NZ's spiralling reality deficit

21:10, Nov 20 2012

Peering in on New Zealand from San Francisco, if you kept your head in the clouds it would seem as if everything is going pretty dandily for the country about now.

The Hobbit is coming out next month and the red carpet is going to be rolled out for the world premiere next week. It will be a great party in Wellington. There'll be a few good photo opportunities for John Key, and Peter Jackson will probably look uncomfortable and out of place at he black-tie event. I'd put money on John Campbell getting excited, reporting live from the scene and the phrase "the eyes of the world" getting used a lot in written accounts.  

A lot of people in America are starting to talk about the movies themselves (and not just because of the awesome cross-promotional Denny's menu). To capitalise on this hubbub, our tourism board has dreamt up the 100% Middle Earth Campaign, working off the serene, computer-enhanced scenery of the films to sell an unspoilt, beautified version of New Zealand to nerds and outdoorsmen of the world alike. Air New Zealand has gone viral again with its hobbit-themed safety video and has recently made a stack of cheap fares available to fatten the carrot. There's even collector's edition hobbit currency now.

And then to cap off what seems like a good run for the nation, Forbes named New Zealand the best place in the world to do business last week. We leapfrogged ourselves out of second, over Canada and into first place. Forbes praised with vigour our personal freedoms, investor protections, lack of red tape and corruption and our stable business environment that is encouraging of entrepreneurship.

I love it when New Zealand enters into the international consciousness, beyond just the vague idea of "that far off, really green, beautiful place with lots of sheep". But the thing about being an expat is that you get both the international perspective and the straight-juice from the homeland.


The Forbes article was the first to stick in my craw. There was a self-congratulatory John Key tweet that caught my eye (an albeit minor infraction) and seemed to have a bit too much swagger in it for the prime minister of a country where the unemployment rate had just jumped from 6.8 to 7.3 percent (bringing it dangerously close to the American number).

On my weekly Skype catch-up with my parents last week, I spent a while hearing from Mum about how unemployment really was skyrocketing, with bad news begetting more bad news and of the many different stories she was hearing through friends of over-leveraged farmers desperate to sell up their land, but who can't because there's just too many others trying to do the same thing.

The Forbes article itself and the New Zealand coverage of it mentioned the high unemployment rate and extreme pressure on agriculture exports in brief, a footnote to an unparalleled story of success.

This split between national appearance and reality grew even wider for me after reading a news article in this Sunday's New York Times that jumped out at me under the headline, "New Zealand's Green Tourism Push Clashes With Realities".

It is about the most damaging collection of facts about New Zealand I've ever seen collated in one place.

The article contends that as New Zealand gets set to take a global, hopefully profitable, bow on the coattails of the Hobbit for being a place of untapped beauty, our environmental record does not come close to justifying this reputation.

The New York Times article cites a study from the international journal PLoS One that places New Zealand as the 18th worst out of 189 countries for preserving our natural surroundings. It quotes statistics from our minister for the environment stating that it is not safe to swim in over half of our freshwater recreational sites, which cause between 18,000 and 34,000 incidences of disease annually. New Zealand apparently also plummeted from 1st to 14th within the space of four years on Yale's Environmental Performance Index, which ranks the quality of environmental policies for a range of countries. We have the fifth highest per-capita rate of carbon emissions in the OECD and we're on track to emit more carbon per-capita than Americans within eight years. As a cherry on top all of this, New Zealand has also backed out of the Kyoto Protocol.   

I had heard rumblings and had some idea that New Zealand was far from 100 per cent pure in reality. But that story made for grim reading,

The New York Times spoke to Mike Joy, a senior lecturer in environmental science at Massey University. "There is the picture-postcard world, and then there is the reality," he commented.

Joy was speaking about our environment, but he could have been referencing the Forbes article also.

There is no point in feeling good about being a great place for foreigners to do business, when more people are out of work than have been for 13 years.

And there's less point in being regarded as a place of breathtaking beauty and green space internationally, when we're polluting ourselves from the inside out.

I usually take a relaxed view on New Zealand that we're about as quaint, friendly and lovely as everyone thinks, probably more.

But today I found myself questioning: has the global appearance of New Zealand slipped a bit far from the internal reality?   

Become a fan of Voyages in America on Facebook: you'll get blog posts to your news feed, some great photography, and some good chatter. You can also follow the conversation on Twitter, or send an email and share your thoughts