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Speech

Rotary District 9980 Conference

Issue date: 
Saturday, 26 May 2001
Speaker: 
The Hon Dame Silvia Cartwright, PCNZM, DBE, QSO

Nga hau e wha, nga iwi e tau nei, tena koutou katoa.

E nga mana, e nga reo, rau rangatira ma,
tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa.

My greetings to you all, people who have gathered from near and far. To all honoured guests, to the speakers, my respects and, again, my greetings.

Nga mihi o te tau kia koutou. Thank you for your warm welcome.

District President Neville Cook and Deidre Cook, Rotary International Representative Ray Klinginsmith, Philip Mulvey, Conference Committee Chair, Rotarians, ladies and gentlemen.

The theme for this Conference - Odyssey2001 - is intriguing. One of the less charitable interpretations of the tale of Ulysses, for instance, would be to note that the epic is about a group, supposedly skilled, tight-knit and disciplined, that took ten years to make an eight hundred kilometre voyage. Mind you, they did run into many obstacles along the way. I am sure their homeward journey would have taken less time if they had not been distracted by Sirens, or captured by the Cyclops en route.

These days, however, we more usually associate Ulysses and the Odyssey with the idea that no matter what it takes, you can, if you stick to your purpose for long enough, and ignore distractions, eventually you will find home.

Finding, or being at, home: this general topic claims New Zealanders' attention regularly, perhaps more than it used to in the fifties, sixties and seventies when we were growing up. The country keeps changing, so we continue to have to re-examine things that we used to be able to take for granted.

"Who are we, as New Zealanders?", is one vague but immensely important one.

Another is: "How should we or might we define our national identity, what we stand for?"

And "what expectations may we legitimately have of each other, as fellow citizens?"

The answer to each of these questions is already different from what it was, say thirty years ago, and will surely continue to evolve in the next thirty years.

These are all very general topics. So much of what anyone concludes will be based on personal perceptions. Nonetheless, there are some facts to fall back on: facts which when interpreted, may help to put opinions in some sort of context, at least.

So, to begin, who were we? And who are we now? And who will we be, in thirty years' time? - thirty years, by the way, because that is the majority of anyone's working life, deducting only the time for higher education and any step-by-step withdrawal from business or professional activity in later years.

Within the working lifetimes of people fifty years of age or just a little older, this country has already changed at an astonishing rate. Thirty years ago, there were fewer than 2.9 million New Zealanders. These days, the country is a full third larger; there are now nearly 3.9 million of us. In thirty years time, there could be another sixth, as many as 4.5 million New Zealanders.

More important is our country's changing ethnic makeup. Thirty years ago, just under 90 per cent of New Zealanders were descended from European immigrants, about 8 per cent had Maori ancestors and the remaining two to three per cent of us had forebears who came from elsewhere, mostly from the Pacific and Asia.

These days, approximately 70 per cent of New Zealanders are of European descent, 15 per cent of us have Maori ancestry, the rest of us being of Pacific or Asian ethnic origin, or part of the 4 per cent or so who for one reason or another are not officially categorised.

Demographers predict that thirty years from now, just under 19 per cent of New Zealanders will be of Maori descent, up from the present 15%; a little more than 60% of us will have European ancestry, rather than the current 70-odd; and 20% of us, rather than the current 10 to 12, will have family ties with the Pacific, Asia, the Middle East, or Africa - from everywhere, really.

The important thing about this trend is not that our ethnic mix itself is changing, but that our expectations of each other will almost certainly change as well. This could well be accelerated by immigration and emigration patterns.

At the moment, New Zealand replaces most emigrating New Zealanders with people from Asia, Oceania and Europe. As yet, it is unclear what percentage of the emigrating New Zealanders will return, or when. This makes it hard to predict what proportion of New Zealand's citizens thirty years from now will be native-born.

Even so, it is likely that New Zealand as a whole will experience what Southland has, for instance, during the last thirty years. There was a northward drift, and even though the people who moved away still have strong emotional ties with the people and the places they left behind, they have settled for good elsewhere - Dunedin, Christchurch, or the North Island or even Australia.

What other developments are likely to influence our sense of ourselves? One is clearly in the lives of women. Without going into the statistics in any great detail, thirty years ago, comparatively few New Zealand women worked outside the home after they married. Now a majority of mothers do - about 55% - although the percentage varies with ethnicity. Considering that approximately 65% of women in North America presently hold paid employment, and assuming that we follow the North American trend, women's role in public and economic life will continue to expand.

And thirty years ago, New Zealand women had 3.18 children each. The present figure is about 1.9, although the figure for women of Maori and Pacific Island ancestry is higher. One projection suggests that New Zealand's fertility rate will decline to about 1.87 births per woman, which is 11% below replacement rate.

And we are a lot more urban now than rural: less than a hundred years ago, more New Zealanders lived on the land than in cities or towns. Thirty years ago, more than 80% of us lived in urban areas. 85 per cent of us are townies these days, and that is where things seem to be stabilising.

I realise that this is a lot of scene-setting for any vision of the end of a New Zealand Odyssey, but there is one last demographic development that has to be looked at before proceeding to speculate about what it all may mean, eventually. This last development is that New Zealand is going to be a much older country than it is now. Partly this is because there has been a jump in life expectancy in New Zealand over the past century.

In very round numbers, about a hundred years ago, New Zealand life expectancy was around 60 years. It is now around 70 years; a fifteen-or-so-percent increase. In the first half of the twentieth century, life expectancy went up because infant mortality went down. Later on, many women and men actually began to live longer - once, many of our forebears began to die during their thirties and forties. These days, that is usually postponed for at least twenty years, to our fifties, sixties and older.

It is likely, too, that our average life expectancy will continue to climb, given the continuing and increasingly rapid development of medical science. But for most of the twentieth century, the aging of our population was only evolutionary. Arguably, it is now becoming revolutionary - the proportion of older people to younger people is set to increase sharply. During the past quarter century, the number of New Zealanders 65 and over has risen by 50%, and there are now twice as many New Zealanders over 80 as there were then. Yet we are still a long way below the crest of this demographic wave. The wave will really swell during the next quarter century, and become bigger again in the twenty five years after that. At the moment, just under 12% of New Zealanders are 65 or older. By 2031, 18% of us will be. But, as they say, there is more!. Presently, 1.1 per cent of us, forty-one and a half thousand, are 80 or older. In thirty years' time, there should be around 120,000 New Zealand octogenarians, three times as many. And by 2050, there will be nearly 240,000 New Zealanders 80 years of age or more, or nearly 6 per cent of us.

Given that our birth rate is already below a replacement rate and may stay there, think of the profound social and economic effect this is going to have. Not just here of course, but in all developed and many developing countries as well. That we are to live in an 'old' world is something entirely new in history, the direct result of humanity's repeal of what was once a natural law; that less than a hundred years ago, no society had many elders. Instead, with the possible exception of our Maori and Pacific Island communities, New Zealand, like all the so-called 'developed' nations, and many of the so-called 'less-developed' nations, is no longer a 'youthful' country. And we are unlikely to be one again.

So to sum up:
In the last 30 years, New Zealand has changed very rapidly.
In the next thirty years, demographic change will not slow, but will speed up.
In particular, New Zealand may well have a population of four and a half million and will be much more Polynesian, and greyer, and more of us will be foreign-born.
We will have fewer young working people supporting more elderly, and women will increasingly form part of the workforce.

It is possible to predict all this because statistics measure change unambiguously, and provided they are correctly interpreted, give a sound basis on which to extrapolate.

There are other factors which may, however, have an impact and which are presently unpredictable. Let us assume, for example, that social pressure mounts to increase our birth rate, perhaps in an effort to avoid increasing our immigration rates.

Unless women resisted en masse, an entirely feasible prospect, there would be a sudden rise in fertility, fewer women in the work force and more burden on the existing employed to support both the very young and the elderly.

We could, of course, decide to move into the international market to seek the skills and age groups we will need to round out the labour force. Assuming we encouraged such workers to settle here, we would need to welcome their families too, to ensure they stayed.

Perhaps we would emphasise the wonderful lifestyle we have in New Zealand, and the migrants would be joined by many New Zealanders who had lived and worked overseas.

The first scenario - that of encouraging women to have more children - is likely to be met with huge cynicism. We are too well-educated today to be swayed by appeals to patriotism - a modern version of kinder, kirche and kuche. So, unless women see an advantage for themselves and their families, inducements to produce are unlikely to be very successful.

What about the second scenario? Who would not want to live here if we opened our borders a little more and enticed them? Well, there is a major obstacle - internationally many, if not most developed countries, are in the same boat as New Zealand - low fertility, ageing population and too few income earners to support those who cannot support themselves.

In Italy and Germany, for example, within 60 years over 6,000 migrants per million inhabitants will be needed annually to maintain the size of the working-age population. Translate that to New Zealand and we would need very large numbers of workers a year to help earn the nation's income. And bearing in mind that this tiny nation will be in competition for those migrants with the likes of Italy, Germany, France, Japan, the Republic of Korea, the UK and USA, we are more likely, I suggest, to lose skilled workers than to gain them.

Whatever occurs, however, we face the prospect of having to encourage rather than discourage migration and that, in itself, involves a major change of attitude. We may have to see migration as a way of stimulating new jobs and productivity rather than as we currently erroneously do, as increasing unemployment.

And increased migration would unquestionably alter the ethnic balance in New Zealand, a factor which is of interest to all of us.

So, although we may see our future as more of the same, with our unique character preserved, in 30 - 50 years' time we may be a more homogeneous society, describing ourselves as multi-cultural rather than bi-cultural. Or we may choose to remain a small South Pacific nation and work to find new ways to support our way of life and to retain our young skilled workers.

Some of this may sound familiar to those of you who live in Southland. You have faced the seepage of your population, but you have worked to find ways to encourage immigration and to retain a good basic number of people to support your lifestyle. These are the challenges that lie ahead for all of New Zealand. And while we cannot predict with certainty the shape and size of our population two or three generations hence, there are indicators which can point the way.

There is a lot more to a full description of this country, however, than can be captured in numbers, as useful as they can be. So when it comes to trying to answer the questions, "Who are we as New Zealanders, and who will we be?", any answer has to reflect that our national identity is, and always shall be, a work in progress.

But we do already have a national identity - I disagree strongly with people who say that we don't. Who are we? We are the people of this land. This is our place to stand, our Turangawaewae.

We are the people who know what a mountain beech forest smells like in the summer time, and how Rotorua smells all the time. We know what manuka honey and Bluff oysters taste like. We love whitebait or mutton birds or kina. We know and love the sounds and smells of the sea.

We know how a Foveaux Strait gale can sometimes be so frigid that a local sports team could be named the Southern Sting, and how you can be bullied by a Wellington north-wester. We are, indeed, the people who, in the words of the Split Enz song, have known four seasons in one day.

We are the people who know what an iwi and a whanau are, and have at least a vague idea of how to define mana, and perhaps mauri. We are the people who know why John Clarke and Billy T James, or the Topp Twins are so funny.

We once pulled Buzzy Bees behind us and we know what a bach or a crib, and a saveloy is.

We are the only people who have grown up to have a good idea of how wondrous a place this is, our small fragment of Gondwanaland; how much it has been altered and damaged by human settlement; and we are becoming increasingly aware of how much has to be done to preserve the fraction of the original wonder that remains.

We are the people who have nurtured so much more talent than most outsiders would ever expect from so small a population - singers, actors, painters, movie directors, some scientists and writers, many sports people, musicians, inventors, people in business, in politics, local and international, in medicine, innovators of all kinds.

On occasion, we have led the world in introducing such things as universal adult suffrage, and the design and implementation of social safety nets. We are regarded with astonishment, internationally, because women currently hold so many influential positions.

Yet for all that we probably agree that these are all things that provide an outline of who we already are, we still tend to define ourselves some of the time by who or what we are not.

We are not British. Our British ancestors left us something of a hatred of class systems, so we are convinced, if sometimes over-eager, egalitarians. We do not want to be too American, although given the number of hamburgers we eat and the amount of American television or movies we watch and American popular music that we listen to, the evidence sometimes seems mixed. But we do not want to be junior Aussies, much preferring to be sibling rivals instead.

We are sometimes proud and sometimes ambivalent about our bi-culturalism. Redress of past wrongs, much applauded internationally, can cause arguments about the meaning and purpose of the Treaty of Waitangi.

We were anti-apartheid. We are anti-nuclear. And we really bridle at criticism, real or imagined, if it comes from outsiders.

Our collective, our national, identity then, is perhaps still that of a country that is adolescent. We are exceptionally promising, there is no doubt, but we are not yet fully mature.

Collectively, we can be rather moody, going from great confidence one year, to fairly general depression the next. So one year, we will be fretting about something or other, and the next year we will win the America's Cup. Our mood changes instantly from being overcast to bright and low-burn-time sunny and business confidence jumps.

We are rebellious when we think other countries are trying to tell us what to do, or how to be, or outsiders are trying to tell us what to think. We are still collectively young enough that all too many of us attempt to make up for perceived slights or feelings of powerlessness by resorting to violence. And if the people whom we feel may have slighted us are beyond our reach, or if we're unwilling or feel unable to take charge of our lives, to empower ourselves, we may visit that violence on members of our own families. Like adolescents, many of us drink too much and that leads to violence in the home and outside it, and too much loss of young lives on the roads.

We are still collectively young enough that we can became angry at any disagreement with our views, choosing not to discuss or to reconcile the differences themselves, but to attack the holders of views that diverge from our own. This is most damaging when Maori and Pakeha talk past each other, and much public debate in New Zealand, on a whole range of topics, is marred when arguments about ideas turn into quarrels between people.

So, how far will we have progressed in our national Odyssey?

It would surely be to the good if we were to begin to assess ourselves in terms of who we are, rather than who we are not. And perhaps we should stop trying to validate our collective self-respect - about ourselves, our way of life, our accomplishments - through seeking the approval of others.

Could we more readily recognise our brighter stars ourselves, rather than waiting for a seal of approval from overseas critics?

It would surely be better if we more freely recognised and praised and valued outstanding fellow New Zealanders beyond the safe few, the rugby heroes and such rare icons as Sir Edmund Hillary - that we no longer topped our tall poppies so often.

It would aid the development of our national character considerably if we praised our heroes and role models, and emulated their outstanding qualities, without immediately looking for flaws to publicise. Like adolescents, we have yet to learn that we cannot build ourselves up by bringing others down.

And it would be wonderful if we measured ourselves as much by our cultural achievements as by our sporting ones, by our love of learning, by our general creativity, good humour and community spirit.

And, it would be wonderful too, if we maintained a strong sense of community; our willingness to contribute to the common good. This, of course, is where institutions like Rotary play such a vital role in our national life.

2001 is, as you already know, the International Year of the Volunteer. It is possible, too, that at some stage during the course of the year to date, you have also heard how great the contribution of volunteers to New Zealand is, when, so far as is possible, your contributions are translated into dollar terms. It can be done - we know the number of hours put in by volunteers each year.

Assign them even a low monetary value and the price of those hours comes to billions. But those hours are actually worth much more than the dollars alone - voluntary work is always something of a labour of love. There is no compulsion, no reward other than a sense of satisfaction that you have tried to pass on or to give back something of what you have inherited or received.

So if the members of Rotary District 9980 keep that in mind, now and next year and the year after that, the end of your Odyssey may very well be - to return almost to the same place that you began.

Hopefully, New Zealand will be a land that has seen thirty years of productive change, a country that is more self-confident, quietly more assertive, more creative, and even more colourful, generous and just. But I would also hope that one thing in particular remains unaltered - that we sustain a powerful and a close sense of community. That has been our way in the past. May it also be our common destination in the future.

Kia ora, kia ora koutou katoa.

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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