Of course, New Zealand is a fraction the size of the U.S. It doesn’t boast the same levels of diversity and has no immediate bordering countries. In many ways, one could argue that New Zealand can afford to be nimble.

New Zealand also has no written constitution and a unicameral legislative system. Such a style of governance allows the country to adapt quickly to the times, but the lack of checks and balances can also be its downfall. In the 80’s, the Fourth Labor government inherited a country that had been under the “cradle to grave” welfare mentality since the 30’s and responded by embracing a wholly capitalist system, privatizing industries without any market control. Political scientist Jack Nagel wrote,

Between 1984 and 1993, New Zealand underwent radical economic reform, moving from what had probably been the most protected, regulated and state-dominated system of any capitalist democracy to an extreme position at the open, competitive, free-market end of the spectrum.

Such a massive ideological shift in the economy would take most nations decades, but New Zealand managed it in four years. Unfortunately, the bubble soon burst with a consequent loss in New Zealand’s economic sovereignty. Adaptability is New Zealand’s strongest suit, but only if kept in check.

I think that New Zealand’s political and social flexibility is more than a byproduct of its geography and sociography. It is a cultural norm, ingrained in the country as deeply as stubbornness is imbedded in New Yorkers.

During my stay here I will continue to examine the roots of this phenomenon. Perhaps it could be a result of Maori culture. But until I learn, cheers New Zealand. Don’t ever stop adapting. Way to stay sweet as. Am I using that right?

*********

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