I was sitting back in my Air New Zealand seat on NZ1 out of Los Angeles preparing for a journey I know so well, the one back home. Getting on an Air New Zealand plane anywhere in the world actually feels like I have already arrived, but something at the start of this journey caused me to sit bolt upright and do a quick mental check that the plane and I were both going to the same place. The dulcet tones of the Air New Zealand purser welcoming the foreign travelers said the flight would “take us down to our quiet little corner of the South Pacific.”
Quiet! Little! Corner! Yet again I was reminded that “language matters”. For many years I have worked against the notion of New Zealand as “small”, yet time and again it creeps into our national conversation. The natural modesty of New Zealanders, the get-it-done-without-fuss ethic, the “knock the bugger off” attitude that carried Ed Hillary to the top of Everest, are among our greatest strengths. I work with New Zealanders in what seems to be every part of the world. I can see how our gruff, chipper sense of teamwork creates priceless value wherever it is deployed. Shayne Gilbert is leading the UN relief effort in Haiti. Helen Clark is leading the UN’s development effort designed to pull a billion people out of poverty. Chris Liddell is now Vice Chairman of General Motors. Steve Williams will have Tiger Woods’ back as he attempts to pull his game and life back on track. These are each examples of turnaround situations which require a tenacious, pragmatic yet calm and principled approach. The message could be, “got a tough job to do – call in a New Zealander. They’ll deliver 100%.”
The “quiet little corner” metaphor plays to the worst attributes of our psychology: that we are subservient, under-achieving, provincial, even feral. What if the Air New Zealand announcement had spoken of the journey to “our proud warrior nation at the leading edge of change, not only world-class but world-changing, and on our flight you’ll sample the fruits of our garden in paradise, our farm from nirvana, and our vineyards from heaven.” Yes, to coin the great Kiwi put down, it’s “over the top”, but it serves to illustrate that the story we present of ourselves to the world needs a makeover.
We can turn out Oscar-winning scripts but the one for the country itself has been sorely neglected. We either underdo it, as seen in the mantra of “small” we infect ourselves with, or overdo it, as seen in the crushing disappointments that we visited upon ourselves for the past three Rugby World Cups when we built our All Blacks up to walk on water.
The 2011 Rugby World Cup is the world’s third largest sporting tournament. It will be a brilliant showcase for New Zealand, provided we are up for it. I’m not talking about the rugby – I’m going to leave that to Graham Henry and Richie McCaw. I’m not talking about whether the planes get everyone where they’re meant to be on time – I’m leaving that to Air New Zealand.
What I am talking about is our job as citizens, and our role in welcoming tens of thousands of visitors – players, media, fans – and billions of viewers throughout the world. If our starting point is that we’re a “quiet little corner of the South Pacific” then we have defeated ourselves before we start. We need to raise our sights a little, talk it up a bit, sharpen our edge, and polish our exuberance. I’m not talking about being something we aren’t: New Zealanders are naturally hospitable, let’s just imbue the conversation with a higher sense of purpose and metaphor.
Bring on the storytellers, raise up the scriptwriters, turn on the songwriters! We need a fresh New Zealand narrative that positions us well in the world at a time when millions of people will be participating in what we are offering.
Give it edge, enthusiasm and a power of emotion!