Paul Dawson: Paradise being lost by carelessness

By Paul Dawson

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New Zealand may need to learn from Europe's mistakes if it is to keep its slice of paradise.
New Zealand may need to learn from Europe's mistakes if it is to keep its slice of paradise.

As a proud Englishman and a historian, I am often struck by the European desire to give lessons to the rest of the world.

I suspect this is a hangover from colonial days, mixed in with some Old World arrogance, and quite rightly resented by former colonies, most of which are now thriving sovereign states.

As a visitor, spending Christmas and new year in Whanganui on my second trip to New Zealand, I am again struck by the unspoilt beauty of this "land of milk and honey".

However, this visit, I am also struck by the apparent complacency of many New Zealanders.

There is a lack of awareness that your beautiful country will soon face many of the problems that Europe is now facing, problems such as: energy; environment; public health; public transport; retirement benefits and an ageing population; the integration of immigrant and minority communities etc.

"Soon"? Well, in the next 50 years. A long enough period to make ostriches happy but short enough to be worrying.

A couple of examples of worrying trends would be eating and fuel.

The image of New Zealanders in Europe is one of a fit, healthy nation, living off fresh, homegrown produce. Wrong! I am shocked by the number of fat people and no apologies for the use of a politically incorrect word.

I am dismayed by the growing numbers of fast-food outlets, by the "snacking" that abounds, by the increasing consumption of industrially prepared foods.

I am disappointed by the adoption of Americanised consumer society values. Don't agree? Well, just look at the adverts on New Zealand television.

A second example is the fact that diesel fuel is still way cheaper than petrol. Come on.

The fine particles in these exhaust fumes are far more damaging to the environment and public health than petrol-fed exhaust emissions.

Wake up to what Europe is doing in terms of legislation and pricing.

I make no apologies for saying that New Zealand has lessons to learn from Europe.

She needs to look at the mistakes that Europe has made and learn from those errors, not reproduce them.

There are few areas of Europe's political, economic, social and environmental life that are not problematic nowadays.

However, Europe, including Britain, is trying to address them despite the fact that they are widespread; deeply embedded in our ways of life and institutions; expensive to sort out; painful to face up to ... and political dynamite.

Magnifying all the problem areas in energy, environment, schooling, housing, health, transport, farming, industrial delocalisation and social integration are the high population densities.

Britain counts 269 people per square kilometre and the European Union 116, compared with 15 for New Zealand and just three for Australia.

But Kiwis should not fool themselves or listen to unrealistic political promises.

There are already demographic problems, notably an ageing population.

And New Zealand sits on the edge of southeast Asia, one of the most over-populated parts of our planet, and has China as its second biggest trading partner.

So mass immigration will come in the next 50 years for political, economic and demographic reasons, and with it will come benefits and problems.

Problems that could be avoided by pre-emptive measures and long-term planning.

So, can NZ avoid Europe's painful problems and keep this little corner of paradise? The answer is "yes", but do not be complacent and, most importantly, do not let politicians lead you down blind alleys.

As I said, many of these issues are political dynamite. To deal with them, you need politicians with courage.

In Europe, the All Blacks epitomise New Zealand and you need political leaders with the same values as the rugby team.

Too often we see political leaders reacting, firefighting, engaging in crisis management - all giving the impression of dynamic, caring people, ready for re-election.

But don't we really need leaders to be proactive rather than reactive, to anticipate and legislate before crises occur, to spend their time and energy creating and instigating necessary long-term policies?

To do this, even if it might not help them win the next election?

Political leaders who are not focused on re-election are never going to exist, you may say.

But why not?

A nation with a mere 3.5 million eligible voters ought to be able to get close to its elected leaders.

So create active local and regional associations to bring pressure on government; force government into addressing your future problems now by introducing meaningful reforms.

Here are some possible solutions:

Raise the retirement age; only give child benefit for the first two children; encourage selective immigration; increase tax on diesel fuels; increase tax on sodas and takeaway foods; cut subsidies to intensive/industrial farming; pass laws to ensure that multinationals who "buy into" NZ pay their taxes here; have a biennial environmental forum that sets targets for future governments. Finally, do not be parochial.

What will it take to shake Kiwis out of complacency?

The All Blacks losing to the Lions later this year might do the trick ... nah, could never happen.

Are you sure?

- Paul Dawson is a British-born teacher and historian currently resident in France.

- Wanganui Chronicle

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