Pulling the Plug

The End of the Settler Contract

Chris Harris
14 min readJun 9, 2021

(Chapter 20 of The Utopia Thieves)

ONE of the most interesting things about the Maori and Pasifika protest movements of the 1970s was that they did not strive to re-establish or re-normalise old folkways in the face of modernity, so much as to assert a ‘right to the city’ on the part of the indigenous peoples in New Zealand, against the view held in common by many Pākehā liberals and conservatives alike to the effect that Māori and Islanders did not really belong in the city.

That perspective was given voice in 1935 by Ernest Davis, otherwise one of Auckland City’s more progressive mayors by the standards of his day. In the words of the historian Keith Sorrenson, writing in the June 1959 issue of Te Ao Ho/The New World,

The idea grew up that the city and city life was not for Maoris — they should stay in the country at their settlements. As late as 1935 the Auckland mayor Mr (later Sir) Ernest Davis was stating the ‘Maori is a child of nature, and it is better both for him and the pakeha that he should live in the country and not in the town.’ The Maori was being considered as a museum piece of the countryside, little of which he now owned. It was good for tourism to show him off to visitors. Rotorua, not Auckland, was the best place for this.

To show him [sic] off to visitors, somewhat in the fashion of this famous 1960s tourism shot in which a woman, probably from the Rotorua-based Arawa iwi or tribe, is cooking some food in a hot spring in semi-traditional attire.

Māori woman in semi-traditional attire cooking food in natural hot springs [1960s]. https://natlib.govt.nz/records/23051609

It is, of course, a re-enactment for the tourists. Rotorua, where most of the Arawa live, is itself a city. As the following image from 1912 suggests, Māori haven’t worn traditional attire other than for ceremonial purposes for quite some time.

A party of Māori around the newly-erected statue in memory of 1860s New Zealand Wars combatant Te Keepa Te Rangihiwinui, also known as Major Kemp, at Whanganui, in 1912. Ref: 1/1–021036-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22506769.

These days, a Scot would probably be more likely to turn out in a kilt than a Māori to don traditional attire, for anything other than a cultural event. Pacific Islanders in New Zealand are more often seen in a version of their traditional garb, especially on Sundays. But in any case few would say that Scots are children of nature, unsuited to city life, on the basis of a lingering attachment to certain old and romantic ways of which the kilt is the most obvious example.

Against a drizzle of sometimes well-meaning but often, also, anachronistic and patronising attributions of a mysterious ability to commune with nature, the actor, writer and activist Tama (‘Tom’) Poata declared in 1970 that:

The Maori way of life is on the freezing works chain, in the shearing gangs, on the waterfronts, driving trucks and bulldozers, working in mines and construction sites, in forestry gangs and lumber mills, in factory and farm and food processing and now in offices too… The Maori way of life often means living in substandard accommodation and ghetto-like areas, getting the rough end of the stick from the law…THIS MAORI WAY OF LIFE IS NOT THE FAIRY WAY OF LIFE SHOWN ON THE TOURIST BROCHURES.

In the early 1970s, one of the most significant “ghetto-like areas” consisted of the inner suburbs of Auckland, which were indeed quite run down in a lot of places, and which had been earmarked from the late 1930s for urban renewal.

The Auckland Clearances

In the 1930s and 1940s, urban renewal had meant the bulldozing of old, rotten wooden shacks and the erection of reinforced-concrete apartments and patio houses that would allow a much larger population to enjoy Auckland’s harbour views, somewhat after the fashion of Telegraph Hill in San Francisco.

From Town Planning Scheme №1, Auckland, 1939. The area zoned for flats and apartments, and as such for urban renewal, has been coloured in a solid reddish colour for clarity by the present author. This plan was never formally approved, but was nevertheless influential in determining where some flats would go in the future.

A photograph taken in 1949 suggests that parts of the inner city suburb of Freemans Bay have already been cleared for this purpose.

Freemans Bay, 29 July 1949, showing surviving landmarks of the Birdcage Hotel and waste destructor (now Victoria Park Markets) at bottom left. Whites Aviation Collection image WA-21141-G, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. CC BY 4,0, Zoomable image here.

Another photograph, also taken in 1949, shows modern apartments in an inner city ravine called Grafton Gully, toward the eastern side of downtown Auckland. Notably, a six-story complex (which still exists) at 44 Symonds Street, at bottom right in the following image. This complex was designed for the New Zealand Government’s state housing authority by an émigré German architect named Friedrich Hugo Neumann, known locally as Frederick Hugh Newman, and opened in 1948 to the accompaniment of a two-page architectural feature called ‘A City Flat in a Woodland Setting’.

Detail from ‘Grafton Road, Auckland’ with Symonds Street at bottom right. White’s Aviation Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library, reference WA-19229-F, taken 29 January 1949. CC BY 4.0.

All the same, as in the USA, where initially idealistic schemes for downtown urban renewal soon took on a less sympathetic form dubbed ‘Negro removal’, urban renewal would soon come take on quite a different significance in Auckland as well. One that involved actual reductions in inner-city housing availability and the construction of motorways (freeways) through inner city neighbourhoods. Indeed, even through such acknowledged beauty spots as Grafton Gully, where the apartments in the preceding photograph that still survive now stand above a river not of greenery, but of concrete.

A map which appears in a 1968 official publication called Development in the Auckland Region speaks of the necessity of dispersing a large inner-city non-European population, ostensibly as a way of avoiding ethnic conflict.

From Development in the Auckland Region, Auckland Regional Authority, 1968. Crown copyright reserved.

According to the demographer Wardlow Friesen, the methods employed, which ranged from the so-called ‘dawn raids’ by police and immigration officials through to the construction of a large inner-city motorway (freeway) junction strongly reminiscent of an American city but largely without parallel in the whiter urban societies of Australia and Canada, led to a net removal of some thirty thousand people from inner-suburban Auckland between 1945 and 1990.

Construction of the Southern Motorway, Newton, Auckland (NZ), 10 October 1978. Image WA-74537-F, Whites Aviation Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, CC BY 4.0. There’s a zoomable version of the same photo, here.

So much for the idea of trendy apartment living amid parklands and with a harbour view. Though, of course, some modern downtown apartments were built on large sites as they became available, such as these ones opposite Kelmarna Avenue, built on a former municipal depot in the late 1930s.

And even some amid rolling parkland after all, something that was done quite a bit in the 1960s. But not at all on the scale initially envisioned by the modernisers of the 1930s and 1940s.

A City Divided

As to the ghettoised inner-city populations of colour whom the planners hoped to disperse among the Pākehā —‘pepper-potting’ was the term for this — in reality, indigenous Aucklanders were re-concentrated beyond two major topographical bottlenecks, the Ōtāhuhu portage in South Auckland and the Whau River portage in West Auckland.

Map drawn by the author. North at top.

Surprisingly little was ever done to bust these bottlenecks. The Whau River would remain unbridged for nearly nine kilometers as measured by the curve of the main roads on its western side. At Mount Wellington, just north of the Ōtāhuhu portage, the Southern Motorway necks down from six lanes to cross two four-lane bridges erected in tandem in the 1950s, and then widens again back to six lanes. There are, admittedly, some lanes that come off to the sides but the impression is one of a bottleneck all the same.

Perhaps most damagingly of all, a rapid rail scheme intended to link central Auckland with the new, publicly built town center at Manukau in the once-more expansive regions south of the old city, via the Ōtāhuhu portage roughly halfway between, never went ahead.

Proposed Rapid Rail, at a station south of the Otahuhu Portage. From Facts about Public Passenger Transport in the Auckland Region, Auckland Regional Authority, 1967. Crown copyright reserved.

(As we have seen, this cancellation came about, in part, because of opposition from the purists at the 1970s Commission for the Environment, concerned as they were about how electrified rapid rail between major town centres, first of all Auckland Central and Manukau but ultimately as a wider system, in line with Garden City philosophies for future growth, would in fact facilitate Auckland’s future urban growth. Growth already seen at the time as excessive, though in fact Auckland was only half as populous as it would later become. The thought that Auckland might just keep growing anyway even after rapid rail was turned down, perhaps on the basis of the new and far more disruptive motorways and subsequent suburban sprawl, does not seem to have occurred to anyone at the 1970s Commission for the Environment. It is quite routine for Wellington-based bureaucracies with no real skin in the game to be out of touch with Auckland issues, in ways that ultimately seem devoid of all common sense, by the way: that failing is not confined to the 1970s CFE.)

In view of the increasing difficulty of getting past Auckland’s bottlenecks and the curious reluctance of officialdom to do anything really substantive about them, the various parts of Auckland began to develop separately, albeit certainly not equally.

In fact, the city soon succumbed to a full-blown Minnesota Paradox, a regime of de facto segregation or Apartheid of almost hermetic efficiency enforced, in an otherwise liberal polity, not by walls and ferocious dogs, but by structurally racist urban planning and transportation policies that appear to operate on a neutral, technical plane but are in fact anything but. In the words of Simon Collins, from 2010,

In social and political terms, there is a stark divide somewhere around the narrowest point of the isthmus at Portage Rd in Otahuhu, where the Tainui canoe was famously carried across from the Otahuhu Creek to the Manukau Harbour.

And economics professor Tim Hazledine, in the New Zealand Listener, 27 February 2021:

It’s not the income gap between Australia and New Zealand that matters, but the much larger gap between South Auckland and the North Shore.

The irony that the Ōtāhuhu portage was also a defensive Thermopylae in the wars of the 1860s, with a safe zone for settler Auckland to the north and a war-torn zone from which most Māori had not as yet been driven out to the south, is not lost on the present writer. Justice Martin’s vision of a new Ireland where the past keeps happening over and over again on the opposite sides of some local equivalent of Derry’s walls is indeed one that has come uncomfortably close to being realised.

The Deindustrialisation of New Zealand

Perhaps the most visible consequence of the great U-turn we underwent is the fact that in the 1980s, a hitherto-industrialising New Zealand underwent wholesale de-industrialisation, which handily reversed the economic and social gains that Maori and Islanders had made up to that point, even in the face of the headwinds I have just related. As the social policy expert Ian Shirley would later recall,

Investment in New Zealand manufacturing declined by almost 50% between 1985 and 1989 and by 1991 registered unemployment represented 11% of the total workforce. Long-term unemployment became a serious social problem with the unemployment rate for Maori aged 15 to 24 years approaching 40%.

Mass poverty moved in to stay among an urban indigenous population that had nearly caught up with the European:

In 1991 these socially bankrupt policies were taken to their illogical conclusion. Substantial cuts were made in benefit levels and other forms of income support effectively redefining poverty in absolute terms. As a consequence government became exposed to relatively high levels of welfare expenditure. In 1981 almost 115,000 people were in receipt of a welfare benefit — by 1985 that figure more than doubled and by 1992 it had trebled. The very policies that were designed to cut welfare expenditure created the largest pool of beneficiaries since the Great Depression.

Low levels of research and development, and capital per worker, became subsequent statistical norms by OECD standards, as was casualisation. State policy toward trade unions, the membership of which had hitherto been compulsory — a policy New Zealand shared with Austria — underwent a complete reversal, with most of the workforce soon casualised, without access to unions or any collective bargaining agency.

The result, when combined with a retreat of the state from its former activism in the housing sphere, was the end of the settler contract and the entrenching of a punitive, low-road economy that offered practically nothing to indigenous Aotearoa. At the same time the country witnessed a rise of old forces of atavism. Notably, the idea of a threat posed by Māori youth, males in particular.

In the face of the youthful character of the Māori and Pasifika resident in New Zealand, and their own belief that such people were not yet culturally suited to urban life, the Pākehā authorities resorted to habits of over-policing and, worse still, the routine removal of indigenous adolescents to an archipelago of rural camps and urban detention centres that had sprung up for the purposes of their re-education in the 1950s and 1960s, with the process really moving into high gear in the 1970s.

Camps and ‘homes’ where all sorts of abuses are now known to have been perpetrated, in a programme which is now regarded as one of New Zealand’s most serious institutional and historical scandals.

The numbers caught up in the dragnet are subject to disagreement, based on differing estimates of the likelihood of repeated detentions of the same individual being counted separately in the ledgers. But they are still huge even at the most conservative end — that one hundred thousand individuals removed from their families in the seven decades since 1950, mostly in the first half of the period in question, is the most conservative estimate so far — and all the more so in relation to the size of the Māori population, and that of New Zealand as a whole, at the time.

The overlapping phenomena of indigenous poverty and child poverty, “with its faithful handmaidens: obesity, addiction, violence and crime” (Hazledine) are now said to be “normalised” in New Zealand, even “entrenched.” The numbers in prison have also greatly increased, tripling since the 1980s, though overall population has increased as well. Most prisoners in New Zealand are Māori.

So much for pastoralist-cum-Catonist ideals of self-reliance and curbing dependency on the state!

In view of the collision of all these mostly retrogressive developments with a continuously increasing urban population — the significance of which I think many people in the 1980s were inclined to underestimate: not one next million over the next forty or so years, but two — the stage was thus set for the playing out of a Malthusian tragedy, largely inflicted on indigenous Aotearoa by Pākehā powers-that-be and driven by a policy of unwillingness to extend the settler contract; the final triumph of the atavistic impulse over the progressive one.

The crisis is ultimately an existential one insofar as it involves the relentless tugging at the common seam of national division in terms of age, ethnicity and asset ownership.

The relatively inclusive industrial prosperity of the years of the Quiet Revolution has now been replaced by a grumbling, prodromal conflict of precisely the kind that John Martin foresaw, and what what Anya Satyanand, who was at that time the Executive Officer of the semi-official youth organisation Ara Taiohi (‘path of youth’), called the “quiet war” in 2016:

There is a quiet war going on in New Zealand, and it is being waged on our young people- not through drone strikes or chemical warfare, but through policy logic that has produced a property crisis, an education system that perpetuates the reward of the privileged, a health system that’s struggling to cope an ageing population, let alone the increasingly complex needs of a youth population, and a justice system where you’re way more likely to end up in jail if you’re brown.

To update Fred Haslam’s 1863 letter, “such is Auckland now.”

Getting Real about the City

And yet, in the face of such an existential threat to the future of urban New Zealand, the last of the country’s boomer-era politicians, and even those who have come after, remain stubbornly in the grip of their rural illusions.

These include the stubborn framing of the Māori as a rural, tribal and traditional people, even though around 85 per cent of Māori now live in urban areas and grapple with urban problems. Typical, in this regard, is the absence of any urban Māori from the steering group set up to identify candidates for the interim board of the new Māori Health Authority.

Equally typical is the way that the 2013 book Being Māori in the City: Indigenous Everyday Life in Auckland, billed as “one of the first ethnographic studies of Maori urbanization since the 1970s” and quite possibly the first book devoted to the subject since that decade, turns out to have been written by a visiting Canadian anthropologist, whose work was funded in Canada, and published by the University of Toronto Press!

In his Never Again: Britain 1945–1951, a review of the achievements of the founders of the modern full-employment welfare state (now somewhat in abeyance), Peter Hennesy writes that

Almost from the outset, there were those who appreciated that the application of social Elastoplast was no remedy for such deep and festering economic wounds. (p. 209)

In many ways, that’s where we are again today, with regard to the city (which was the real issue back then, as well).

That is to say, there is a growing concern with poverty and inequality, as a natural consequence of the fact that these issues have become progressively harder to ignore. But the last of the boomer era politicians and younger ones operating even less imaginatively in the same paradigm, think we can tackle poverty and inequality and blighted lives in New Zealand without coming to grips with the concrete reality of the city.

Without getting to grips with our refusal to accord indigenous Aotearoa a right to the city. Without getting to grips with a cheerful willingness to de-industrialise the city. And without getting to grips with an equally insouciant willingness to allow house prices to spiral out of control.

And all while at the same time getting ready to die in a ditch for the interest of investors in an environment where high inflation in housing collides with low inflation elsewhere, thus making it harder to painlessly inflate away house prices.

Well, future ditches may well be dug across the Otahuhu portage and other strategic choke points, just like in Fred Haslam’s day, if our tensions across the age / ethnicity / asset-ownership front are simply allowed to spiral open-endedly out of control while the politicians fiddle with social Elastoplast.

Supposing, in the words of Dionysus from 100 years ago, that excellence at rugby football and dairy products will see urban New Zealand through. That’s the sort of thing that positively calls for the old saying, ‘first time as tragedy, second time as farce’.

Click here for Chapter 21

Jump back to the start of Chapter One



Chris Harris

I am an urban historian from Aotearoa New Zealand. With an engineering background, I also have a PhD in planning and economics.