December 1, 2016 12:00 pm JST
Tea Leaves

What New Zealand's 'super-diversity' can teach the world

Making multiculturalism work in a 'blessed and remote' land

MICHAEL FIELD

A Kiwi-Indian, center, in Auckland: The city is the subject of a government study on diversity. (Photo by Michael Field)

I was just a kid when New Zealanders (a term that mostly meant "white people" back then) complained about Dutch migrants working too hard and showing up the rest of us. Then there were the Pacific Islanders, on welfare, dressed badly and driving old cars, according to the stereotype. Taiwanese and Hong Kong migrants were too well-dressed and had fancy cars which they drove badly. Now, the Chinese are said to be buying all the houses. As for the Indians, not many bad words are said about them, apart from older New Zealanders offering opinions on which Indians are better -- those from Fiji, South Africa, Uganda or, in growing numbers, from India itself. For the future, there are bound to be mixed feelings over Americans escaping the looming era of Donald Trump.

The result of the influx is that over the years, New Zealand and its largest city, Auckland, described by Rudyard Kipling as: "Last, loneliest, loveliest, exquisite, apart," has become "super-diverse."

In its 2015 World Migration Report, the International Organization for Migration cites the most super-diverse cities as Dubai, where 83% of the population was born elsewhere, followed by Brussels, at 62%, Toronto, 46%, and Auckland, Sydney and Los Angeles, 39%.

For those who grew up in a country where a couple of generations back, Britain was always described in the media and by politicians as "home," the transition has been fast and, for some, difficult.

In November, a new council was sworn in at Auckland's Town Hall. One of the members, Fa'anana Efeso Collins, brought along his Samoan family, who were told they could not sit in the family area for council members.

"If I'm still being challenged like that now," Collins complained, "you can imagine the experience of the very people I represent, where every day we're confronted with this type of thinking."

More missteps

To add to the farce, there is a plaque in the building's entrance hall that honors an obscure deputy mayor named Gen. George Richardson.

In the 1920s, Richardson ruled over Samoa -- carved out of German territory after World War I by the League of Nations -- so badly that years later New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark apologized.

In 1923 Richardson warned of "that streak of yellow paint that is spreading down over the Pacific." That the colonial racist is honored is less surprising than the fact so few people know of him today.

Another clumsy step came with the revelation this year of Auckland's new city slogan, which cost 500,000 New Zealand dollars ($352,187). The slogan, "The Place Desired by Many," was a translation of the original Maori place name, Tamaki Makaurau. Apart from sounding rather stiff in English, the slogan has caused embarrassment as the council did not consult Maori representatives over the use of the phrase.

The government is now funding a NZ$5.5 million study -- called the Capturing the Diversity Dividend project -- on the changing makeup of Auckland.

Project member Paul Spoonley says the speed and scale of population change is profoundly affecting the way people live.

There is little agreement on the number of ethnic groups in the city, with estimates ranging from 190 to 230. Pakeha -- as whites are known in Maori -- account for 59% of the city's population, Pacific Islanders 15% and Maori 11%.

"Asian" now account for 23% of Auckland's population and as a group are growing so rapidly they are expected to outnumber Maori in the whole country by 2020. The diversity project reveals some of the resistance to diversity is based on little more than concern that ethnic groups did not speak English well.

Other fears

The overall "picture of anxiety" that emerged from the study, however, included the inevitable and growing fear of Islamic radicalism.

Isolated in the vast Pacific Ocean, New Zealand has been spared the waves of refugees and boat people seen in Europe. Yet many in Auckland see it as a duty to show that super-diversity and multiculturalism can work here. After all, if it doesn't work in a blessed and remote land, it is not going to work anywhere.

Michael Field is a New Zealand-based writer and author of "Swimming with Sharks: Tales from the South Pacific Frontline" (Penguin).

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