Kiwis are birds mate!

Militant unionism and patriotism have never really got on. Film maker Peter Jackson concluded his Labour Day attack on unions with the claim:

“Turning us into another state of Australia under the sway of a destructive organisation carries the very real risk of destroying the great big heart that beats inside our films. I believe the Kiwi way of doing things should be protected and celebrated.”

A Socialist Aotearoa website piece appearing the same day suggested the exact opposite:

“Labour day 2010, we are actually in the midst of a vast upsurge in working class activity” Socialist Aotearoa described unionist Robyn Malcolm’s defence of Equity as “typical Kiwi sentiment.”

Socialist Aotearoa’s article is the latest in a series of recent far left attempts to legitimize their wares as some sort of genuine Kiwiana.

Socialist Worker organizer Grant Morgan described his contingent’s entry into Gaza as, “a fantastic victory, and all Kiwis who care about a fair go for all will be proud that our own Kia Ora Gaza team is part of this humanitarian breakthrough.”

Socialist Worker Tax Justice campaign coordinator Vaughan Gunson, said, “For most Kiwis it’s immoral that food should be made more expensive by a tax.”

Traditionally, self described caring Kiwis seeking a fair go have come from the right.  Like the 1981 Auckland anti union “Kiwis Care” march. Or, more recently, John Key’s 2007 State of the Nation speech:

“I want to talk about what I consider to be an important part of The Kiwi Way”, John began. “Part of The Kiwi Way is a belief in opportunity and in giving people a fair go. We want all kids to have a genuine opportunity to use their talents and to get rewarded for their efforts. That’s The Kiwi Way, and I believe in it.”

This speech from John Key is interchangeable with Phil Goff’s address to the recent ‘turn to the left’ Labour Party conference.

“I am a product of a family with a modest income that worked hard.” Phil told his delegates. “Our house was just like hundreds of thousands of others in the towns and suburbs of New Zealand. We were raised to believe that in New Zealand you could make a good life for yourself. If you worked hard you could get ahead. You helped out at the local school and sports club, met your responsibilities and expected a fair go. This was the Kiwi dream.”

Is there anything special about being a Kiwi, and whose is the legitimate claim to the bird?

New Zealand’s inhabitants enjoy a relatively moderate climate with spots of spectacular scenery, but that’s about all we universally have in common. There are marketing attempts to construct a Kiwi culture incorporating such ‘iconic’ things as rugby, jandals, hokey pokey icecream, fish and chips, pavlova cake and buzzy bees. I happen to be a fourth generation New Zealander who dislikes all those things.

More important and enduring is the ideological myth that:

“As New Zealanders, we have grown up to believe in and cherish an egalitarian society. We like to think that our children’s futures will be determined by their abilities, their motivation and their hard work. They will not be dictated by the size of their parents’ bank balance or the suburb they were born in.”

Those lines could have come from the mouth of virtually any politician any time in the last fifty years. They are a part of the previously quoted John Key speech. Does it really matter if the left try to share the Kiwi brand with the right?

Yes, it does. As the Key paragraph amply proves, wordspinning about Kiwis with common interests is just cynical window dressing. Its political purpose is to blur and disguise the clash of class differences.

John Key’s own kids’ futures are being decisively shaped by the size of his bank balance with every day that passes, as is the future of kids across town whose parents toil for the minimum wage.

The only true kiwis are birds.

As Trotsky said once, socialists should call things by their right names. New Zealand is not a box of basically similar fluffy kiwis. Our society is shaped by antagonistic struggle between capitalists and the working class. Buying into the bullshit language of the enemy doesn’t advance the cause of our side one little bit.

Don Franks


  1. I dunno Don. The Auckland uni sociologist Bruce Curtis gave a paper a few years ago on the history of the use of the terms Kiwi and Kiwis, amongst other things, and argued they had been plebian self-descriptions, which had been appropriated in the 1970s and ’80s by the mainstream media and by governments. Curtis’ paper, which was grounded in a basically Marxist account of Kiwi history, suggested that the New Zealand bourgeosie had initially sought to identify itself with flora and fauna imported from the old country – that’s why they were always bringing in pheasants and peacocks and other exotic cratures – and that it was the lower orders who were reconciled early to local birds and animals as symbols of identity. The indigenous stuff only got appropriated after it became uncool for the bourgeoisie to identify with Britain in the 1970s. It might be argued, then, that leftists who use the term ‘Kiwis’ are trying to take back something which has been pinched by the establishment. I certainly use the term, but not in a consciously nationalist way. It just strikes me as a nice informal alternative to the slightly pompous ‘New Zealanders’.

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