Auckland and the xenophobes
Back in 2004 the Sociology Department of the University of Auckland pulled together a book of essays about New Zealand's largest city called Almighty Auckland? Two of the most interesting texts in the book came from a couple of department members who disagreed strongly with each other about the relationship between the northern metropolis and the rest of New Zealand.
Bruce Curtis, who moved from his native Canterbury to take up a job at Auckland and has never wavered in his support of the Crusaders and other southern sporting outfits, used his essay to argue that Auckland enjoyed a parasitic relationship with the rest of New Zealand. By using empty slogans like 'what's good for Auckland is good for the country', the city's business and civic leaders routinely manage to extract an unreasonable amount of cash from central government for their often-dodgy projects, and also manage to dominate events like the Rugby World Cup.
Curtis' argument was a convincing indictment of the arrogance of Auckland's tiny, super-wealthy elite, but it didn't seem very relevant to the behaviour of the vast majority of the city's inhabitants. Dave Bedggood's essay, which opened Almighty Auckland? and seemed to me to be the best thing he had published since his canonised book Rich and Poor in New Zealand a quarter century earlier, dug deeply into sociology and history to argue that Auckland is not some sort of parasitic aberration, but rather an expression of the nature of New Zealand capitalism.
Dave argued that Auckland has always been a sort of portal between New Zealand and the rest of the world, and a city where major structural changes in New Zealand society first become evident. He cited a number of key transformative moments in Kiwi history - the conquest of the Waikato Kingdom and the establishment of an export-oriented Pakeha pastoral economy there in the nineteenth century, the creation of the welfare state and a state-managed form of capitalism by the first Labour government in the '30s, and the brutal globalisation of the economy by Roger Douglas and his mates in the '80s and '90s - and argued that Auckland was in the vanguard of each. Dave insisted, though, that Auckland did not impose radical change on the rest of New Zealand: change came as a result of economic contradictions and political struggles which occurred throughout the country, and in many other parts of the world too. Auckland was simply the part of New Zealand where the future first became reality.
Although I didn't and still don't agree with the teleological, 'the future is already written' undercurrent I found in it, Dave's essay did strike me as a very good argument against the notion of Auckland as some sort of inexplicable parasite living off the rest of New Zealand.
As I noted in a recent post, the view of Auckland as a massive parasite, filled with alien cultures which are either decadent or dangerous, supplies the fledgling New Munster Party with a good deal of its policy programme. The Munsterites want the South Island to secede from New Zealand, and thus reject both Auckland's economic parasitism and the hordes of brown people it apparently threatens to send to the fair cities and towns of the south.
A number of supporters of the aims of the New Munster Party left comments under my post on the outfit. Reading these messages, I was struck by the way that the image of Auckland-as-parasite is being modified in the light of recent political events. Where Auckland's detractors used to present the city's inhabitants as a bunch of yuppie stockbrokers who took the hard work of real Kiwis and turned it into dodgy bonds, quick cash, and flash yachts, they now seem to want to identify the city with a sinister brown-skinned underclass. Auckland has gone from being a city of arrogant suits to a city of dole-bludging crims. Here are a few of the comments the Munsterites left under my post:
We'll stay down here and be white and right-wing and successful and everything else you hate, and you can decay into a third-world banana republic riddled with brown rot...
I think you'll find it's the brown rot itself...brown whining, brown entitle-itis, brown moaning about the past, brown welfarism, brown laziness, brown crime, brown bitter and twisted ness, brown lack of educational achievement, dumb brown rap music, brown bad diet, brown child beating and molesting, and a sucky-up dumb white liberal press who constantly tell brown people that all these things are cool and OK, as well as brown people breeding faster and all the whites moving to Aus or the SI...
You stupid JAFAs have been so busy discrediting us as racist rednecks that you haven't seen what was coming... New Munster can survive without Auckland but the "Super City" will be fucked without us!
The apparent transformation in the perception of Auckland by out-of-town bigots probably reflects the towelling that Len Brown has just given John Banks in the Super City mayoralty race. Brown attracted huge support in South Auckland, where he had everyone from Samoan pastors to Labour Party functionaries to trade union firebrands out door-knocking for him. The growing assertiveness of Pasifika and Maori communities in South Auckland and other working class parts of Auckland has also been reflected in trade union campaigns. Thirty years ago, immigrant Britons were so active in the unions that Tories like my old man liked to attribute every industrial dispute to 'those flaming Pommy trouble-makers'. Nobody who witnessed last week's big rally in Auckland against National's anti-union legislation could have taken such a stereotype seriously.
With Rodney Hide's plans to create a corporatised Supercity in disarray, the trade unions apparently revitalising themselves in South Auckland, and Labour seemingly keen to emulate Brown's success by moving leftwards and rebuilding some of its activist base, Auckland has suddenly become, for some right-wingers, a city of menacing proles.
The notion of Auckland as an undifferentiated sprawl of high-end restaurants and yuppie condominiums was always ridiculous. As the varied and excellent contributions to Almighty Auckland? showed, New Zealand's biggest city is itself a set of regions, some of which are just as neglected by central government and New Zealand's economic elite as Reefton or Tuatapere.
The new attempts to argue that a brown-skinned worker in South Auckland is somehow a threat to a white-skinned worker in the South Island are equally irrational. A bus driver from Otahuhu has far more in common with a forestry worker from Tuatapere than he has with a company director from either Remuera or Avonhead. And, as the global economic crisis and the campaigns in a score of countries against brutal austerity measures show, both North and South Island workers have more in common with their counterparts in Aussie or Europe or South America than they do with the wealthy of any nation.
But it's not only the international working class which has a web of connections and a set of common interests. Employers, as well, are bound together in the global economy of the twenty-first century. Munsterite rhetoric about an autarkic South Island capitalism is bound to collide in all sorts of ways with reality.
Kym Parsons, the most active spokesperson for the New Munster Party, offers a lesson in the economic limits of nationalism. The blogger LJ Holden has pointed out that a company Parsons owns and runs, Southlink Refrigerated Transport, has a registered office on Ponsonby Road, in the heart of the decadent metropolis of Auckland.
The Southlink website names the company's headquarters as Nelson, and reveals that it specialises in delivering goods to various parts of the South Island. Where, though, do these goods come from? Given that New Zealand is such an import-dependent country, I'd assume that many of them come from distant lands - and I'd also assume that many of them have reached the South Island via North Island ports and the Cook Strait ferry link. Even if the goods Parsons is moving were unloaded in the South Island, how many of the ships which supplied them would have made visits to North Island ports before or after reaching the south? Given the cost of long sea journeys to New Zealand, how many ships would be prepared to service ports in one island but not the other? Does Parsons' business not depend, in a variety of ways, on the integration of the economies of the North and South Islands?
I wonder whether Parsons might owe aesthetic as well as economic debts to the world outside the South Island. One of the stranger aspects of the New Munster Party is the flag it has designed for the independent South Island it wants to create. For reasons I am wholly unable to fathom, the party has used a Nordic cross, a symbol found on the flags of nations like Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, and territories like Aland and the Faroe Islands, to decorate its banner.
How could Parsons and co they have created such an alien banner, if they were truly in tune with South Island culture? How can they lay claim to the land where painters as original as Colin McCahon, Toss Woollaston, and Ralph Hotere have worked, and offer up such a feeble symbol?
The logo Parsons has created for his company is pretty enough, but I notice it bears a certain similarity to the logo of a South Australian bus company which also uses the name Southlink.
Did Parsons pinch his logo as well as his flag from abroad? Aren't xenophobes supposed to be less attracted to foreign symbols?