Christel Yardley / Stuff
It’s not far from the truth to call New Zealand a small town with connections at every turn, says Denise Irvine.
Denise Irvine is a freelance journalist and food writer in Hamilton, and a regular contributor to the Waikato Times.
I was coming out of a Pilates class the other day when a woman said hello to me. She had taught one of my sons in middle school about three decades earlier and I hadn’t seen her since.
She is fondly remembered in our family as an awesome teacher, and on this occasion I was also impressed with her powers of recognition as it had been a long time. I said our boy was fine, she kindly said she always thought he would.
I love this New Zealand, the two degrees of separation where there are connections at every turn. A few years ago I randomly sat next to a man at a dinner party who called me whaea (aunt). We soon established that we had a cousin in common with Kāwhia; we were related to him from different sides of the whānu. “See,” the man said to the others at the table, “that’s really my whaea.”
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New Zealand actor and director Taika Waititi recently described New Zealand as a very small city during an appearance on Stephen Colbert’s The Late Show. It may have been a disposable line from Waititi, but it’s the one we all use and that’s not far from the truth. With a population of just over five million people, we are very small cookies; a population (roughly) similar to that of the cities of Melbourne and Sydney, much lower than that of the biggies of London, New York, Tokyo, etc.
You have to wonder where else in the world would a report (last week) about the evacuation of Wellington Airport’s international terminal due to burnt toast in the Koru Lounge lead a radio news cycle and make the headlines on various websites? Or where else would there be widespread debate and outrage after the Country Calendar TV show reported alleged caring practices in a shearing shed at the Lake Hāwea resort?
Sheep-gate has spawned several news stories and serious attempts at analysis. The no-frills shearing shed on the Waikato sheep farm where I grew up certainly didn’t look like the Lake Hāwea flash outfit. But I think our sheep were ok with the quality of the facilities; they still looked happy as they came off the slide.
We need some lighter moments like the story of the sheep because the small town in New Zealand is currently quite contested and grumpy about a number of economic and social challenges. While small towns have many wonderful and generous qualities, they can also be the source of division, rumor, judgment, and the apportionment of blame. Some of our fragilities have been exacerbated or exposed by the ripple effect of the Covid pandemic, and other factors, and not always in a constructive way.
The Lake Hawea station’s sheep-focused shearing practices have been the subject of contempt for some national calendar viewers.
In this winter of discontent and lingering illness, I was glad to recall the issues where the little town is in reasonable harmony. Abortion being one of them, following the deeply depressing recent decision by the United States Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade and take away the right of American women to abortion.
The rollback has sparked new attention to legality and attitudes in New Zealand, where abortion was officially decriminalized in 2020 and pregnancy terminations are permitted up to 20 weeks. Work around this has been backed by abortion polls, including one in 2019 by global market research firm Ispos which showed that overall three-quarters of New Zealanders (77%) stated that abortion should be allowed under some or all circumstances. The result was above the global average of 68% and places New Zealand ninth in the world, based on these opinions.
It would appear that the majority view in New Zealand is that people should mind their own business on this and that safe and legal abortion should be an option for women who need it. There was – in my interpretation – a similar strong endorsement around the introduction of the Civil Union Act in 2004 and the Marriage Amendment Act in 2013, the latter finally recognizing the rights of couples of the same sex to marry legally.
The passage of these two bills was accompanied by pushback and heated debate, of course, and opponents thought the country might go to hell in a handcart afterwards. I much preferred the unscientific but probably more accurate summary of a relative of mine who said he didn’t think many Kiwis actually cared about the police who could and could not legally marry, and the important thing was to leave the choice to everyone.
Abortion and same-sex marriage rights are enshrined in New Zealand law today, a testament to the fact that people come together in times of need and – being bold here – I don’t think a reversal of either is even remotely likely.
So what happens in the ‘hood next? Who really knows? Most of us just want Covid to lie down, to get by, and then there might be a better view of the post-pandemic landscape.
In the meantime, I have some heartwarming footage from my 11-year-old granddaughter’s netball tournament last weekend on Auckland’s North Shore. It was the perfect antidote to a bumpy winter: there were hundreds of kids stomping on the court, their heritage rooted in every corner of the globe, cheered on by their families standing together on the court.
There was a common goal, a sense of unity, and my granddaughter’s team coach gave all of her beautiful girls a certificate and a chocolate KitKat for playing so well. It was small town at its best.