The New Zealand spirit

2000. Kiwi spirit is what pastor and baritone Rodney Macann talked about in my interview with him in 2000. Rodney Macann was, in 2000, leader of the ministry team Wellington Central Baptist. Later, he was the NZ Baptist national leader. As well, he was singing throughout New Zealand and Australia with the major Opera and concert organizations like the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and the NBR Opera NZ.

Interviewer: What do you think is the mood of the New Zealand public, considering the economic downfall, distrust of the government, the ‘brain drain’ (New Zealanders heading overseas to live and work), and our Olympians not performing up to expectations.

Rodney: I think the public mood changes hugely and very, very quickly. For example, if we think about sport for the moment, people are a bit downhearted that we didn’t do so well. But my view of it is, is that we are a tiny country with limited resources.

We’re naturally quite physically strong.

Interviewer: What do you mean physically strong?

Rodney: We grow up in a country that provides a healthy environment. That could be changing because our figures are most probably skewed a wee bit by people who are getting overweight on junk food and this sort of thing. Kiwis, for the best part of the last century, have most probably healthier food and living conditions than most other parts of the world and this is shown in the physique of the average Kiwi, I think.

But the rest of the world has caught us up. I was part of the brain drain myself when I went to England thirty years ago. Kiwis were physically stronger and still are than people from many other parts of the world. But I think technology has overtaken us, and dollars.

We have a small population. Therefore, the amount of public money that can be put into things like sport, is going to be extremely limited.

You counter that by saying that we still do incredibly well.

Our Olympians didn’t go so well, but Leilani Joyce has just won the British Squash Open. Our cricketers have just won a world tournament. Despite the moaning about the All Blacks, they are still one of the two or three best teams in the world. The rugby league players are second best in the world. Kiwis do incredibly well.

One of the things I find a wee bit sad is that there is a lot of negativities in the country. It is part of our mind-set now. The tall poppy syndrome is part of that (bringing people down to size). I know the Australians, when I go to Australia, are much more positive about their country.

Interviewer: Do you think that the Olympics have been exaggerated up more than the cricket and the squash and that’s why New Zealand, compared to other tournaments, where we scored more medals, but this one, only four medals, doesn’t seem enough for us.

Rodney: there was a bit of disappointment with that because there is a bit of down mood in the country now. The oil crisis hasn’t helped, but this has been going on for a long time.

One of the things that struck me quite forcibly when I came back to New Zealand ten years ago was what an incredible country it was to live in. There where so many things that I was thrilled to be back for.

I was away for twenty-five years, but Kiwis themselves seem to be quite depressed. That is shown in our youth suicide figures and this sort of thing. I would say, personally, that nothing has changed in the last year. Certainly, what has been happening with this govt, has not changed things at all, and I don’t think they can be blamed for anything that has happened, personally.

Interviewer: You think the government has nothing to do with the current situation?

Rodney: No, I think it’s been going on for years. The negativity in the country really struck me ten years ago, when I came back. I lived in Britain for a long time and things were much, much worse in Britain on so many ways. The Brits tend to complain a wee bit and get it out of their system, but there were certain things that disturbed me a bit when I came to New Zealand. One of them was that the statistics of escalating violent crime are among the worst, in terms of the growth of violent crime which has been horrific.

I sometimes feel there’s a little bit of the valley mentality in NZ because in some ways we are so cut off from the rest of the world and quite preoccupied with our own problems. Like we have so much we are so fortunate as a country in so many ways. Like it’s a beautiful country, we still have a high standard of living, although the gaps have grown hugely between rich and poor. It’s a temperate climate. We can grow things. We got beaches, mountains, there are so many good things about it.

Maybe just flicking onto the brain drain I think that’s the most hyped-up nonsense. Kiwis are having their overseas experience for years, like I was part of that. To become an opera singer back in the 1960’s, you virtually had to leave NZ. That’s nothing against NZ, it’s just that we’ve got a tiny population.

The other side of the negativity is that we are quite adventurous people and are amongst the most travelled people in the world.

As far as I can remember, kiwis have been leaving to do their overseas experience, and many have been successful in different fields outside of NZ.

Interviewer: Why are NZ’s disillusioned with NZ and going overseas?

Rodney: I think there’s a pattern which has been shared by so many people that I know. A lot of young kiwis, because we are a small country, want to explore the big wide world. There will be inevitable greater opportunities in some areas outside of NZ, but an awfully lot of kiwis go away and come back, then they make their contribution when they come back. In our church, I would say, over half of the people have been away from NZ and come back and are making solid contributions to NZ now with the experience they gained from other countries.

Interviewer: If you turn it around the other way, if Americans came to NZ would they gain experience?

Rodney: There would be in some areas. There would be things where they would gain experience, but we are so much smaller, there aren’t going to be as many areas. For example, if you take the whole field of the arts. Again, because the arts is a field which to a certain extent does require a lot of people to be base pool, not only as participants, but as part of the audience and with the funding, and that sort of thing, so with the arts, you will get opportunities by going abroad that you can’t get in NZ.

Having said that the other thing that really impressed me when I came back to New Zealand was the remarkably ambitious standards. For example, of the fields I’ve been involved in, opera and music, we have a wonderful symphony orchestra and some fine regional orchestras. Some of the operas I’ve been involved in since I’ve been back, have been productions that have been highlights of my whole career, not just since the time I’ve been back on this side of the world.

The other thing that I would say, I’ve done quite a lot of singing in Australia since I’ve been back, but the performances of the higher standard have been NZ ones rather than Australian ones. So, there are some incredibly good things that happen in NZ.

Interviewer: Farming could be another example as well. Someone overseas could learn a lot from agriculture.

Rodney: Yes. Kiwis are incredibly practical people. If we see problems, we tend to get around them in a pragmatic way. That impressed me when I came back. There are whole areas where we are much more advanced. Our banking system was ahead of what I experienced in Europe ten years ago and I think still is more advanced.

Interviewer: So, New Zealanders are making mountains out of molehills here, some of the public mood is too much of a negative reaction, don’t you think?

Rodney: I think the world has changed. It’s not just NZ. I think for a lot of Kiwis, boomers, like my generation, we are most probably the ones who tends to kill the pessimism a wee bit because we grew up in a country where there was full employment, there was a tiny gap between the rich and the poor in those days, it was a much more egalitarian country, and  a lot of the changes, some of them in terms of job security, and that sort of thing, it’s easy to get downhearted about and be anxious for your children. But that’s not just NZ.

I was singing in Adelaide in 1998. Everything that Australia has gotten going for it, and Australia is very gung-ho about their country, South Australia at that time, had youth employment at 38 per-cent. We don’t even get near that.

The things that are happening on the employment front is happening worldwide. Some young NZs may go away, and earn more money, but what does their money buy them?  Because the other side of the equation is that things are much cheaper in NZ. Our cars are about as cheap as anywhere in the world. Property in some areas of NZ can buy you loads of land and build decent houses for reasonable amounts.

Interviewer: You said Australians are very gung-ho about their country, has NZ lost their patriotism do you think or is it still there?

Rodney: it changes quite a bit. I was watching the news last night. With all these sport’s successes sports, announcers were all bubbly, the gloomy faces that we had the weeks before was all gone. Everybody was happy. I know in Wellington, it’s regional as well, Wellingtonians are over the moon about having won the rugby last weekend. I think the public mood does change quite quickly. I think it can easily tilt down quite quickly, because of the insecurity people are feeling now over jobs. This has nothing to do with the last year.

I think all this nonsense about NZ has suddenly changed with this govt is the biggest load of rubbish that is possible to imagine. People would have been depressed and anxious about jobs. I see this very much in my church situation. People do not have job security. People in jobs are working harder. They tend to become more turned in on themselves because of their anxiety about the future. This has been happening for years.

Interviewer: I’ve heard that NZ may be less of an investment kind of opportunity for a lot of outside countries because of the low dollar. That’s a negative, how do you see that?

Rodney: In the world of the arts, opera singers anyway, are pleased to come to New Zealand, even with the low dollar, because there isn’t a lot of work for them to do in other parts of the world now. What we’re seeing in New Zealand, in terms of job availability and that sort of thing is happening everywhere in the world. We’re getting high quality performers coming to NZ because they are in a position now where they will work anywhere. Because there isn’t the work. We also have kiwis in the arts coming back to NZ because their work has dried up in other parts of the world. The grass is not greener on the other side, if you want to live in one of the major centres, even treating Sydney as a major centre.

I live close to the centre of Wellington where we have wonderful lifestyle. We simply could not buy that lifestyle in a major centre anywhere else in the world, in a capital city. In London, what we pay in dollars, they pay in pounds may many times over for excellent quality property near the centre of London. You could apply that to about any other city of the world. Kiwis go away and get a lot of experience, once they are in a position where they have families, that sort of thing, they start to look at NZ in quite a different light.

Interviewer: A good family country.

Rodney: Although the escalating violence is a worry. We need to address that. I personally think that this govt is most serious as any govt in recent tears in trying to address that. Some of it is caused by the fact that we have more genuinely poor people in NZ because of the economic changes that have taken place in recent years. And again, I would add, are not just confined to NZ. Its’ been happening worldwide.

Interviewer: What kind of society do we want to build.

Rodney: We got to be a society where there is real justice. The sort of society I’m keen to see is one where people are encouraged to develop as individuals. I think NZ in the past has been particularly good at that. Growing up in the 1950s, we had this sort of belief that of we worked hard and applied ourselves we would succeed. It was as simple as that. I want it to be a society where people are encouraged to develop as individuals. I believe the church can play a part in that.


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