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September 14, 2014 | by  | in History That Hasn’t Happened Yet Opinion | [ssba]

Self-Serving Scholarship?: The Political Abuse of History

Perhaps it’s a natural worry that comes with being a historian, but every time I hear an MP mention New Zealand’s history during a speech or policy announcement, I tend to feel a little uneasy.

I think it’s fair to say that history plays a role in politics. However, the very notion that we all have the same history seems complicated. In my mind, there is a danger in misrepresenting, or selectively using parts of history for political point-scoring. When we pick apart historical claims that politicians make, the country’s successes look a little less shiny. A Government’s successes in weathering the Global Financial Crisis aren’t nearly as impressive when you realise it was opposition policies that were maintained to facilitate the weathering.

The use of history as a means by which to promote your party seems to take place across the board. Whether rightly or wrongly, the Green Party synthesises an image of New Zealand’s progressive-rainbow-warrior history with the vote for the most ‘progressive’ party. Labour appeals to its origins as a working-class union-based party despite the fact that recent polls show their workingMAN vote is waning. ACT uses history as a threat for what we will be plunged back into if we don’t follow its bolshie libertarian version of equality.

Whether it’s David Cunliffe using the example of his grandfather/ great uncle fighting in World War One or Prime Minister John Key exclaiming that growing gang violence is “not the Kiwi way” and “not the kind of New Zealand [he] grew up in”, most MPs seem to love to ‘hark back’ to a New Zealand of old. Yes, New Zealand may have once seen beautiful state houses with white picket fences and milk bottles on the front doorstep. But was that New Zealand facilitating an identity other than Pākehā? Was it dealing with a growing housing issue? Was it witnessing an increased level of female graduates from university? The problem is, this history doesn’t fit for all New Zealanders. Perhaps voters didn’t all grow up in New Zealand, and perhaps this idea of a ‘Kiwi Way’ doesn’t apply to everyone the same way it seems to for our Silver Fern–toting candidates.

Why is it that politicians seek to contain New Zealand’s history in a nice little box, with no contestation and variance? To extrapolate this neat narrative and avoid anything that makes us uncomfortable seems like whitewashing for a political cause.

Obviously, there are exceptions to this rule, even instances where parliamentarians have pointed to New Zealand’s ‘shameful history’ of domestic violence. But the fact remains: History is being used by politicians as some sort of universal pillar that can bolster any party’s claim to a mythical New Zealand. Perhaps if politicians were held accountable for their historical name-dropping, we would have a better idea of where our leaders are planning on going, not where they have been.


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