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Upton-on-line - Diaspora Edition

8th November 2001

In this issue

… what one prominent Australian politician, retiring Victorian State MP, Mark Birrell has to say about the state of the Trans-Tasman relationship, some fresh headaches for the nuclear industry and some seriously sensible commentary on Maori Knowledge from Tahu Potiki.

A verdict from across the ditch

Mark Birrell shares more than the odd thing with upton-on-line: he was born on the same day of the same year (7.2.58, for the astrologers among you), entered Parliament (the Victorian Upper House or Legislative Council) in the same year (1981) and decided to retire within the same 12 month period (technically beating u-o-l’s time in the House by one year). And he is a Tory to boot (they prefer the euphemistic liberal across the Tasman).

Faced with such terrifying symmetries, it is scarcely surprising that upton-on-line shares a few prejudices with him. But his comments in a recent e-mail on the state of the Trans-Tasman relationship brought upton-on-line up with a start. Here’s what Mark had to say (and has recklessly consented to have reproduced in this risky publication):

“The Ansett saga has been a complete public relations disaster for Air New Zealand (think of how badly a poorly managed corporation can be perceived by the masses and double it!) and has thereby soured the broader Aussie view of N.Z. I have never witnessed an event that so measurably caused Australians to be negative towards your country, which is both unfair and regrettable. There has been some useful public debate but not a lot; fortunately the debate is cooling off.

This whole issue shows the need for an on-going forum to promote/defend and advance the relationship between the two countries; something like the old Australia/NZ Foundation. This is so much more relevant now. Can we progress this? What do you think of the idea of creating a 'forum' or 'dialogue' group of some sort, which holds a major annual gathering (alternating from one country to the other) and other events, possibly funded by business and governments? Any other ideas?”

Does this ring any bells with readers? Tucked away at the end of an over-long issue much earlier this year upton-on-line had this to say:

Talking to people rather than about them

New Zealanders and Australians assume that they are so culturally fluent that they can take each other for granted. Hence the obligatory Aussie and Kiwi jokes that are scattered randomly through speeches by visiting politicians, sports heroes and business people. Familiarity breeds contempt and we are very familiar and therefore very contemptuous.

The truth may be, however, that the one liners paper over a serious awkwardness that has grown not narrowed over the years. Australia is a big country that has to be taken seriously. We are, well … in another league shall we say.

But that shouldn’t prevent a serious engagement. In fact, from New Zealand’s point of view, it makes it even more imperative. Yet in upton-on-line’s time as a Parliamentarian, he had far more extensive contact with North American, Asian and European politicians, writers and business people than he did with Australians. It was assumed that Australia was a place you went on sporting missions or winter holidays and that all that inherited fluency would take care of itself.

Well it doesn’t. There is no substitute for an intensive, disciplined exchange of views. We should take a look at how some other countries do it. For 51 years, British and German leaders, commentators and academics have been meeting at the annual Königswinter Conference. It was established as part of the post-war reconstruction effort but has become a familiar and valued opportunity to make and maintain connections at an informal and personal level. The result is a wealth of Anglo-German networks that can be called on when there are problems in formal settings. But more importantly, there is a higher level of intuitive understanding about how the two countries are likely to react than there would be if everyone just watched television news or read the official press statements.

Our Prime Minister meets her Australian counterpart twice a year, a regular consultation that is valuable because it is not driven by any particular negotiating framework. But the way we conduct our bi-lateral relations, it is entirely possible for a New Zealand Prime Minister to reach the office having virtually no prior connections or contacts in Australia. The same applies a fortiori with respect to MPs and rafts of other people who, through academia or the media, influence our external attitudes.

It is time that we made a twenty-year investment in building up a generation of New Zealanders whose fluency with Australia extends beyond good-natured insults and cut-price weekends in Sydney.

At the time, this little diatribe elicited not a single comment. But Birrell’s verdict emboldens upton-on-line to raise it again. Seriously, how can the two nations hope to maintain a close working relationship when they assume knowledge of each other's interests and hang-ups that simply isn’t borne out by the facts.

We have always tended to feel a bit awkward about confessing the need to get a better understanding of people we thought we knew so well we could simply trade one-liners in after dinner speeches. It was easy to set up Asia 2000 to take all those Asian cultures and marketplaces seriously. It was respectable to admit our cultural ignorance and lack of intimacy. But with Australia, somehow, it’s not done to pretend we could be anything other than outrageously familiar.

Well we’re not, and the gaps are likely to widen. We are now hold distinctly different geo-political views on security issues. Our approaches to resolving the grievances of indigenous peoples are light years removed (as indeed are the historical facts and the contemporary political realities surrounding their resolution). Our economic performances are diverging and the critical mass of human capital we can attract and maintain is also very different.

In short, a little, isolated (possibly sub-critical) nation (New Zealand) has to be extremely well-informed about the only country of any size and cultural resonance in the neighbourhood. As a large, internationally serious player, Australia has much less reason to understand its eastern outlier. But if the scale of New Zealand’s emerging problems and its trajectory makes us a less predictable quantity, Australia could find itself absorbing more and more of New Zealand’s problems through the sheer flow of people across its border. So it may be timely for Australia to beef up its understanding of what could come its way.

Who needs to be talking?

Birrell is right to see governments and business as potential funders of a Foundation or Königswinter type of mechanism. But the exchange of people and views has to be far wider than those elites. Media, academic, scientific and cultural spheres need to be engaged. (Upton-on-line has long advocated that one of our few remaining wealthy citizens should, rather than gifting yet another round of tennis courts or sports stadiums, seek to entice The Australian to publish a New Zealand edition to relieve the abysmal media ignorance in which New Zealand wallows…It would do wonders for public debate in NZ and if the back-wash was a slightly better level of coverage about NZ in Oz, so much the better). Whatever the case, such a process/institution needs to be run by a hard-nosed but intelligent group who really do live, think and play in both countries.

Question to upton-on-line readers: does such an initiative merit thinking about? If so, would you lend your name to trying to make it happen?

Send your responses to:

Just when there appeared to be a break in the clouds

With the Bush Administration’s decision to stand aside from Kyoto and conduct, instead, an aggressive review of energy policy, it looked for a while as though the nuclear energy sector had been given a new lease of life. After achieving virtual pariah status in the wake of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, it suddenly looked as though a comeback was on the cards. True, the Germans were committed to progressively dismantling their nuclear sector. But the British were leaning towards maintaining nuclear as the supplier of roughly one fifth of the nation’s electricity.

And the French were acutely aware that every time they boarded a TGV, they weren’t just shifting emissions from car exhausts to power station chimneys: they were actually reducing them given Frances overwhelming reliance on nuclear power. True, there were long-term waste disposal problems – but were they worse than gently sautéeing in rising greenhouse gas levels? Were the Greens right to oppose an energy source that, whatever its waste disposal problems, did at least offer a way out of rising CO2 emissions.

September 11th looks to have seeded a whole new cloudbank for an industry that must have been feeling quite hopeful. The French reported, two weeks ago, that they have installed surface to air missiles around their nuclear waste reprocessing facility at La Hague. The prospects of a 767 on a suicide mission deciding to target such a facility do not, apparently, bear thinking about. The waste at that site amounts in total to the equivalent of 70 reactor cores and includes 55 tonnes of powdered plutonium. A government study has estimated that a direct hit by an errant airliner would involve the dispersion of radioactive material on a scale 67 times larger than Chernobyl. The missiles suddenly seem long overdue.

But what of the rest of the country – La Hague is one of four nuclear waste collection sites, not to mention 21 reactors and a military nuclear facility. None, it appears, have been constructed to withstand more than a hit by a light aeroplane. The same goes for other sites around the world. In other words, whatever their long-term waste management legacies, they present an immediate risk in the light of the new style terrorism that appears to have been launched.

If the nuclear industry has always struggled to prove that it can exist on a commercial basis without special subsidies, how will it ever be able to shoulder the costs of paying for the sort of sophisticated military protection that appears to be needed? More fundamentally, public concerns will once again be raised to a fever pitch: does it make sense to build dependence on energy sources that involve such heavy concentrations of risk that they require sophisticated military protection?

An overdue dose of sanity

Upton-on-line does not often refer readers to the NZ Herald for insights but Colin James’ weekly column ranks as an exception. This week’s column drew attention to an exceptionally frank Maori commentary on science, traditional knowledge and the cultural debate as we wade through it day by day in New Zealand. It was given by Tahu Potiki who is shortly to take up the chair of the Ngai Tahu Development Corporation and showed a refreshing willingness to talk about being Maori without laying claim to a veil of obscurantism that leads one to conclude that Maori and Pakeha inhabit different universes. Or as James puts it, that it’s possible to assert bi-cultural respect without needing to resort to separatism.

James’ commentary (always too short on account of the Herald’s absurd column limits) can be found at (look for the Dialogue pages of November 7th’s edition) or, from Friday 9th November, on his own website,

In the meantime, here is the full text of what Potiki had to say on the subject. Let’s hope other minds in Maoridom can engage in this sort of candour:

“I hold here in my hand a piece of Pounamu or greenstone-jade. There are a number of Maori traditions about the origins of Pounamu Including fanciful tales of taniwhas and dusky maidens. Like all other matter in the universe, traditional Maori knowledge accounted for Pounamu through genealogical origins, or whakapapa. Creation, mankind, flora and fauna were all explained through complex inter-relationships that were spawned by a myriad of gods. This stone was supposedly descended from Takaroa or the sea god and was often mistaken for a fish, he ika, he pounamu, he Ika, he pounamu. A number of stories are told of jade hunters seeing fish in the waters of certain rivers and as they grasp the slippery tail it turns to a prized piece of greenstone.

“Modern knowledge tells us that in fact this stone is a type of nephrite and was formed as a result of extraordinary heat and enormous pressure. There is a large vein of mother rock in the Southern Alps and boulders are worn off and find their way into rivers and tributaries along the West Coast of the South island and are then subsequently “discovered,” or collected, to be worked into tools and jewellery. The geological theory is acceptable knowledge, as, we understand it.

“As a society ‘we choose the theory whIch best holds its own in competition
with other theories; the one which by natural selection, proves itself the fittest
to survive’, becomes acceptable knowledge. Other theories can be disproved. Matauranga Maori, or Maori knowledge, has failed because it does not stand up to critical analysis. As my colleague puts it Maori knowledge is dead.

“When Maori were exposed to Western systems of knowledge the whakapapa system could not include the new. There were some early attempts to add new genealogical lines to the existing whakapapa but the rate of influx so challenged the Maori world-view that further expansion became futile. There is no modern, credible, discipline that continues to expand an understanding of the universe based on genealogical descent lines. So as we consider the knowledge society it simply must be in the context of modern global knowledge that has survived critical or practical analysis.

“The recent Maori caucus decision to reject the science of genetic engineering is of concern. Based on a set of traditional principles of the sanctity of human existence we will reject involvement in cutting edge scientific research. The unknown implications of genetic modification have spurned an ostrich syndrome within Maoridom equivalent to that of the Pope as he counseled Galileo to stop discussing the position of the Earth within the universe. The sacred principle of God’s creation should no longer refute common sense, and ignore modernity, because of an irrational fear of Frankenstein’s unseen monster.

“This is not to say that Matauranga Maori is not important or integral to Maori communities. Countries, identities and systems of government find their origin in knowledge systems that have long since been disproved. The realisation that the earth is part of an ever-expanding universe on the fringes of one of a myriad of galaxies did not stop people from going to church. Sunday sport and T.V. stopped people from going to church and they are the same things that will stop people participating in Maori ritual. The perpetuation of tradition, ritual and Ianguage will remain central to Maori and iwi development as this is the cement of identity. Japanese society can, and does, engage at the forefront of technology whilst talking Japanese, practicing Shinto religion and holding fast to traditional values. Why can’t Maori?

“For Maori one has to ask whether an iwi can evolve in an organlsational sense and still commit to old beliefs and traditions as a rational knowledge system. The future lies in accepting the death of the past. The relevance of whakapapa is in communal solidarity, kinship and identity but these traditions cannot be seen as truth or as an excuse not to engage with the rest of the world in seeking out new knowledge.

“There is no evil or malice in this revelation. Colonisation cannot be blamed for the devaluing of Matauranga Maori. The mere interaction with other cultures and knowledge systems left no rational defence for Maori knowledge. (This does not let colonisation off the hook as there is plenty more we can blame it for). But it was the simple overwhelming challenge to a Maori world-view that collapsed Maori knowledge. Nothing else.

“As devastating as it was, the arrival of the Pakeha did one thing; it showed our ancestors that there was a world beyond these shores and that if we do not actively engage with the rest of the world then Maori, or Ngäi Tahu, will simply become an artifact.

“Therefore participation in the knowledge society means global, Western knowledge. And participation in the knowledge society for Maori is tantamount to participation in general society.”

A final snippet

It’s funny the images advertising agencies dig up for their clients. In a major French daily, the other day, upton-on-line spied a very familiar picture of Pohutu Geyser in full eruption. A geyser’s a geyser you might think. To most people, maybe, but not to a geyser freak like upton-on-line. But what was all the spouting about? Who knows, but apparently Pohutu’s wet, steamy, silica-laden discharge has something in common with the sort of service you can expect from KPMG (at least in France). At least that’s the firm that has chosen Pohutu as it’s subliminal symbol.

Perhaps someone should tell one of the two competing Arawa sub-tribes. They could perhaps repeat the recent victory over Lego’s misappropriation of tohunga and whenua. And as a famous taonga which people have long paid to see, pictures of Pohutu have got to be worth more than a couple of nouns (even Maori ones). On the other hand, perhaps KPMG’s advertisers have already paid cold hard cash to exploit Pohutu on behalf of assorted erupting financial consultancies and accounting firms. In which case we can sleep easy in the knowledge that even taonga have an internationally realiseable price!

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