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Chris Trotter wonders when we as a nation stopped believing in ourselves sufficiently to attempt big heroic state projects such as those completed in the past

Chris Trotter wonders when we as a nation stopped believing in ourselves sufficiently to attempt big heroic state projects such as those completed in the past
Talking big, not thinking big: The days of massive state projects such as Benmore are gone.

By Chris Trotter*

IT WAS ALWAYS quite a journey. Inland from the North Otago coast where I grew up. Following the Waitaki River valley, my father’s grey Super Snipe making short work of the hills. Then we’d see it. Benmore. The biggest earth dam in the Southern Hemisphere. Colossal, even from that first glimpse, many miles distant. A project so large that one of the state’s first tasks was to construct an entire town – Otematata – to house its workforce. The closer we approached, the more astonishing the engineering achievement became. What could New Zealanders not accomplish? Even at the age of 8 or 9, my heart swelled with pride.

It would be decades before I again encountered that same “can do” spirit. But, it was not here. It was in Beijing, just weeks before the opening of the 2008 Olympics. A group of New Zealand journalists was being driven around the city by Chinese officials eager to share their nation’s architectural achievements. These were considerable – breath-taking even. But, what seized me in China was the same feeling that had taken hold of me all those years ago, as the family car approached the giant Benmore dam. What can human-beings not accomplish?

When did we stop believing in ourselves sufficiently to attempt projects on such an heroic scale? How was the national ambition that built Benmore lost?

Part of the answer is to be found in the humility that inevitably accompanies ecological wisdom. As more and more New Zealanders began to appreciate the environmental cost of projects like Benmore, their faith in the heroism of the big state agencies that conceived, planned and built them began to wane. It was fifty years ago, this year, that the campaign to “save” Lake Manapouri kicked-off. It would change the mindset of a nation.

Even before “Save Manapouri”, southern tramping club bards had put new words to New Zealand’s “national song” – as God Defend New Zealand was then called.

Down in Benmore’s mighty gorge,
Tons of concrete they will forge.
While for Auckland power abounds,
Our South Island slowly drowns.
Dam the Wilkins, flood the Reece!
Will their planning never cease?
We must learn where danger lurks:
Vandals of the public works.

Environmental awareness was, however, just one part of the puzzle. The larger part of the answer lies in the political and economic over-reach that came to be known as “Think Big”. Conceived as a way out of New Zealand’s crippling dependence on imported fuel (which in 1979 had required the introduction of mandatory “carless days”) Prime Minister Rob Muldoon’s “Growth Strategy” ranks as the last truly “heroic” attempt to harness the nation’s borrowing power to the long-term objectives of making New Zealand less energy dependent, boosting its export income, and reducing the fiscal burden of its import bill.

Muldoon’s great misfortune was to launch Think Big at a time when, all around the world, the idea of state-led economic development was falling out of favour. Domestically, it was also time of rising popular discontent with Muldoon’s National Government – manifested most dramatically in the massive protests which greeted the 1981 Springbok Rugby Tour. This discontent was extended into new and dangerous political territory when, in a bid to drive down inflation, Muldoon imposed a Wage and Price Freeze across the entire economy.

It was left to the new leader of the Labour Party, David Lange, to give voice to the widespread apprehension that the New Zealand state, controlled by Muldoon, was encroaching far too far upon what was still, overwhelmingly, a capitalist economy.

“You can’t run an economy like a Polish shipyard!”, bellowed Lange: sealing the fate of Muldoon’s government with a single sentence.

Except, by transforming Muldoon into a diabolical lever long enough and strong enough to lift them into government, Lange and his Labour colleagues were forced to foreswear the “heroic state” their socialist predecessors had worked so hard to create. The alternative, kindly supplied in book form by their Treasury advisers, advanced a new hero – the Market. In a nation of less than 4 million, however, the New Zealand Market was never going to be in a position to think, or act, very big at all.

Nevertheless, “Rogernomics” was, in its way, every bit as ambitious and heroic as the state planning agencies and enterprises it dismantled. It takes a great deal of determination to lay low the work of 140 years. Even so, such a destructive mission can produce only one ending: its protagonist becomes the last hero. Roger Douglas and his crew convinced their country that it had no further need for big thoughts, or big deeds, or big individuals. The millions of small decisions made every day in the marketplace, would add up to outcomes that were quite large enough.

Not exactly.

Without the heft that only the state can bring to such a small marketplace, the New Zealand economy could no longer meet all of its people’s needs. The best and the brightest departed to make their fortunes elsewhere, swelling the Kiwi diaspora to close to a million ex-patriots.

Lacking the market-balancing influence of large-scale state house construction, the private construction sector skewed itself towards the high end of the marketplace. Younger and less affluent aspirants to home ownership were, increasingly, left stranded on the wrong side of the affordability equation.

The only viable solution to these emerging problems of human supply and demand was to institute a dramatic change in New Zealand’s immigration policies. The statistics associated with those changes are sobering.

In 2000, New Zealand’s combined ethnic minorities (excluding Maori) totalled approximately 200,000. By 2018 that number had increased fourfold to 800,000. The fastest growing groups are Asian. Thirty years ago, New Zealand’s Asian communities numbered just 48,000 people. By 2013 that number had exploded to 472,000. By 2040, New Zealanders of Asian extraction are projected to number 1.2 million.

According to the 2013 Census, persons belonging to the Asian, Middle Eastern, Latin American and African communities comprised 13 percent of the total population. The size of this country’s non-Christian religious minorities, particularly the Islamic and Hindu faiths, have grown proportionately.

Very few members of the OECD have sanctioned such rapid and far-reaching alterations to the ethnic and cultural composition of their populations. Even fewer have dared to do so in the absence of an explicit electoral mandate.

The Market will always supply an answer to humanity’s problems, even if it isn’t always the answer humanity was hoping for. Changing New Zealand in the way state planners used to, in places like the Waitaki Valley, has become a lot harder. Muldoon’s over-reach, and the Fourth Labour Government’s reaction to it, has left the New Zealand state weaker and considerably less capable of bringing a better future into existence than was the case in the 1950s and 60s. Indeed, those who manage the state in 2019 are by no means convinced that such “heroic” exercises in nation-building are either economically responsible or morally desirable. Perhaps that’s why the present government talks such a good game, and delivers such a bad one.

Thinking Big has been replaced by Talking Big. Delivering Big, in the manner that so impressed me as a little boy, looking at Benmore, no longer seems to be an option.

*Chris Trotter has been writing and commenting professionally about New Zealand politics for more than 30 years. His work may be found at He writes a fortnightly column for

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Thoughtful column and timely too. The last paragraph says it all.I wonder if Mr Trotter on his road journey wondered just like I did recently as to how those networks of inland rural roads were constructed, with picks and shovels etc, to service primary production. Nowadays NZ cannot even maintain them let alone build them despite all the mechanical advancements now available. There are a lot of contributors here bemoaning the predilection of national and local government alike, to neglect basic community services and instead invest in grandiose schemes of indifferent public worth. For instance in Christchurch, statues in the river and cycle lanes and the stupidity the good people of St Heliers managed to overturn.In an oblique manner as Mr Trotter explains, that is how Mr Muldoon’s think big projects became to be regarded. His power was waning already, Lange turned it into the proverbial albatross. It would be a great relief to me personally, if I thought I could vote for a government that would follow an agenda of taking care of the essentials rather than launching into flag referendums or telling you how hot to have your shower while splurging on arty farties.

Agreed Foxy, thoughtful and timely. but it is a somewhat precarious perch to call Roger Douglas the last hero, as Rogernomics was actually the implementation of Milton Friedman's 'Free Market' economic policies, and as we have seen Governments implementing these steered away from the hard parts and only did the low hanging fruits. The consequences were mixed, opening up the economies for more participation, but making it hugely easier for the rich and powerful to manipulate things to their advantage, and thus do some everlasting harm. And of course, having got their mitts on this power they are now fighting to not lose it.

But in the end his question is right, what will it take to make NZ's economy successful and fruitful to all?

A big issue we have is that technology enables and makes everyone an armchair critic. There are political consequences to this and Governments are increasingly risk averse. To compound this history teaches us that all those projects have unintended consequences, Benmore likely less than the others, but there none the less.

We live in a finite world, unending growth is no longer an option without significant negative consequences. The challenges we face today are about protecting the most vulnerable, being fully inclusive while delivering fair living standards to everyone. And we are starting from a long way behind the grid.

Was those last few paragraphs an admission that mass immigration might have some downsides? There is an inherent tension between diversity and solidarity. The more diverse a society the harder it is for individuals to feel solidarity with others. The lack of solidarity means large inter-generational projects will always be hard to convince the electorate to undertake.
Maybe, just maybe, it is dawning on the old-school Labour supporters that the the current Labour party has been hijacked by liberals more concerned with the latest "woke" cause rather than advancing the interests of those who labour for their living. I know a lot of people that have been made un-welcomed from Labour because they are white, Christian, and male.
Also, this reminds me of what Mike Williams (former Labour Party president) said that migrants are voting for for the "wrong" party i.e. not Labour. (imagine if a National person had said the same!). These migrants didn't become the "pets" that the left thought they would and now they don't want to play with them. M

Plato said 2000-odd years ago that the penalty for not entering politics is that we get to be ruled by our inferiors. Nothing has changed. Until the political system changes and rids us of self-serving career politicians, then there is no hope of any meaningful progress for the greater good.

So only old folk (probably men) who have enough money behind them should ever enter politics? You know what? No thanks. Greater good has many nuances now, it now includes more than just human self-serving

It's a cute piece of historical revision from our Mr Trotter. I note with considerable glee that the family's possession of a Humber Super Snipe (had a stonking Commer truck engine under the bonnet) pegs him as a member of the Upper Middle Classes - hardly one of the Downtrodden Woikers.....

And the reason that State works were in terminal decline had little to do with the ideologies at play: it was, sadly and simply, that they were visibly and horrendously inefficient: from the tens of thousands on the Railways, to the Ministry of Works - the latter excellent at design and standards, but woeful at execution - the Polish Shipyard model indeed. I worked (really 'worked') for MoW in a brief interlude, doing the earthmoving for the Newfields subdivision in Invercargill with a quarter-century-old Cat D7 (3T series) and an even older Onions cable-controlled scraper (which I pukeru'ed, story here) , and saw the last gasps of the old well-padded-for-most model sputtering along then. Because, despite what Mr Trotter avers, the public at large was ready for a change....and, to channel H.L.Mencken, they got that good and hard.

A Commer truck engine! Have to tell you this one WM. Great writer of comedy scripts, Frank Muir stationed in Iceland WW2. On the way back to barracks the army truck slid into a ditch. Muir was late for guard duty. Why? Because sir the commer came to a full stop.

Has anybody ever wondered how in the 1980s the whole world turned to the ‘mantra’ of the market. Who organised that? Was it the culmination of giving scholarships to the many overseas students that attended the Chicago school of Economics in the 1970s? Was it the implementation of the 1971 Powell manifesto during that decade? So much was lost and so much was implemented that a return to even many of the good features of those days is next to impossible. Look at the current EU complaint to the WTO that our Provincial Growth Fund is a subsidy. Any sort of domestic growth is being stultified by the ‘market’ but the big corporations are being allowed to ride roughshod over everything. Perhaps the next crash might really alter things.

The only viable solution to these emerging problems of human supply and demand was to institute a dramatic change in New Zealand’s immigration policies.

So silly, bringing in more people simply to drive up GDP. Lowers the standard of life for everyone.

The big end of town is currently in charge alright. But not for the greater good, as the article laments.
When I arrived home at Christmas 1980 I couldn't believe how much NZ had changed in 5 short years I was away. It was in hindsight, an Angry Age, where even getting to watch a footy match (in 1981) was a military exercise. The radicals where running riot & you couldn't fart without someone shouting you down & blaming you for something... anything. The boomers had an angry side, especially the left of center brigade, tertiary types, who knew everything & hated everything at the same time. And even though I am of the same generation, albeit of a more traditional version, I accept that the fact that we have a lot to answer for, again, in hindsight. But the real story above is about a small nation at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean losing its courage about its own culture & being allowed to be dragged down by minority groups, through the guilt & the bitterness & into today's ultra-connected global pc world. The loss of our leadership structures (a deliberate target) & of any respect for authority (again a deliberately targeted area) has led us to the current lot of under-experienced, overly theoretical, highly educated (of no actual real world values) who, as the article admits, are great at talking but not of walking. To then argue that the whole world has gone this way is both true & false. True because it refers to the western world (which we always hear a lot about) & false because three-quarters of the people on the planet today still live in fear, in hunger, in poverty & in ignorance of most of what you & I take for granted. For me, the loss of courage has been the most damaging, as we continually bitch & argue over problems of our own making, without taking any responsibility for ourselves, our thoughts, our words or our actions. We are, in short, a divided society & I'm sure we've all read the book about how that ends.

We shouldn't have stood against apartheid? Bloody hell, and thank god or whatever, that we did.

South Africa's descent into a third world country, has been a real positive result.

Completely and utterly not the point

What exactly is the point? White flight from South Africa is no secret and neither is it's decent into poverty, both of which are exact results of the end of apartheid. Which was never about maltreatment, but purely an exclave trying to live independently without the protection of a national border.

The great notion I came across recently was that politicians were afraid. And needed to chase the center to get elected. But actually the public will vote for a bold idea, well expressed, but it had to be practical. I agree with that notion, possibly it was expressed by Chris Trotter.
Where I do disagree with Chris Trotter is that the bold idea has to involve the government spending money. The government should govern, shrink in size, become a leader and referee rather than participant in the economy.
Plenty of room for the big idea (combined with big performance) within those parameters.

WRONG. The state has a very important role in infrastructure provision.

We have seen the result of 30 years of the "hands off" approach in that space, and I gather that is very much Mr Trotters point with reference to Benmore.

KH you don't seem to be aware of consequences. Rogernomics, or more accurately free market economics, was about less Government and has become exceedingly destructive. Governments have a very important role in creating and applying regulation to curb excesses and ensure everyone gets to participate. The big problem is they too are vulnerable to being 'bought out'. Rogernomics being a very example of that.

This bit I agree with Murray ".......Governments have a very important role in creating and applying regulation to curb excesses and ensure everyone gets to participate" If you reread my post that is what I was saying.
But that does not have to be synonymous with the government writing the cheques and being in the business itself. It needs to lead and referee, not be a participant in the game.

KH, you say
"But actually the public will vote for a bold idea"
Indeed, like building 100'000 affordable homes or reducing immigration, I think Chris Trotter's point is that we lack on the delivery of (election) promises

Yvil. You misrepresent me. You cut my quote in half, here is the rest of it. "..... well expressed, but it had to be practical." So you and I agree (it can happen) it needs good delivery, or in my words, be practical. Kiwibuild has not been practical or delivered. Immigration reduction has not been delivered.

Sometime the politicians do ok. (well sometimes) But our Wellington bureaucraats can screw any idea. Anything that comes my way thru them usually is non functional, when we need high functioning systems.

KH. Cynical yes. Sardonic yes. Sarcastic yes. True, totally!

Waterview is pretty impressive in my opinion.

The neo liberal way is to subvert the democratic powers of government and seize public assets for profiteering purposes. Thats all that happened to NZ in the 80's and since. The relative hollowing out of our economy that occurred as the profit extraction ramped up pushed hundreds of thousands of our up and coming generation Xers off shore to make use of their qualifications and to pay off student debt. We drove away our economic future prosperity with deregulation that was ultimately misguided.

There were no massive protests against the 1981 Springbok Rugby Tour. The protestors were a motley bunch of socialists and communists. The NZ psyche was twisted by professional psychologists - think Tavistock.
Rogernomics was not heroic. It was destructive as intended.
State housing was not a market balancing force. It was a subsidy against employers who paid low wages.
The unemployed, homeless and low paid struggle with housing.
NZ has been sabotaged.

Yes agreed there were some less desirable elements amongst the protestors but there was a fair measure of decent sincere people too. What was most shocking to me though was the sight of New Zealander fighting New Zealander. Nothing is worth that. It should have been avoided just as Norman Kirk foresaw.

Clearly Brian Johnston was not there. I was. He is quite wrong.
As for the twisting by professional psychologists. Brian has a conspiracy theory with that one.