It feels like we need a good dose of national pride.

It’s been a challenging year in many ways. The end of a controversial government has left us almost unrecognisable from our 2017 selves. That government left us financially bereft and emotionally divided. Many New Zealanders are more fanatical than ever on matters of health, education, law & order, race, or even climate.

And as you would expect, our media coverage over this last year has reflected these matters and the growing uneasiness around many of them. But sometimes we all get a bit close to it all.

Last week, during a quick visit to Sydney, I was fortunate to attend the John Howard Lecture, an event honouring Australia’s long serving Prime Minister. The event, in it’s eleventh year, is run by the Menzies Research Centre. Past speakers have included former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and former UK Conservative Party leader, Iain Duncan Smith. Our very own Prime Ministers, Sir Bill English and Sir John Key, have also appeared.

This year’s speakers, all former Prime Ministers, comprised of Scott Morrison, a very sprightly 84 year old John Howard, and their special guest for the evening, former UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson.

What struck me about the evening was three-fold. Firstly, the ovation that Sir John Key received when introduced proved that conservative Australia continues to regard him and the country he represents as a close ally. Secondly, there is a very generous two way relationship between Australia and the United Kingdom. Thirdly, the former leaders of both Australia and Britain look outward at the contribution that they and their countries can make to the world rather than looking inward at their own problems.

This final point is their major difference when compared with the New Zealand that has emerged over the last six years. Sir John Key once called us “the hermit kingdom”. A combination of recent government policy and our response to the Covid-19 pandemic has forced our once amazing little country to become uniquely insular. And yet, rather than scrambling over the crumbs of our internalised disenchantment, there are bigger opportunities elsewhere that a cohesive and focussed country could pursue.

“Why aren’t we having those conversations about how we aspire to a better future for ourselves and the global community we’re part of?”

Morrison, Howard and Johnson all spoke with great enthusiasm about the roles their respective countries are playing on the world scene. Support for the Ukraine is not solely about the Ukraine, but rather any western liberal democracy that resides alongside an autocratic government. The importance of our western liberal democracies was highlighted by the way those countries and their pharmaceutical companies responded to the need for vaccines just a few short years ago. The AUKUS partnership is a reflection of the future defence needs of the free world, and nuclear power will be a necessary component of the transition to cleaner energy. The UK and Japan are collaborating on the fighter jets of the future. And so on it goes, you get the idea.

I walked out of that lecture feeling like our country needs a good dose of national pride. And it got me thinking. Why not us? Why aren’t we having those conversations about how we aspire to a better future for ourselves and the global community we’re part of? We don’t have to be the leader. In fact we shouldn’t be. We’re too small. But we should participate. We’ve earned the right to do so.

As I reflect on 2023, I sense that we have plenty to be proud of. We’re just not very good at talking about it.

Instead, we’ve been focussed on each other. Inward looking. Arguing over politics, race, climate and the like. Discussing the politicians we don’t like, the climate emissions or the electric car discounts offsetting taxes on the family ute. Bickering, internally, about ourselves. Meanwhile, the world moves forward.

When Boris Johnson speaks of the importance of the UK’s role in the Ukraine, we argue about whether we should get involved in the wars of other countries. And yet, we have an outstanding military record. It’s not perfect. War never is. But from the first and second world wars, to Vietnam and the Middle East, we have a fiercely proud military history. New Zealanders from all races and all walks of life contributed to those efforts. Among the most famous was the Maori Battalion who remain revered to this day on the western coastline of central Italy.

A generation later we made the world think twice about nuclear weapons. As a result of our wartime track record we have a role to play in these matters. We have some credibility and we should have a presence. Those soldiers we lost would want us to continue the fight for a world with a peaceful future.

Elsewhere, we seem to get quite engaged in discussions about those on welfare or kids not turning up at school. We seem intent on reporting the activities of gangs and criminals. Imagine if we spent as much time celebrating our high achievers as we do criticising those that don’t bother. We have surgeons working around the clock to save the lives of children and business leaders spending weeks away from home at a time, forging new international opportunities for our country. Alternatively, we have charity workers, working full time for no pay, and changing lives in the process. Our Mental Health workers are saving our most troubled from themselves. These are people and causes we should be celebrating.

“Imagine if we spent as much time celebrating our high achievers as we do criticising those that don’t bother.”

Historically, we have been heralded internationally for our approach to race relations. Until the turn of the century we were regarded by many as a world leader on the matter. This country played a constructive role in the end of apartheid in South Africa. As we did so we risked division amongst ourselves. But common sense prevailed and our efforts were not in vain nor unnoticed. And yet, this same country has allowed politicians to lead us backwards, to a position where we’re arguing amongst ourselves about the politics of race in our own country.

But we’ve been there before and we can recover again. To get there we will need all people working together in the interests of one people and one country. Then, perhaps we can re-take our once-lofty position as an influential global leader on matters of racial harmony.

And as this most difficult and divisive year runs it’s course, there is plenty to celebrate about the young people of New Zealand. The St Andrews High School musicians from Christchurch and the Head Boy of Blue Mountain College near Tapanui in Otago provide recent examples worthy of our respect and celebration.

While we’re at it, we have international sporting success that most countries our size can only dream of. We get excited about our big international sports teams; rugby players, cricketers, and netballers, and rightly so. But we have young people out there who are breaking the mould the hard way, in foreign lands, competing in individual sports, by themselves. World beating triathlete Hayden Wilde, Indycar rookie of the year, Marcus Armstrong, Under 23 Mountain Bike world champion Sammie Maxwell. Our young rowers, golfers, cyclists, triathletes, boxers and snow sports athletes are lighting up the world and we should be more aware of them than we are.

We’re good behind the sporting scenes too. The last fifteen months has seen New Zealand host not one but two outstanding international world cups for women. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any better than last year’s Women’s Rugby World Cup, this year’s FIFA Women’s Soccer World Cup, the hosting of which was shared with Australia, proved that we can host big global events with full stadiums as well as anyone. Such events are a showcase for our country and we’ve proven that we can do it well.

Our media get plenty of flak, and often for good reason. But even here we have some champions. In Newstalk ZB’s Mike Hosking, Heather du Plessis Allan and Barry Soper we have outstanding New Zealanders who swam against the prevailing media tide and held a government to account. These journalists challenged the status quo, and to stood up to a government they rightly perceived as reckless. Another journalist, Rachel Smalley has campaigned to challenge the government owned Pharmac, bringing an insight into that organisation and a level of scrutiny that has seen a Chairman resign and a CEO under substantial pressure.

We should be proud and grateful to live in a country where journalists are free to take up such challenges, without fear of a government initiated reprisal. Sure, there are plenty of anonymous social media critics, but their opinions don’t matter. There are many countries where such freedoms of expression do not exist. One might argue that we were recently at risk of becoming such a country. But that didn’t happen and our freedoms remain.

“We should be proud and grateful to live in a country where journalists are free to challenge a government, without fear of a reprisal.”

Finally, we should be excited by the competence and confidence of our new government. Whilst the vocal minorities will continue to shout their displeasure, the direct, no nonsense approach to the new 100 day plan, and the immediacy of the Cook Straight ferry decision shows that we have a no-nonsense government that is serious about the economic and structural repair job that awaits them. The fear of what might have been, has been replaced by an atmosphere of hope for the year ahead.

And finally there is us. The examples above don’t even scratch the surface. Because the biggest difference in the outlook for New Zealand will come as a result of the attitude that we bring to our challenges and opportunities alike. Across the broadest possible spectrum we have a history to be proud of and a contribution to make to the world. Left and right. Maori and Pakeha. Local and immigrant. Educated leader and blue collar worker. We all have a contribution to make. And we should be excited about what we can collectively achieve, and what we can offer a world in need.

After all, that’s how the world’s leaders think.

Footnote: Thank you to the many NZ Herald readers who support this column. To those of you who write to me, thank you for your support. To those who disagree, thanks for your feedback. And most importantly, to those of you who supported our successful Bike for Blokes fundraiser for mental health and prostate cancer, I cannot thank you enough. I wish each and every one of your a safe and happy Christmas and a wonderful year ahead in 2024.

Bruce Cotterill is a company director and adviser to business leaders. He is the author of the book, The Best Leaders Don’t Shout, and host of the Herald’s new podcast, Leaders Getting Coffee. 

This article first appeared in The New Zealand Herald, Saturday 23rd December 2023.