New Zealand story: the Rainbow's return

The symbolism of the Rainbow Warrior's return to her spiritual home.

As the sun rose on 2013, the new Rainbow Warrior sailed for New Zealand: first stop a tribute to her sister ship, sunk in Matauri Bay.

It’s time for the Rainbow’s return, because 2013 marks another time of defiance, a fight for our country’s soul.

Greenpeace lost the first ship, and Fernando Pereira’s life, in 1985. The protest for a nuclear-free Pacific and New Zealand cost us something. It strained US relations, blew ANZUS apart.

It also made us leaders on nuclear disarmament; it made us free, and proud. We loved Lange’s Oxford Union quip (“I can smell the uranium ...”). He was defiant, witty, a bit of a mongrel, mocking the American. He was us as we like to see ourselves. He won the debate.

In 2013, we need a government proud of our story. We need to remember what the story is.

We’ve been here before, at the tail end of the Muldoon era: grappling with what it means to be a New Zealander.

When rugby fans clashed with anti-apartheid protestors in 1981, our national sport met that deep-rooted egalitarian part of the Kiwi psyche - the part that backs the little guy, maybe because, so often, we are the little guy.

Among our proudest, most cherished moments are those in which Kiwis have stood up against bullies, or for the underdog; or times when we were, ourselves, the underdog, making history in our own laconic style.

Sporting moments: Jack Lovelock, streaking away in the shadow of the swastika at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

Adventurers: Ed Hillary “knocking the bastard off” on Everest; riding his renovated Massey Ferguson to the Pole.

Yachtsman Sir Peter Blake at the helm in huge seas, and bringing us all together round the telly in red socks.

Social pioneers, Kate Sheppard among them.

As campaigners, and environmental guardians, this is our story. In a way, it’s about suffrage - giving voice to nature - but the point is, it’s about New Zealand.

Not long after all those big-bang things people remember were happening in the 1980s - the Springbok uproar, the French testing, the Warrior’s bombing, our time to stop for “a cuppa” - the Lange-Palmer Government drafted a set of laws that are part of the story. Nuclear-free was the least of these. We started a new way of thinking about our public conservation lands and resource management.

Those laws, the Resource Management Act among them, are now under threat - and with them trees in our communities, swimmable rivers, clean beaches.

Sir Peter Blake died an environmental advocate and campaigner, writing shortly before his death of his anger at how profit was being put first. In 2010 - when 50,000 people filled Queen St for our national parks, holding banners that read “not mine, ours” - we were saying the same.

The Key/National Government has not honoured any of the parts of this story.

Beyond Brash’s fumbling on the nuclear issue, the Prime Minister’s poor recollection of what, if anything, he stood for in 1981, bad choices in 2012 left us slipping in world environmental rankings, internationally embarrassed, reneging on international laws, conventions signed, promises made. Ministers tried tiptoeing away from our winning brand - estimated as worth US$13.6 billion - saying they would write a New Zealand story.

This story that the government is busy writing is not about New Zealand. A New Zealand story would be about ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

Brave enough, like Lange, to say that something stank, Dr Mike Joy was dubbed a traitor. Instead, ministers personally attacked their critics, calling them anti-jobs, “deeply unhelpful”, and “not really New Zealand”. “Carping and moaning” Cantabrians were silenced altogether - Environment Canterbury’s vote the price of irrigation development.

We need brave pioneers and leaders now. Failing that, it’s time for democracy - to stand up for our values, to march like we did in 2010 and 1981, to speak out like the 341,159 signatories to the Maruia Declaration, who called a halt to native forest destruction in 1975, and started a new chapter in what was until then a sad history of post-colonial stewardship.

The New Zealand story actually is one in which, hobbit-like, we do go on adventures - a story whose heroes are reluctantly cast, and don’t welcome the applause, but stand against the odds for who we are, what we believe, and how we want the world to be.