It’s perilously close to a cliché to say that we have seen New Zealand at its absolute best during the past nine days. The way in which people all over the country (and overseas too, for that matter) have rallied in support of quake-stricken Christchurch is inspirational. The city’s own courageous and resilient response, save for the actions of a few contemptible looters, inevitably evokes comparisons with London during the Blitz.
At times like this, a very basic part of our national character reasserts itself. We are still a small, intimate and inter-connected society. Beneath the veneer of cosmopolitan sophistication that we like to think we have acquired – the designer-label, latté culture – there remains a stubborn residual trace of our resourceful, do-it-yourself colonial past, when isolated communities really did have to pull together to survive. We saw this in the way the farmers came to town with their trucks and tractors to clear away the vast quantities of silt that choked streets and sections.
The comparison might seem trite, but a similar, we’re-all-in-this-together spirit was evident in the telethons of the 1970s and 80s that, for one weekend each year, united the country in an orgy of fundraising for worthy causes. They wouldn’t work now; far too innocent and gauche. Yet that admirable, generous trait survives in the New Zealand psyche.
The politicians seem to grasp this, judging by the absence of point-scoring since February 22. Phil Goff has essentially backed what the government has done in the immediate aftermath of the quake, clearly recognising that there are times when political differences must be put aside in the national interest. Whether that political consensus will survive as the government starts exploring longer-term options to help meet the estimated $15-20 billion cost of the disaster – for example, winding back Working For Families and interest-free student loans – is another matter.
What many New Zealanders must earnestly wish for, naive as it may seem, is that the current national mood – the shoulders-to-the-wheel spirit that has temporarily silenced political bickering and suppressed the customary lobbying of sectional interests – might somehow be sustained. Even before the quake struck, this was a country with serious problems, notably a chronically under-performing economy and massive debt. What has happened over the past nine days has given us a lot to think about. It has taught us a lot about ourselves, or at least reminded us of national qualities we were at risk of forgetting. If the current spirit of unity in crisis could somehow be harnessed and brought to bear on New Zealand’s longer-term challenges, who knows what might be accomplished?