Gap Year with a Difference

By Matt Showering

Arrival in New Zealand: Home from Home?
The Author
Although I had proven my sceptical friends wrong by getting through my tour of India unscathed, I was at least partially conscious of the potential for what was such an imperially-themed trip to at some point seem in danger of causing a diplomatic incident. Indeed, the first instance in which this threat came anywhere near to materialising, occurred before I arrived in my next (brief) destination of Thailand.

Thanks to a combination of a meal at a rather too authentic restaurant in New Delhi (recommended by the Intrepid tour guide no less) and the sweltering heat during my last few days in the city, I was feeling slightly unwell and my normally ravenous appetite was dramatically reduced. I therefore despaired when I boarded the Jet Airways (major Indian airline) flight to Bangkok and found myself sat in the back row, unable to recline, while the person sat in front of me reclined into oblivion - leaving me, with my tall frame, crushed like a sardine in a can. Had I been flying with a Western airline, I would've immediately demanded a free upgrade in the absence of any available Economy seats, on the grounds that I had paid the same money as all the other Economy passengers and should therefore have the same comfort as them; but I decided this was not worth the bother since the cabin crew seemed completely oblivious to anything any English-speaking person said to them (though when they spoke to anyone - Western, Indian or Thai - they spoke almost perfect Queen's English). My hitherto-drawn conclusion that the tendency of many Indian people to bombard Westerners with intensely private questions was a result of the shear curiosity arising from their widespread inability to afford visits to foreign countries, was quickly dashed when the person sat next to me - part of a large group of travellers - started subjecting me to that routine. The moment when everything almost got out of hand was when the meal was served, and one of those travellers - sat in the opposite aisle - thought he'd be doing me a favour by jerking the seat of his friend in front of me right forward, spilling my drink all over the place: I do believe that it was only the presence of a mother with her 2 children sat nearby, which prevented me from shouting an obscenity at the top of my voice - for after nearly 2 hours of total discomfort this was the final straw. As if to add insult to injury, after the meal the cabin crew had the cheek to tell me to keep my voice down because people were trying to sleep - completely ignorant of the fact that it was only my cramped position stopping me from trying to sleep; again, why should all those people have more right to it than me?

Grave of William Hobson
Needless to say, I was very glad when I finally arrived in Bangkok, which I immediately found to be a most welcoming and fascinating place - as clean, orderly and accessible as any Western city (indeed maybe the most ultra-modern cityscape I have ever seen), and with enough historical palaces & monarchical museums to keep such a devoted student of royalty as me busy for the whole week I was there; and this is not to even mention the amazement of being in a country whose constitutional monarch is so deeply revered - with giant shrines to the Thai King and Queen to be found everywhere. However, the stifling humidity (much worse than at any point on the India tour) made my robust health and appetite slow to return; and with the rather low-quality hostel in which I stayed having placed me in a dormitory on my own for the whole week, thus preventing me from sampling the city's famous nightlife anyway, I was counting the minutes until I flew on to my primary destination, New Zealand.

Government House, Auckland
The British Airways flight from Bangkok to Sydney (where I had to change for my onward flight to Auckland) gave me one final taste of home before I arrived on the other side of the world. My brief transfer in the Australian city gave me a glimpse of what to expect towards the end of my trip - with a security officer gleefully noticing my England Cricket hat, to which I responded by admitting that the recent World Twenty20 Championships were always going to be a write-off for the England team but that it had been most pleasing to be in India when we sealed a thrilling One Day Series win against the Indians. Unfortunately, my dialogue with the security staff at Auckland Airport was to be somewhat less jovial. The Immigration officer who checked my passport and visa seemed amiable enough, quite curious about me but more on the personal level than the professional (I had declared my occupation as 'writer' since I didn't have a specific job lined up at the time and thought putting 'unemployed' would be none too wise, so the officer asked me what type of writing I do - and seemed very impressed with my forward planning for the long period I would be spending in the country). After this, however, came a completely new and unforeseen obstacle - Biosecurity. The arrival card I'd filled out had given a list of items that needed to be declared - and among those listed was 'wood'; not until my bag passed through the Biosecurity scanner did I realise that this meant 'anything made from wood', for I was carrying a wooden ornament that I'd purchased in India, and waited with baited breath while the officers inspected the item for insect damage, which - they told me scoldingly - would incur a $200 fine.

Thankfully, the Indian ornament was undamaged, so my failure to realise it needed to be declared had not cost me anything, but had this not been the case then I would've promptly lodged an appeal with the British High Commission, for I would've seen the issue as one of national pride. While transferring flights in Sydney, I had glimpsed the Customs instructions and noticed that among the items requiring declaration were 'wooden ornaments'; in other words, had Australia been my destination then I would have had no problems at all, for the Australian authorities were Teutonically specific where their New Zealand counterparts were ridiculously vague; and while my interpretation of 'wood' as meaning a log covered in earth may seem outlandish, surely any thrifty, minimalist Middle English traveller could rightly question why anyone of sound mind & judgement would want to transport pretty much any type of natural paraphernalia from one country to another; and I could not possibly have brought myself to accept that the Kiwi authorities were penalising me while those in Australia - the former Imperial outpost bearing the greatest post-colonial resentment towards Britain - would've let me pass unhindered. I must confess that in these moments, angrily faced with the patronising guile of the Biosecurity officers, reminiscences of the fact that my country used to rule the one I had arrived in were flashing through my mind; but later, upon reflection, having conducted some research into New Zealand's post-colonial history, I came to see the incident - and more pertinently the issues arising from it - as simply as a regrettable yet highly telling demonstration of how the bonds between the nations of the Commonwealth have been largely swept away by Britain's ever-increasing immersion in the European Union.

The Lonely Planet guide to Auckland explains that Biosecurity regulations are extremely strict because of the country's desire to protect its 'significant agricultural industry,' words which could also be applied to Britain in no small (if not equal) measure - the major difference being that UK Customs is not permitted to rigorously screen all luggage brought into the country thanks to EU regulations dictating free and unhindered movement between member states (with no near-comparable freedoms existing in the Commonwealth). What was far more revealing, however, was learning that when Britain joined the European Community (as it was then) and the Common Agricultural Policy in 1973, New Zealand's economy was substantially affected: although the nation had long enjoyed legislative autonomy, having been granted Dominion status (the basic right of self-government) in 1907 and adopted the Statute of Westminster (ending the residual right of the UK Parliament to legislate for the Dominions) in 1947, she continued to enjoy close economic ties with her former ruler; and the latter's signature on the Treaty of Rome meant a vast reduction in sheapmeat exports from New Zealand to Britain, among other things, thus forcing the younger country to overhaul and diversify her economy far more quickly than had been hoped - resulting in a now-massive trade deficit with Communist China. Indeed, a person around my age whom I met at a meeting of the Auckland Young Nationals (the National Party being the Kiwi equivalent of the Conservatives), held the rather simplistic view that our entry into the EC had all but bankrupted New Zealand, and said that for this reason he was a republican. This statement raised the important question of exactly what the relationship is between the monarchy and the Commonwealth Realms in the post-Imperial world: I, personally, was of the opinion that while the Realms could individually enjoy the charitable, diplomatic and other benefits of a non-political Head of State (as Britain does) despite the Queen herself being absent, the greater benefit of these countries continuing to acknowledge her sovereignty was the maintenance of good relations between Britain and the Commonwealth - a model of economic co-operation and enhancement of democratic principles, but one which (unlike the EU) does not seek in any way to merge the member states together, and indeed promotes their individual identities.

The republican-leaning Young National, while obviously not seeking to blame a constitutional monarch for the actions of her government, clearly views the monarchy as little more than an extra-diplomatic tie with Britain; and while I found it regrettable that he should see that tie as negative, my conversations with the Monarchist League of New Zealand (MLNZ, an organisation I had immediately contacted upon laying my travel plans since I subscribed to the UK's Constitutional Monarchy Association) chairman - a constitutional lawyer & university professor - and one of his PhD students, opened my eyes to an alternative view of the Crown in the Realms: a Crown which has, constitutionally speaking, evolved into a unique institution of each country, with unique practical benefits for each - and the potential for a more even distribution of the monarch's personal duties throughout. The New Zealand media, however, are clearly a long way from even beginning to accept any of this - with most stories involving the Royal Family reported as 'World News,' even some concerning the Queen herself. Yet while Prime Minister Helen Clark (leading New Zealand's Labour Government) has previously hinted that a Kiwi republic is inevitable, many feel that the one final obstacle to this would be the Treaty of Waitangi - the pact made between Queen Victoria and the native Maori chiefs in 1840, ceding sovereignty to the Crown in return for the Maoris' permanent right to enjoy the freedom of their lands, and viewed as the nation's founding document (with the Crown now representing the autonomous New Zealand Government where once it represented the British Imperial Government). Nonetheless, despite the high regard in which the treaty is held by many Maoris today, the now universally-acknowledged differences between the English-language document and its Maori translation have been the cause of many bitter disputes throughout the years - even bloodshed in the latter half of the 19th Century - and the issue of land rights remains a bone of contention to this day.

Queen Victoria
When I had been in New Zealand for about a month, the news suddenly became dominated by a series of 'terror raids' across the country, targeted at Maori groups suspected of being separatists planning to attack the Government. As it quickly became clear just how ill-thought-out and fruitless the raids had been, I started getting an overwhelming sense of deja-vu: had I left behind a country in which paranoia was causing civil liberties to be swept aside, only to take up residence in another? It was ironic that I should start to think along these lines, given the fact that so many people back home had told me that New Zealand was 'as similar to Britain as you're likely to find.' Indeed, revered Kiwi historian the late Michael King - in his seminal History of New Zealand - said that "the country became in some respects 'more British' than Britain itself": the question of whether this argument pertains to the country's vast unspoiled ruritania will be addressed in the next chapter; but in terms of how applicable it is to the issue of Government control, public enforcement of this, and dreaded political correctness, I was given plenty of food for thought before leaving Auckland.

It had been the MLNZ chairman who picked me up from the airport upon my arrival; and when I told him about the near-skirmish with Biosecurity, he agreed that the instructions should've been more specific, but pointed out that in the greater scheme of things the global political climate - fear of both terrorism itself and the possibility of offending those who might be stereotypically branded would-be terrorists - does make it slightly difficult to be completely up front about what must be declared. When I subsequently started exploring the city and sampling its nightlife, I found that New Zealand culture does indeed in some respects have the appearance of a nanny state - exactly what Britain is becoming - but with some clearly-marked differences, a prime example being in the sale of alcohol: in both countries the legal drinking age is 18; but whereas many British retailers and licensees have a 'Think 21' policy (whereby anyone appearing under 21 is asked for ID to prove their age) in the absence of any statutory legislation beyond the prohibition of sales to under-18s, New Zealand strictly enforces a blanket 'Think 25' policy, which despite on the surface appearing rather too strict does at least ensure a level playing field that is conspicuous by its absence in Britain; and furthermore, if my personal experiences are anything to go by, it would seem both retailers and licensees here exercise a lot more common sense in the maintenance of that statutory policy than their British counterparts do with our non-statutory one. Another prime example of differences in control and regulation - in this case concerning health and safety - lies in the popular tourist attraction of walking a tight ramp beneath Auckland Harbour Bridge (which runs across a vast stretch of water), during which participants are required to wear a safety harness linking them to the railing: quite apart from the fact that any safety concerns could've been avoided by making the walkway less narrow and more secure, I found that the harness could itself be a potential hazard due to the fact that every 5m it was liable to jolt suddenly, which if the walkway was slippery could result in the participant falling over the edge...

The aforementioned terror raid spree was not the only major political event to unfold while I was in Auckland: in mid-November, the Government introduced its highly controversial Electoral Finance Bill - placing severe restrictions on funding for political advertising by non-political parties during parliamentary election years (the next election being in 2008). The New Zealand Herald, the country's major broadsheet newspaper (indeed the only one widely on sale) immediately spearheaded a campaign against the proposed legislation, devoting pages and pages of space, not to mention front-page editorials, to what it regarded as a violation of New Zealanders' democratic rights. Towards the end of the month there was a massive protest march through Auckland, which has long since been replaced by Wellington as New Zealand's capital, making it clear that large sections of the public agree with the newspaper's hard-line stance despite the many complicating factors (regrettably I heard about the march too late to photograph it); and while I personally acknowledge some of these factors, I cannot help but lamentingly reflect on how many Kiwis are seemingly far quicker to speak up for their rights than their Brit counterparts are.

At time of writing, after 2 months in Auckland I have recently embarked on my trek through the North Island. All the people I have met so far have been most friendly, and the city itself I found to have quite a vibrant atmosphere, despite bearing a certain resemblance to the city where I did my undergraduate studies, Southampton (huge port, compact city centre, far-reaching suburbs), which I loved to begin with but eventually found to be quite limiting; Auckland is certainly more architecturally varied, with stunning views to be obtained from boats leaving the harbour. Although the only work I have been able to get so far has been bog-standard call centre work, and while I have not yet seen even a small amount of what New Zealand has to offer, I am now more determined than ever to stay in the country long-term; for despite even the similarities in style of government, with Clark widely acknowledged as having modelled her communications strategy on the Blair spin machine - and possessing a similar degree of staying power against a backdrop of serious mistakes which ran roughshod over the rule book - the political climate is such that she faces an uphill struggle to stay in power come the next election. In any case, there now exists the distinct possibility that what awaits me at home is the European Superstate under Permanent President Blair...

Chapter 1: Introduction | Chapter 3: Cultural Clashes

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