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Belief in our ‘betterness’ is evident in the pride we take in stories of our kindness to strangers, of comments on our hospitable natures and of our presence near the top of lists of least corrupt countries.

I’ve been looking up the story of how women got the vote in New Zealand in 1893. A friend in England asked me about it and I’ve just sent him a nice account from Sutch’s book[1].

It’s a little window into the politics of the time, some of it dirty (industry lobbyists and their Parliamentary allies opposing it, the misuse of Christian doctrine) some of it awe-inspiring (Kate Sheppard and her feminist army driving it through). Activism, opportunism, heroism, conservatism, stubbornness and luck had a part to play then as they do now when contested legislation seals a social change.  I’m thinking of the social movement and subsequent 2007 legislation that ended the permission Section 59 of the Crimes Act had given parents to assault their children.

There was in both 1893 and 2007 an ideological context. The notions of personal liberty and freedom from oppression had been gaining force in the Western world. The ideas developed by Rousseau, Paine and Mill, among others and the social and political movements founded upon them were, last century, expressed in codes of human rights such as the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Rights and freedoms for men, women and children have been won incrementally. I was reminded in my reading that universal male suffrage was gained in New Zealand only 14 years before universal female suffrage and women’s rights did not begin and end with the vote.

New Zealand exceptionalism has us believing we were first in the world to enact universal adult female suffrage but we were among a number of states and territories that were early adopters of what was a manifestation of the spirit of the times. The States of Wyoming and Utah preceded us. Nevertheless, New Zealand was among the new societies who wished to be better than the old from which they were derived.[2]  One hundred and fourteen years later something of that desire to be exceptional and better was a factor in the passage of the Crimes (Substituted Section 59) Amendment Act 2007.

Belief in our ‘betterness’ is evident in the pride we take in stories of our kindness to strangers, of comments on our hospitable natures and of our presence near the top of lists of least corrupt countries. How long does this attitude last in a nation? Is it now simply a naïve remnant ?

One thing that has shaken my confidence in the persistence of this Kiwi attribute recently is the polling surrounding the election and its result which suggested that large numbers of us were indifferent to evidence for corruption in our government and media.[3] There are explanations other than that our wish to be better is now a thing of the past. We should not be despondent and fearful that political idealism is dead, though it seems to be out of favour and self-interest prevails. The battle has always been hard-fought as the lead-up to the momentous events of 1893 in New Zealand indicates.[4] [5] [6]

The political shenanigans surrounding votes for women in the late nineteenth century tell us corruption had power then but the ultimate success of that campaign and of subsequent campaigns to advance human rights suggest our aspiration toward a more just society is the stronger force.      

[1] Sutch, W. (1973) Women with a cause. Wellington: New Zealand University Press. pp 111-115

[2] Belich, J. (2001) Paradise reforged: A history of the New Zealanders. From the 1880s to the year 2000. pp 27-118.

[3]  Hager, N. (2014) Dirty politics: How attack politics is poisoning New Zealand’s political environment. Nelson: Craig Potton.

[4] King, M. (2003) The Penguin history of New Zealand. Auckland: Penguin Books. pp 265-6

[5] Oliver, W., Williams, B. (Eds.) (1981) The Oxford history of New Zealand. Auckland: Oxford University Press. p 109.

[6] Sinclair, K. (1986) A destiny apart: New Zealand’s search for national identity. Wellington: Allen & Unwin/Port Nicholson Press. pp 209-222.


Have we lost our idealism

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