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Review of The New Zealand Project by Aimee Gasston

The New Zealand Project by Max Harris

Bridget Williams Books, $NZ 39.99; available in UK in a Kindle edition, £13.66

Published April 2017

Max Harris’s bold, considered and comprehensive work is a tonic. It is a call to arms for a new politics which puts values and people at its core – a politics shaped by social conscience and democracy which might act as a counterforce to the market principles which have driven public policy for many years, absolving successive governments of direct responsibility and decreasing political engagement along the way. Those values which The New Zealand Project enshrines are care, community and creativity. Harris’s conception of care derives from the Māori idea of aroha, promoting goodwill and compassion towards others; community builds on this to emphasise both the ‘connectedness’ and ‘interdependence’ of people; while creativity is petitioned as a positive force with its roots in the arts which will allow for innovative, imaginative solutions to social problems.  

The New Zealand Project is unashamed of using language which (as Harris is well aware) might be easily dismissed as woolly, unmeaningful or impractical, such as the phrase ‘the politics of love’. Any such doubts are robustly refuted by the work itself which not only explains its terminology with nuanced intelligence but also translates them into a series of germane and practical applications, ranging from the justice system to the school curriculum. While New Zealand is the case study here, and while New Zealand culture and history infuse its core ideas, many of Harris’s recommendations for its politics and policy are more widely applicable, many bearing particular resonance with the UK.

We might wish that some of The New Zealand Project’s recommendations did not need to be made – for example, that values should inform efficiency, rather than the other way around; that governmental values should not be contradictory; that policy-making should be evidence-based. However, a persistent return to quiet, fundamental logic is precisely what is needed at the historical juncture we find ourselves at, where self-evidently contradictory political bluster is increasingly preferred to reason and reasonableness, alongside an increasing suspicion of expert opinion and, even more worryingly, kindness. Harris’s call for a democratic community buoyed and propelled by care and creativity is surely the only possible antidote to the dangerous fracturing enmity which is being played out on a global stage. I expect this pertinent, brave book to become more relevant with each day, and I hope it works to inspire a similar bravery in others, and galvanises them to expect and demand more from their respective governments.

Aimee Gasston has successfully completed her PhD this year on modernist short fiction at Birkbeck, University of London where she will take up a Wellcome Trust ISSF research fellowship to work on a project about literary stammering.