New Munster redux?
Smithyman's case is far from unusual. Many inhabitants of the North Island, and particularly the northern half of the North Island, live long lives and travel widely without ever venturing across the Cook Strait. They know the pubs of London and the cobbles of Pamplona from their OEs, and the beaches of Australia and the malls of America's West Coast from holidays with the kids and in-laws, but the permanently white mountains and grid-like towns of the southern two-thirds of their own country remain foreign to them.
The indifference which the notherner tends to feel towards the South Island has encouraged a strong feeling of difference amongst southerners. Sports teams from Auckland travel to Canterbury or Otago or Southland with trepidation. Even in the less hurly-burly world of the arts, the difference between north and south has often been felt. Smithyman was one of a generation of postwar Auckland and Wellington writers who chafed at the influence of South Islanders over New Zealand literature. In a series of high-profile poems, anthologies and essays, southerners like Allen Curnow and Charles Brasch had tried to define New Zealand literature, arguing that it was the creation of a European people who found themselves suddenly displaced and lonely in a vast and ominous land. 'The empty hills cry for meaning', Brasch wrote in one particularly plangent poem. For Smithyman, who grew up in working class, multi-ethnic communities in Northland and West Auckland, and who saw the remains of ancient pa whenever he looked at hills, the 'cult of the empty land' was nothing more than a 'South Island myth'.
The determined attempt by Brasch and Curnow to create a national literature represents one of the two ways in which southerners have attempted to assert their sense of difference from the north. Brasch did not deny that regions like Smithyman's beloved Northland had their own, peculiar history and sociology, but he felt that the essential situation of New Zealanders was expressed most clearly and insistently in the south. The South Island was, in other words, the real New Zealand.
This sort of claim has been a staple of South Island culture for more than one hundred and fifty years, and it is still being made insistently. The very popular 'Southern Man' advertisements for Speights beer, for instance, contrast the authenticity of tough and laconic South Island farmhands with the decadence of Auckland yuppies and socialites, and suggest that the northerners represent a betrayal of proper Kiwi values. In a more highbrow manner, the poet, biographer, environmentalist and good southern man Brian Turner endlessly contrasts his own existence in a small town in a particularly cold part of central Otago with the soft, out-of-touch lives of Aucklanders. Like Speights, Turner is surprisingly popular in Auckland. The geographical and conceptual remoteness of the southern South Island can make the region seem appealingly exotic to the denizens of the capital of decadence. There is another, less ambitious South Island expression of difference. In a cantankerous interview for the Harry Ricketts-edited volume Talking about Ourselves: Twelve New Zealand Poets in Conversation, Turner made some of his usual criticisms of Auckland, then revealed that he didn't like to visit the city anymore. He had, he said, 'given up' on Auckland. He no longer considered it to be a part of the country he lived in. Throughout Turner's oeuvre, the desire to correct Auckland's deviation from proper Kiwi values alternates with a disgusted desire for complete separation from the city, and all that it (supposedly) represents.
Turner's secessionist impulses have a surprisingly long history. In 1865, representatives from the province of Otago put a motion for the separation of the North and South Islands into separate countries to the New Zealand General Assembly. Auckland, which resented its imminent loss of capital city status to Wellington, supported the motion, which was nevertheless easily defeated.
Over the last decade a series of organisations have sought to reanimate South Island secessionism. Standing in a polling booth in the Central Auckland electorate in 1999, I was intrigued to discover that a candidate for the South Island Party was asking for my vote. I almost gave it to him, before deciding that the Communist League's candidate represented an even more embattled cause, and therefore deserved some small succour. (Exactly why the South Island Independence Party, which fizzled out sometime in the interval between the 1999 and 2002 elections, decided to take its campaign to the very belly of the northern beast escapes me. Would Sinn Fein campaign in Surrey?)
Most of the separatist organisations set up in the south seem to repeat criticisms made by Brian Turner in his grumpier moments. They complain, often justifiably, about the indifference of northerners to the south, about the north's use of massive amounts of power generated in the south, and about the threats to the south's environment from development bankrolled by northerners and foreigners.
One recently-founded organisation, though, appears to be taking the tradition of southern separatism in a novel and unpleasant direction. The name of the New Munster Party harks back to the New Zealand Constitution Act of 1846, which divided Britain's new colony - most of which was still, of course, actually controlled by Maori, rather than Pakeha - into New Ulster province, which comprised the North Island, and New Munster province, which consisted of the South Island and Stewart Island. New Munster was soon abolished, and replaced with the more modestly-sized provinces of Nelson, Canterbury, and Otago, but the party that has appropriated its name apparently considers this an irrelevance. The New Munster Party appears to see South Islanders, and in particular white South Islanders, as an oppressed minority, under threat from alien immigrants as well as from the government in Wellington. The party's policy on immigration is unambiguous:
We are committed to a policy of cultural and ethnic nationalism, whereby our society comprises of people who share a common cultural heritage, a similar set of values and where new immigrants are assimilated into the greater community.
The New Munster Party seems to me to be a manifestation of the 'white identity' politics popularised overseas in recent years by groups like the British National Party. Fifty years ago, the racist far right tended to use imperialist language, and to exalt whites as the 'master race' predestined by biology to rule the world. Today, after the breakup of the old white colonial empires, the discrediting of biological racism, and the strengthening of non-white minorities in most Western countries, groups like the BNP are attempting a bizarre emulation of their old anti-racist opponents, by presenting whites as an 'oppressed people' who need state assistance to hold onto their culture and their land.
Several videos posted on the website of the New Munster Party link the party's cause to that of far right groups overseas. A video produced by the BNP, for instance, purports to show how Muslims are 'taking over Europe', and making white Christians into an embattled minority. A similar fate, it seems, awaits the south, if it does not unshackle itself from the multicultural north. In a message left under a news report on National's 2008 election victory, New Munster Party activist Kym Parsons complained that:
The sight of gay, immigrants dancing around and celebrating John Key and Nationals win in Auckland last night was a joke. Where has the real NZ gone? And you wonder why we in the South want our political independence from the North.
Elsewhere on the internet Parsons and his colleagues talk of organising a South Island boycott of the 2011 elections and establishing a 'New Munster Liberation Army'. In the hands of the New Munster Party, the proud sense of difference and robust critique of urban civilisation familiar in South Island writers like Brian Turner have been perverted into xenophobia and hatred.
In New Zealand, the far right has for some time attempted, without much success, to follow the lead of their European brethren, and portray themselves as an oppressed majority. The chaotic but violent New Zealand National Front used the pseudo-archaeology of Martin Doutre and Kerry Bolton as an excuse to declare whites the 'true tangata whenua' of this country, and its most high-profile leader, the would-be mountain man Kyle Chapman, talked about founding a white homeland in north Canterbury, as a place of refuge from the 'Maori radicalism' and 'multiculturalism' which have supposedly brought twenty-first century New Zealand to the brink of collapse. Last year Aidan Work, a fanatical monarchist with an unhealthy liking for Ulster loyalist paramilitaries, called, in apparent seriousness, for the secession of his native Whanganui from New Zealand and its reabsorption by the British Empire. The 'Pakeha separatism' of Work and of old National Front leaders is more laughable than sinister, because it has no basis in history or sociology. There is no appetite for neo-imperialism in Whanganui, a city with a large Maori minority, and there is no history of North Canterbury nationalism. Her Majesty's Colony of Wanganui and the White Ethno-State of North Canterbury are internet fantasies.
South Island exceptionalism, though, does have a long history, and a certain sociological basis. The South Island is geographically and conceptually isolated from the power-centres of the north, both its Maori and Pakeha populations have long histories and, in the case of the Pakeha, a sense of separateness from the rest of the country, and the south's contribution to the national economy is not matched in state funding and economic opportunities. Dunedin and Christchurch are two of the poorest cities in the country, despite their grand old houses and storied histories, and in remote rural areas like inland Buller and western Southland whole villages have been allowed to slide into picturesque decay.
It is not obvious to me that the people running the New Munster Party have the political skills to exploit South Island grievances against the north. The list of policies on the party's website suggests a certain amount of ideological confusion. There is a call, for instance, for a flat tax rate to encourage foreign investment to the south, but also an apparent rejection of land sales to foreigners. With its nordic cross, the 'national flag' the party has designed for the south shows profound geographical confusion. Even if the New Munster Party is the work of a bunch of amateurs, though, it represents an unfortunate precedent.