Dunedin North MP David Clark considers the balance
between fairness and freedom.
Dunedin North MP David Clark (right) receives a certificate
marking completing an Eisenhower Fellowship from former
United States secretary of state Colin Powell. The
fellowship each year brings together 20-25 ''emerging
leaders'' from different countries and different fields.
If you believe New Zealand's egalitarian dream is dead, I
want to argue that belief in its underlying principle of
fairness is the single most important determinant of our
I have just returned from an Eisenhower Fellowship exchange
trip to the United States. What a remarkable opportunity.
I've spoken with other Kiwi politicos who reckon such a study
trip early in a political career pays dividends for a
lifetime. I've a sense that's true.
I learnt many things. One of the most important was a better
understanding of why ''fairness'' has been, and continues to
be, such an important value for New Zealand.
New Zealand's values system contrasts with the United States
in that there ''freedom and liberty'' dominate. Our greater
emphasis on ''fairness'' and the US' belief in the primacy of
''freedom'' have a lot to do with historic timing. British
colonial history shaped our history.
Those who colonised the US escaped political and religious
persecution as well as hunger. To them, the right to express
and live one's own beliefs was of paramount importance.
By the time New Zealand was colonised, Europeans had a
different view of the world. And the arriving European
minority encountered effective warriors in the Maori people.
A bid to establish partnership not only fitted with an
emerging European cultural view of the time, it had a strong
New Zealand was founded on a model of partnership. Freedom
has been important in New Zealand, but freedom has been
subject to a fairness test from the start.
While we have often failed to live up to our own publicity, a
test of fairness remains our culture's most important
measuring stick - at least for the silent majority.
So how do these contrasting cultural values play out? The
United States' ''live and let live'' attitude allows today's
Amish to have happy and fulfilled lives in old-fashioned
dress, riding horse-drawn buggies, off the grid. But it also
tolerates homelessness to an extent few Kiwis could abide.
In New Zealand we want a fair go for all, but our weakness is
that we are also a little too suspicious of those who have
made the most of their opportunities.
Personally, I prefer the values set we have in New Zealand
over that which dominates in the US. Citizens in other
countries envy the lack of corruption, the valuing of justice
and the happier overall population that result from the
primacy of ''fairness'' in our value system.
I claim no particular originality in this view. Others have
explored these cultural values sets before me. Indeed, themes
David Hackett Fischer's explored in his book Fairness and
Freedom resonated for me throughout my visit.
But I came away from the US very keen to emphasise the
importance of fairness to New Zealand's future prospects.
Internationally, our values set is admired. During my travels
I heard tell of other nations' gratefulness for New Zealand's
speaking its mind in international forums.
Where others feel compelled to compromise for strategic or
political reasons, New Zealand's status as a proudly
independent nation brings its own kind of freedom. We speak
Our gritty determination to pursue fairness in international
negotiations has cut through. It gives us an advantage.
Because we're admired for our sense of fairness, we find
ourselves playing a bigger role in multinational negotiations
than our size would predict. And it is always valuable to
have a seat at the table.
I am convinced by the late Sir Paul Callaghan's view New
Zealand's success is built upon a reputation for being a
place ''where talent wants to live''. Given that the thinking
world already admires our ''fair'' culture, its pull should
not be underestimated.
If we wish to become a more prosperous nation, we need to
strengthen our reputation for fairness, not undermine it. A
growing gap between rich and poor makes New Zealand a less
attractive destination for talent.
The research popularised by bestselling book The Spirit
Level shows that wealth matters for happiness, but only
up to a point. Beyond a certain income level, population
happiness and wellbeing improve with a more even spread of
To make New Zealand a more attractive place for talent to
live, to ensure we continue to have a privileged place at the
table in trade negotiations, and because it fits with our
national identity, our country needs to adopt policies that
create a rising tide that really raises all of the boats, not
just a privileged few.