Labour History Review

'The Reality and Myth of New Zealand Egalitarianism: Explaining the Pattern of a Labour Historiography at the Edge Of Empires'

Labour History Review (2007), 72, (2), 113–134.

Abstract

The growing alarm in New Zealand over the development of a visible 'underclass' is underpinned by a wider concern in the face of the country's dramatic relative decline in the postwar period. In the generation after 1945, New Zealand was said to have 'full employment', the third highest standard of living in the world and an enviable record in the area of free education to university level. According to a popular self-image, and a central plank of New Zealand national identity, the country was egalitarian and universally prosperous. The development of an underclass, by contrast, seems to indicate that this former British colony at the edge of empires could not protect itself against the tide of international neo-liberalism. However, the view that an underclass has suddenly appeared does not take into account factors which always prevailed against the notion of social equality and inclusiveness — that, for example, most married women were not in education, employment or training in New Zealand in 1950; or that the indigenous New Zealanders, Maori, only began to enter paid employment in a systematic way as they urbanized. This article concentrates upon the shadow which New Zealand's egalitarian reputation casts upon the terrain of labour historiography. A national identity based upon the idea of egalitarianism is now the most difficult issue New Zealand labour historians face.

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Author details

Nolan, Melanie