Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Arthur Answers 2017, Part One: The NZ Example

It’s time to begin answering the questions in this year’s Ask Arthur series. As always, some of this year’s questions are more involved than others, and some are less so. While I usually answer questions in the order I received them, I also often group related questions into one post. Today, it’s the first question, and it’s a good'un.

Kicking off the festivities this year, as she did last year, is my real-life friend Sherry who asked:

America feels like it is so messed up. Do you feel like New Zealand is a far better example of the way a country should be? Would you ever move back to America?

This is a really good question, and so much better than a question I’m sometimes asked: Which country is “better”. That question is unanswerable because, first, there’s no such thing as a “perfect” country, and because perceptions of relative “good” and “bad” are mainly subjective. But whether New Zealand is a better example? THAT I can answer!

The short answer is, yes, absolutely, I do think that New Zealand is a far better example of the way a country should be. There are two main reasons for that: Political structure and societal structure.

First, the structure of New Zealand’s political system—not the politics or the political games, but the underlying system—is far more fair and democratic than what the USA has. Because we have a proportional system of representation, it is far more likely that the Parliament (our national legislature) we elect will mirror the will of the people FAR more than the USA’s system can do. But the structure of our government works better, too. Back in 2014, I talked about those differences in governmental and political structures of the USA and New Zealand [see: “Lessons from two countries”].

One thing both countries could benefit from is the adoption of some sort of instant run-off voting method for electing people to represent specific areas (US Congressional Districts or NZ Electorates). There’s a lot of reasons for that, but chief among them is that it would reduce the “spoiler effect” that small parties and independent candidates create, and would make it more likely that a true majority of voters support the person who is eventually elected. However, that wouldn’t change the make-up of the NZ Parliament, though it would change the make-up of the US Congress, the House in particular.

New Zealand’s election district boundaries are drawn by a non-partisan, independent panel, so we don’t suffer from gerrymandering as the USA does. If there was only one lesson that the USA could take from New Zealand, one that could be adopted without major changes, this would be it, and the difference it would make would be enormous. [Related: “The American problem”, a post on reforming the USA’s election system].

The other advantage New Zealand has is its societal structure.

Both New Zealand and the USA are largely dominated by people of European descent, but the similarities start to fizzle out from there. New Zealand, because of its origins, is an expressly bi-cultural nation (European descent and Māori). Both English and Te Reo Māori are official languages (as is NZ Sign Language), and while I can’t imagine the USA ever having two official languages, it’s worth noting that the USA actually has NO official language, despite what many people think.

New Zealand has it’s own problems with multiculturalism and what it means, but—in general—they tend to be less overtly hostile to other cultures than is often the case in the USA. I think the main reason for that is the partnership between the Crown (basically, government, representing us all) and Māori people. We’re accustomed to being bi-cultural, so being tolerant of other cultures is somewhat easier, though we have our own xenophobes and racists, of course (human nature, probably). But because this has happened because of the country’s unique origin, especially the partnership between European settlers and the indigenous people, I don’t think the USA can learn anything except that peaceful coexistence is possible, and E Pluribus Unum is actually achievable; the USA’s path will be different, though.

New Zealand is also a firmly secular nation, even though a majority still claim to be followers of a religion (mostly some flavour of Christianity, not surprisingly). What this means in practice is that NZ just doesn’t have the religious divisiveness that the USA has, and THAT means we can talk about issues as issues, rather than as extensions of religious dogma (marriage equality and abortion are two examples of that). We have religious extremists of all stripes, of course, and extremist Christians try to dictate public policy in NZ, too, but the difference is that, unlike the USA, they never succeed, and we have none in Parliament because their percentage of the population is so tiny.

An interesting side effect of New Zealand’s secular nature is that the presence—or absence—of religion is NOT a big a deal here. Three of our public holidays—and the three full days it’s illegal for most businesses to trade—were originally religious: Christmas Day, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. These days, most Kiwis think of those as public holidays, not religious ones in even the remotest sense. However, we’re not bothered by those who view them as religious. There are public Christmas Carol sing-a-longs in many cities’ public parks, and they can include religious carols (because, after all, many of the best ones are religious!). Similarly, it’s impossible that NZ would erupt in outrage over what cup Starbucks uses in December or whether a shop’s workers say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” (though most say the first, in my experience).

What the USA can learn is that religion isn’t the problem, it’s people deciding to be dicks about their religion. New Zealand shows that religious and non-religious people can live peacefully side-by-side—as long as the religious folks don’t try to impose their beliefs on everyone else. The religious extremists in the USA won’t easily give up their power, but if mainstream Americans can push them aside, it would be possible for the USA to be more like New Zealand.

Beyond all that, New Zealand is a far more relaxed culture than the USA is: We don’t hyperventilate about some supposed outrage in the news (unless it has to do with rugby…), we’re not paranoid about other people or our government, and, in general, we’re pretty laid back. Basically, what the USA can learn from that is simple: Chill out!! Honestly, there’s not nearly as much wrong with the world as many Americans seem to think there is. Kiwis know that, Americans can learn it.

So, peaceful, laid back, more democratic and tolerant, New Zealand has a lot to teach the USA.

The final part of the question, “Would you ever move back to America?”, is the single most-asked question I’ve had over the past 22 years. My specific answer has varied a lot over those years, but it boils down to, “Who knows?!” Certainly after two decades living in New Zealand, and with the way the USA is right now, it’s highly improbable that I’d ever move back. On the other hand, the huge obstacle preventing that—the fact that Nigel couldn’t come with me until marriage equality arrived in the USA—has, for now, been removed. That means that a move back is at least theoretically possible.

So, while a move back to the USA is highly improbable, it’s at least possible, something that wasn’t true for most of the years I’ve lived here. Based on all that, my current answer is “probably not, but never say ‘never’.”

Thanks to Sherry for the question!

It’s not too late to ask a question: Simply leave a comment on this post (anonymous comments are allowed). Or, you can also email me your question (and you can even tell me to keep your name secret, although, why not pick a nom du question?). You can also ask questions on the AmeriNZ Facebook page, though some people may want to keep in mind that all Facebook Pages are public, just like this blog. If you’re on Facebook, you can send me a private message through the AmeriNZ Page.

All posts in this series are tagged “AAA-17”. All previous posts from every “Ask Arthur” series are tagged, appropriately enough, ”Ask Arthur”.


Let the 2017 asking begin The first post in this series


Sherry Schultz said...

Loved, loved your answer. It's always fascinating whenever you compare the two. It honestly makes me want to live there! Thanks for a lively column, Art.

rogerogreen said...

One of my acquaintances was born in Montreal, but has lived in the US for decades, US citizen. But he's been thinking about a fallback position, just in case.

Arthur Schenck (AmeriNZ) said...

I think that's a very wise thing to do. So is having a valid US Passport: Most countries won't process—quickly or at all—refugees or asylum seekers who don't have proper identification.

Arthur Schenck (AmeriNZ) said...

I used to compare and contrast more, but I probably just got used to things over the years. Turns out, there's still a lot to comment on!