New Zealand is no ‘off-grid’ safe haven from the apocalypse | Max Harris

From 19th-century colonists to today’s super wealthy, New Zealand has been wrongly depicted as a ‘blank slate’

New Zealand has become the prime destination for the world’s wealthy elite. Their relocation could be to do with the country’s famous scenery and quality of life but it could also be that the pandemic has renewed people’s interest in New Zealand as supposedly the best place in the world to survive global societal collapse.

It’s true, as a recent study observes, that New Zealand is a set of isolated islands with renewable energy resources and a temperate climate. However, there is also a long history, intertwined with the country’s colonisation, of New Zealand being seen as a blank slate or empty land, open for the taking. That false image served to justify colonial settlement in the past. It’s now being used again to prepare the ground for further settlement by the super-wealthy.

Prior to European colonisation, Māori had been living in the country for at least 800 years. In 1839, the colonial office instructed the first British governor of New Zealand, William Hobson, to establish a system to secure “unsettled lands”. The next year Hobson claimed sovereignty over the North Island on the basis of a treaty, the Treaty of Waitangi. But he claimed sovereignty over the South Island on the basis of terra nullius, a Latin term meaning “nobody’s land”. The South Island was far from empty, and had been long occupied by Māori.

In the early 1870s, British writer Samuel Butler wrote the novel Erewhon (the word “nowhere” backwards), based in part on his years working in New Zealand. In the first chapter, Waste lands, Butler describes the colony as “previously uninhabited”.

This was a persistent idea. In 1877 a New Zealand court ruled that the Treaty of Waitangi itself had no legal force, because all of New Zealand was legally empty prior to European arrival. It claimed Indigenous peoples had no “settled system of law” at the time of the foundation of the colony. The decision was overruled by New Zealand courts, and there is widespread evidence of longstanding legal traditions developed in Māori communities prior to European colonisation.

Together these colonial ideas formed part of a “doctrine of discovery”, which applied across settler-colonial states like Canada and the United States of America. This legal framework claimed that colonisers could lay claim to land because they supposedly discovered it. As Tina Ngata and Jacinta Ruru and others have pointed out, that doctrine is not a bygone historical relic – it still influences thinking today.

This doctrine of discovery has shaped not just New Zealand but also the entire Pacific region, including Australia. It has shaped the actions of France, which carried out nuclear weapon testing on and around Pacific islands from the 1960s to the 1990s. (France has compensated 63 of the 110,000 people contaminated by nuclear testing in Mā’ohi Nui, islands still controlled by France, despite renewed calls this year for reparations and independence.)

A straight line can be drawn from colonial descriptions of New Zealand as an empty land – demographically and legally – through to the rash of commentary viewing the country as the best place to be when society collapses. They both see the land as there for the taking.

The super-wealthy may also be attracted by the prospect of being an “economic nobody” in the country. New Zealand’s laws insulate wealth from scrutiny and redistribution. There is no public register of trusts in New Zealand, which are extensively used to shelter wealth and property. New Zealand has no taxes on capital gains or inheritance, and it doesn’t tax existing wealth or financial transactions. There is little public scrutiny of company ownership of property. Tax authorities only last year accepted the need for more scrutiny of cryptocurrency holdings.

New Zealand governments have taken steps in recent years to enhance financial transparency. In 2018, the Labour-led government banned ownership of property by non-residents. Anti-money laundering laws have been tightened since 2009.

But New Zealand laws still cover the tracks of the wealthy. So it’s understandable that the super-rich – encouraged by the New Zealand government’s border exemptions for investors – would identify the country as a prime destination to avoid attention and accountability. One crypto investor even said last year he chose New Zealand after doing “billionaire hunting” to “figure out where all the other Silicon Valley people would be”.

New Zealand isn’t a blank slate, empty land, or “off grid” – and never has been. New Zealand does not sit apart from the ills of the world, as much as people may like to construct an image of the country as a source of hope in bleak times.

It’s a country that is, because of colonisation, well-integrated into global circuits of capital, imperialism, and power. Visa exemptions for wealthy investors are designed to draw in capital. New Zealand remains a member of Five Eyes, the security and intelligence network comprising the UK and three other white-majority settler-colonial states: Australia, Canada, and the US.

Going off the grid may seem like a way for individuals to avoid the crises we face as a globe. But the only way to overcome these crises collectively is to change the grid – the same grid of colonial capitalism that has shaped the idea of New Zealand as a safe haven from the apocalypse.

  • Max Harris is a writer, PhD student and author of The New Zealand Project. He previously worked as a policy adviser to the British Labour party

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Max Harris

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