• Simon Upton

When the Prime Minister opened the conference on Friday she talked about breaking out of Wellington speak and talking about things that New Zealanders identity with. I want to endorse that. We need to show that we can talk
about our country in a way that gets to the heart of issues without a political filter. And so I want to talk, today, about what it means to be a New Zealander on the threshold of a new millennium.

Without any encouragement from me indeed, in the face of my barely concealed dismay ? my children have an unwavering ability to lock on to the trail of a distantly sighted McDonalds like limpets. The golden arches promise food and entertainment and ? at least temporarily relief from my hang-ups about what is or isn't good for them.

They don't yet know but I do that there are no linguistic or cultural barriers to these questionable joys. The same product, the same experience is guaranteed in Melbourne, Moscow or Mumbai. Without even understanding the concept, they are already little global consumers.

Does that make them any the less New Zealanders? They're enchanted by Puke the Kiwi, or hearing about the heroism of Old Blue  the progenitor of all surviving Chatham Island Black Robins. But, in fairness, those stories are a small part of their folk heritage, saturated as it is with Hans Christian Anderson, C S Lewis and A A Milne (whose beloved bear is already well on the way to becoming an international commodity). Where are these children rooted? They may have a taste for burgers that know no boundaries. But that's superficial. Their cultural inheritance - through Bhaady and me - is basically Anglo-Saxon. There's nothing special about that. So it is for millions of young people in America, Australia and elsewhere. Are my children just part of a European diaspora that reached a high tide mark at the extremities of the globe a century ago? Or does being a New Zealander carry with it a distinct identity that, notwithstanding stories, traditions and memories rooted far from these shores, sets us apart?

I've no doubt that it does. We share a distinct identity, and it starts with the land.

We live in the "shaky isles". Every time the ground trembles here, Wellingtonians wonder if this is 'the big one'. The region was last
devastated in 1855. Before then Lambton Quay was the beach. It's not much different for Aucklanders. Rangitoto was last active barely 300 years ago. Taranaki's last ash showers are only a fraction older. The land is literally rising around us and collapsing. Not many countries lose 10 metres off the top of their highest peak.

Tarawera's eruption in 1886 wiped out the Pink and White Terraces. They were replaced (for just 4 years) by the Waimangu geyser. Ruapehu's last blip knocked out a ski season.

The other unique thing about these islands is their remoteness. And because of that remoteness, New Zealanders face a uniquely problematic relationship with the land. These were the last large islands on the face of the planet to be reached by land-based mammals - (not counting a couple of bats). These mammals happened to be humans. It was to have incalculable consequences for an ecology 70 million years separate from other continental land masses. This is the truly unique thing about being a New Zealander. I have for some time considered that the fundamental bond that Maori and Pakeha share in this country is our truly brief residence here. Unlike so many continental land masses on which humans have lived for hundreds of thousands of years, the islands of New Zealand have only known people with all their ingenuity and destructiveness for a few hundred years. Ours is a landscape whose plants and animals have not co-evolved with people.

The first New Zealanders were giants: weta, moa and kauri. Today we occupy a space tantalisingly close to ? but forever separated from - a vanished Eden. There are probably plants still living in New Zealand today that were browsed by moa. There may be branches of an old beech tree still standing where once perched the giant Haast eagle. This eagle, which preyed on Moa, was the greatest bird of prey in the world. It forms one of the most moving displays just down the road at Te Papa. We just missed seeing it.

We are living amidst the ruins of the last pre-human sanctuary on Earth. The landscape that we all love so much is a landscape still in the throes of a traumatic response to our arrival. Despite the fact that most New Zealanders live in cities, no-one believes that the urban setting is the soul of our national existence: it is rather the rural hinterland and the back country that lie close to the centre of our national imagination. Clean, green New Zealand - the overworked cliche - is a rural New Zealand with bush providing a backdrop on the most rugged contours.

It would be easy for me, a descendant of colonising nineteenth century farmers, to utter an anguished mea culpa on behalf of my forbears who helped change the face of this land. But they weren't to know, then, that they were walking into a spectacularly separate and ancient land. They came from a boring part of the earth - the last ice age left Britain with just two endemic ('native') species. They had no emotional or practical experience of living in a country like this.

Of course, they weren't the first to blunder onto these shores. Only a split second earlier in geological terms, Polynesians had arrived and created the same sort of through fire and the hunting of prized bird species. But whatever the damage - or its cause - New Zealand remains a landscape about which you can't be indifferent. And it is in the identification of a people with its physical setting that some of the most enduring elements of national identity are rooted. In many parts of the country we have managed to re-create a rural European landscape. Near my home the Waikato Plain spreads for miles - green, manicured, hedged, with dark black-green blocks of macrocarpa and pine standing out against vivid dairy pasture. It is the sort of pastoral landscape that is deeply embedded in the European mind.

Only remnants of the kahikatea forests of the Waipa flood plain remain. Willows line its soft, collapsing silt banks. Swamps which once supported kahikatea and pukatea, now shelter pussy willows, their margins choked with gorse and blackberry, barberry or hawthorn. Only on distant Pirongia does the original forest cover survive. Most of the landscape is overwhelmingly neo-European, devoted to animal husbandry and country living - cows, sheep, racehorses and 10 acre blockdom.

This farmscape - with ancient forests still hanging on at the margins - underlies our nationhood.

So does the fact that we are all relatively new to this country. We are all immigrants. The different cultural inheritances that we have brought here will be transformed with time and separation. But they cannot honestly be shrugged off or disowned as something foreign. New Zealand may be a young nation. But its immigrant peoples bring with them very old accretions of culture and prejudice. You would need to ask me whether I was a New Zealander of Maori or European (or some other) descent to understand how I identify with the world around me. If my answer were Maori, then my sense of nationhood (in a human sense) would be steeped in 800 years' familiarity with these lands, their plants, birds, and seasonal variability. It would also be anchored in a sense of community and culture that has evolved in the Pacific over a much longer time. I have no doubt that, so long as the Maori language survives, at least one group of New Zealanders will have a completely intuitive grasp of what national identity means for them.

More recent immigrants, be they Dutch, Cantonese, South African, Korean or Scots, bring their own cultural base. I am happy to label myself an English speaker of European descent, firmly rooted in the south-west Pacific. I don't understand every nuance of European living and most of them wouldn't recognise a deserted beach or a barbecue if they stumbled upon one, but their cultural inheritance is my inheritance. I am not Polynesian. And I am certainly not Asian. I am European.

It is not a question of being able to talk about the Thirty Years War or recite the kings and queens of France and Britain. It is the unconscious embrace of ways of thinking, speaking, visualising and making music. And if, as a European New Zealander, you want to understand why you think or speak as you do, your search will lead you back to European roots. It is rather bizarre to deny it, although a perplexing number do.

You can't shrug off cultures. Like it or not, the myths, symbols and intellectual cross-currents of Pakeha culture are rooted in the experience of the peoples of Europe over, say, two and a half thousand years. My cultural roots do not start in 1840. Neither do those of Maori or anyone else.

We are all immigrants in this land, we all carry our cultural baggage and we all belong here. Once here, of course, we have developed our own, "Kiwi", way of doing things. The bach is as good a symbol of this as any. It speaks of gathering up the family and retreating to the misty country or the wind-swept beach for a break. The bach's creaky timbers, yellowing curtains and chipped cups bear witness to the pilgramages of generations and their "do-it-yourself" attempts at home-improvement. It's a life of BBQs and freshly caught fish, of touch rugby on the beach and of little summer communities that spring up annually, rekindling friendships every time.

It is true that, in recent years, baches have become increasingly flash. They have to be insulated. Councils take a greater interest in the plumbing. But the essence remains the same. The bach is a place of retreat and informality.

Informality, of course, is another deeply rooted Kiwi trait. Many New Zealanders came here to escape the squire and the vicar. As a result we have always been good at mocking some of the more pretentious elements of the establishment. The establishment has got pretty good at mocking itself. Even the most powerful players need to have their feet firmly planted on the ground.

Another profound influence is our size: we're small and intimate. Although it's starting to fade, New Zealand is still a country where everyone has a relative somewhere who's in the news. Tragedies are often the stuff of nation building. We've had our share. The military disasters at Gallipoli in 1915 and Crete in 1941 touched everyone. The shock of the Wellington to Auckland express being swept away by a lahar at Tangiwai on Christmas Eve 1953 and the violence of the "Wahine" storm and its terrible consequences reverberated throughout the country.

Air crashes are horrific in any circumstance. But the sight of the Koru symbol staring out from amongst the wreckage on Mount Erebus was a shock to the heart of every New Zealander. There was barely a community that didn't know of someone who perished in our most southerly territory. The 1981 Springbok tour wasn't a tragedy, but for three weeks we lived with the possibility that one could befall us at any time. There's no doubt that it contributed immeasurably to nation building, regardless of your viewpoint.

As families are drawn together when tragedies strike, so are nations. Notwithstanding our remoteness and small population, however, we have never regarded ourselves as an experimental colony on a different planet. Since the mid-Nineteenth Century New Zealanders have either been part of or culturally fluent with - the nations that have defined the currency of the age. We've spent most of this century pointing out that on New Zealand farms there was a higher uptake of modern farm machinery - harvesters, milking machines and the like - than there was in the United States by 1916 (and both were streaks ahead of Europe). The country adopted freezing, rail, telegraph and telephone technologies with alacrity. That's part of the folklore.

But we're still doing it. Look at the penetration over the last few years of faxes, PCs, mobile phones and now the InterNet. Kiwi's are technologically voracious.

It's a pity we don't do more to celebrate all these contemporary businesses - many of which didn't exist 10 years ago - that are still rolling back technological frontiers. I am staggered by some of work being done in our Crown Research Institutes.

Take the breakthrough technology to treat magnesium developed by John MacCulloch's team at Auckland Anodisers in conjunction with Industrial Research Ltd. Magnesium is one of the most common metals in the world, but because it is highly reactive with air and moisture it needs an effective surface treatment to prevent corrosion. New Zealand ingenuity has found a unique process.

Who knows how many applications there will be for this abundant, cheap metal which is equal in strength to aluminium but can be less than half its weight. But already the New Zealand process is being used to coat componentry for the high value S-series Mercedes. Similarly, in all sorts of cultural and creative fields New Zealanders continue to excel - (and it certainly hasn't been the result of over-spending by the Government!) We've produced a long line of world class opera singers.

Now we seem to be producing our share of film directors. Kiwis have spread out and occupied every niche. The Cabaret star "Mika" was so popular at a recent Edinburgh Festival that he graced the front page of the Scotsman as the true "kiwi-fruit". And I don't need to tell a conference that took two hours out to watch the All Blacks play South Africa about the role of sporting prowess in the national soul.

These aren't achievements for which governments or bureaucracies should try to claim credit. They are all to do with regarding ourselves - despite the distances - as plugged in to the global nerve centres. Kiwis expect to be able to foot it in the leading countries of the world. Kiwi informality has a large measure of cheek about it. The question that lies behind so many of our successes has been, "why not me?" There is an underlying confidence which propels New Zealanders on to the world stage.

And where we contribute - be it in the fields of business, culture, sport or technology, as peace keepers or mine sweepers - it is taken for granted that a New Zealand job will be no-nonsense, first class and professional. And it is.

A sense of who we are and where we've come from, is what binds us together as a people and gives us the confidence to maintain our identity in the world. Which brings me, finally, to how we earn our living. Because we earn it in the world at large - we always have. And in an increasingly global market, the only thing that will differentiate many of our products is the place of their origin. Which is where our culture, our environment and our identity intersect with our economic well-being. Setting trade, environment and national identity at odds with one another is a ruinous and outdated ideology. Our natural environment and our culture can be the keys to our future economic success.

There are, of course, those who care more for efficiency of process than the quality of the product and the romance that supports it. But, being ever more efficient about staying in a commodity trap is no way forward. To support the living standards we want and to own our own future, we must be prepared to grasp opportunities at the premium end of the market. Global consumers are willing to pay a premium for a component of national specialness from many countries: Swiss watches, French cheeses, Italian clothing. Notwithstanding globalisation, there is a seamlessness between business and the creative world in these countries which makes these premiums possible.

More than a century ago, people flooded to the Otago gold fields making it, for a brief period, one of the richest colonies in the British Empire. The new century's goldmines are no longer in the hills. They are in our minds and talents. We are a young nation, built on an extractive economy striving always to produce more for less. This beautiful land now needs the chisel of the mind to realise its new gold mines. An entire nation has to learn how to sell less for more.

Part of the answer lies in technology and hard work. But much of our future success will rest on our ability to saturate our products and services with the of our environment, our culture and magic our unique way of life.