Ask a range of people from Stewart Island to Cape Reinga to define what it means to be a New Zealander, and the chances are their answers will be many and varied depending on their ethnicity, ancestry, and personal experience. It is not uncommon to hear people assign themselves specific labels such as Pasifika, Māori, Pākehā, Asian or Irish New Zealander, Kiwi, or solely New Zealander, as acknowledgement of cultural and ethnic backgrounds become more pertinent to self-identification. But given that we are living in an age of increased diversity, is it still possible to have a collective national identity for everyone living in New Zealand?


Clearly national identity is something that most of us want or even need. As sociologist Manuel Castells tells us in his 1997 book The Power of Identity, people seek identity as a source of meaning and experience, whether it is through history, geography, religion, personal fantasy, or collective memory. Yet at the same time, the construction of a positive and unique national identity is regarded as important for all nation states—not just for economic and social reasons, but also for loyalty during times of crisis, such as war. A key concept in understanding national identity construction is that we actually “imagine” who we are as a nation, an idea drawn from the theoretical writings of political scientist Benedict Anderson.

The value in understanding how others construct national identity within the same nation cannot be underestimated, and developing sensitivities to other points of view is perhaps the first step to learning to live with difference.

In his book Imagined Communities: Reflection on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, first published in 1983, Anderson seeks to explain the rise of modern European nations during the Age of Enlightenment as a result of historical forces of economic, social, and political change, particularly a decline in religious dominance, that occurred towards the end of the eighteenth century. A fundamental change in the way of apprehending the world emerged at this time, according to Anderson. To know everyone was virtually impossible, and therefore, people came to imagine their nation as a community that had limited boundaries with a defined population and territory ruled by the state.

Advances in communication technologies had a particular impact on the recognition of national identity. Increasing literacy of populations enabled people to read and expand their knowledge and to have a better understanding of their connection with others. This was greatly enhanced thanks to the printing press, which enabled the efficient production of books and newspapers as the earliest forms of mass communication. These helped in the development of a sense of national consciousness. In addition, the introduction of vernacular language in printed material (rather than the languages of Latin and Greek, used traditionally by elites) was also a powerful catalyst in identity formation as more people became aware of the many others who shared their nation and their language. The resulting nationalist discourse played an integral role in the imagining of one’s nation as a cultural entity—a process Anderson believes continues in contemporary societies and is still relevant today.


The vast majority of early settlers to New Zealand came with a British identity already intact. A distinctive New Zealand identity was virtually non-existent in the first years of European settlement. The settlers regarded themselves as British, working hard to recreate a “Better Britain” in the South Seas, while it was Māori whom they labelled then as “the New Zealanders.”

Some historians, such as Keith Sinclair, have stressed that European immigrants worked proactively to build a unique identity in the first half of the twentieth century by reflecting this identity in arts, literature, sports, defence, and politics and by their involvement in the first and second world wars. However, other academics, such as James Belich, regard a unique New Zealand national identity as emerging much later. Although Belich in his 2002 book Paradise Reforged: A History of New Zealanders acknowledges that New Zealand formally became a legal independent state when it was granted Dominion status in 1907, he contends that the country—following the colonising days of the 1800s—renewed a strong identification with Britain. In a phase he calls “recolonisation,” New Zealand developed an emotional and economic relationship with Britain (particularly through the exportation of its meat and dairy produce) so that it could survive and prosper. In either case, it may be said that the most significant period in national identity construction occurred between 1960 and 1999. Belich describes this time as a period of “decolonisation,” when New Zealand moved away from its loyalty and links with Britain towards a separate and more distinct national identity. Several major developments were instrumental in this transformation: Britain’s admittance into the European Economic Community (EEC); a rise in Māori nationalism; and an easing of immigration restrictions.

The terms of Britain’s admittance to the EEC dictated that Britain greatly reduce its trading relationship with its former colonies, including New Zealand. This new reality meant that New Zealand was forced, in many ways, to become more independent culturally, socially, and economically. Although British culture still remained at the core of New Zealand European identity, the country, out of necessity, began geographically to re-orientate itself to the Asia- Pacific region for economic and political purposes.

girl on beach with fish and chips national identity

Around the same time as New Zealand was forced to look beyond Britain, Māori within New Zealand were experiencing a rise in their own distinct nationalism. As many Māori moved from rural locations to become city dwellers in the 1960s and 1970s, they became more culturally and politically assertive, seeking redress from the Crown for the illegal confiscation of Māori land and the failure to honour the obligations entailed by the Treaty of Waitangi. This led the Government to establish the Waitangi Tribunal in 1975 to investigate claims.

Towards the end of the century, New Zealand would undergo a third major development that would be instrumental in transforming New Zealand’s national identity: the introduction of a more open approach to immigration. Though there had been discrete waves of immigrants from ethnic minorities—such as the Chinese in the 1800s and Pasifika peoples in the 1970s—throughout its history, New Zealand immigration policy had traditionally favoured the British, but also people from North America and Europe. This, which some perceive as reminiscent of a non-official “whites only” policy, changed in 1987 however, when the fourth Labour Government, led by Prime Minister David Lange, passed a new Act to enable immigration from a broader range of countries. The impact of this change in policy was that New Zealand’s diversity became more visible over time, particularly with an increase in immigrants from Asian countries in the 1990s. The idea of a more multicultural New Zealand did not find favour with everyone, particularly amongst those who feared the disintegration of New Zealand’s national and cultural identity, and amongst some who felt multiculturalism threatened the country’s bicultural framework.

These major developments—Britain’s admittance to the EEC, a rise in Māori nationalism, and an easing of immigration restrictions—led to changes in the way New Zealand perceived itself as a nation, and a more distinct, less British-focused identity emerged. Although British culture still remained at the core of New Zealand European identity in the 1970s and 1980s, there was now a greater impetus to seek out a true New Zealand identity or, as some see it, a majority group or Pākeh identity.

One way to achieve this was to draw on the symbols and myths that had been used for many years as signifiers of New Zealand—such as the Kiwi bird and the silver fern. Michael King, in his book The Penguin History of New Zealand, also refers to the “echoes of old New Zealand” that still resonated within contemporary New Zealand culture, such as the desire to preserve the wild, untamed aspect of the beautiful landscape as a place to hunt, fish, and shoot; the “do-it-yourself” attitude to home maintenance, “informal social attitudes,” and an “egalitarian instinct” for the equitable distribution of resources in the community.

Kiwiana—signifiers of a New Zealand identity that became widely used in the late 1980s and included objects such as the pavlova, the Kiwi bach, jandals, Sir Edmund Hillary, and Phar Lap—drew on a nostalgic past and were regularly used by the media, public relations, advertising and marketing companies, and government in “branding” New Zealand, and as a way of securing possibly shaky self-definitions of New Zealanders as a people.

A key concept in understanding national identity construction is that we actually “imagine” who we are as a nation, an idea drawn from the theoretical writings of political scientist Benedict Anderson.

But given that national identity is never static and open to change, it is not surprising that it became more politicised in the new millennium and the focus of debate between the two major parties. National Party leader Don Brash warned, in his now famous “Orewa” speech in 2004, that New Zealand’s dream of being a unified nation state was threatened by the Labour–led Government giving in to Māori demands for rights and resources based on the “principles” of the Treaty of Waitangi. Brash’s vision of “one law for all New Zealanders” regardless of ethnicity appealed to a number of Pākehā New Zealanders.

While the National Party was unsuccessful in toppling the Labour Party from its dominant position in a coalition Government in the 2005 elections, the high profile given to national identity in the campaign highlighted the undercurrents of tension in a New Zealand that was increasingly not just bicultural but also multicultural. This was also set against a background of ethnic riots that had occurred in multicultural countries such as France, Australia, Germany, and Denmark, leading some New Zealanders to fear that “Godzone” might experience the same. It was clear to the Government that building an inclusive society with a unified national identity that addressed concerns about diversity would have to be a major feature on its agenda to unify the nation.


Political rhetoric often plays a major role in the construction of national identity because it can be so powerful and influential with the messages it conveys. During the Labour-led Government’s last term of office, beginning in 2005, talk about a “new” national identity was particularly prevalent. In her 2006 statement to Parliament, Prime Minister Helen Clark spoke of an “evolving New Zealand way of doing things” that would lead to a “stronger New Zealand identity,” emphasising the importance of developing “that distinctive New Zealand style, identity, and set of community values.” “As a government,” she said, “we will continue to prioritise policies which contribute to a strong sense of national identity.” Implicit in this speech was Helen Clark’s reference to the need for “reconciling the past and adjusting to the diversity of the present,” which suggested addressing concerns relating to injustices to Māori, but at the same time acknowledging that an acceptance of diversity was also key to the nation-building process.

But aside from an attempt to distance the nation from the negativity associated with its colonial past and to present a willingness to embrace diverse groups, there was also an emphasis on the economy and the need for New Zealanders to show their competitive edge in the global market place as a positive aspect of their national identity. A 2006 government budget news release that focused specifically on national identity—one of the Government’s three priorities identified by Michael Cullen in 2000, alongside “economic transformation” and concern for the “young and old”—declared, “It is about who we are, what we do, where we live and how we are seen by the world.” While the Government worked proactively on a strategy to build a socially cohesive society by delicately balancing the concerns of minorities and “mainstream” New Zealanders, it also seized the opportunity to persuade the nation to take on its particular vision of a new New Zealand national identity. In essence it was a rebranding of the nation.

According to Peter Skilling, whose doctoral thesis examined the political discourse about national identity as seen in policy documents, this required the population to re-imagine itself as a nation with a shared national purpose and an economic vision for the future, despite its increasing internal diversity and global connectedness.

three feet stairs national identity

Skilling points out that the state used national identity with two objectives in mind: firstly to respond to the calls for security and prosperity for citizens, and secondly to suggest a greater sense of subjective meaning and belonging. However, the Government’s intent on pursuing this rebranding of the nation can also be viewed as an ambiguous one.

Skilling suggests that previously marginalised groups were co-opted into New Zealand society and celebrated based on their willingness and ability to be part of the shared vision. Difference, he notes, could be accepted so long as it contributed an element of New Zealand’s unique externally projected brand and did not undermine an internally protected cohesion. Another New Zealand academic Stephen Turner has also voiced similar sentiments. Turner, author of “Compulsory nationalism” published in the journal Moving Worlds: A Journal of Transcultural Writings, views the concept of a “Kiwi nation,” where everyone was a New Zealander regardless of their ethnicity, erased any sense of difference. In fact, he believes the Government’s management of difference created a national identity that was “compulsory” for all citizens and that had an impoverishing effect in imposing limits on what it meant to be a “New Zealander.”

The government’s proposed new national identity based on the over-riding importance of a shared vision for New Zealand’s future involved shared values and traits that can, therefore, be seen to have been constructed by the state through an official discourse that identified diversity as being a distinct and unique characteristic to make the nation stand out in the world both culturally and economically.

Independence, strength, pride, responsibility, creativity, competitiveness, and commitment to success were just some of those shared traits identified frequently in government speeches and documents as being part of “the New Zealand way.” This new identity construction was one in which all New Zealanders—regardless of ethnicity, culture, or religion—would share in the common purpose to help New Zealand succeed as a global competitive player.

Although British culture still remained at the core of New Zealand European identity in the 1970s and 1980s, there was now a greater impetus to seek out a true New Zealand identity or, as some see it, a majority group or P keh identity.

It also focused on the theme of becoming a socially cohesive society by learning from the lessons of the past and pursuing a common political present and future that included an acceptance of diversity. But how the population responded to this discourse was not easy to gauge.


While the politically motivated construction of New Zealand identity dominated the discourse about the nation, it was difficult to locate counter discourses that resisted such representation—at least in widely accessed public domains. If anything, it was the “chatter” on Internet forums and discussions where minority voices had the best chance of being heard. But these views, and the responses they attracted, had little opportunity of making their way into the mainstream media, which would have had greater exposure and impact on the imagination of the nation.

My examination of two archived online discussions which featured “talk” about New Zealand national identity during the last term of the Labour-led Government provides some insight into the debate going on behind the scenes at this time. I used these two discussions as case studies in my doctoral thesis exploring the concept that more than one interpretation of New Zealand national identity was possible. One discussion appeared on New Zealand Chinese writer Tze Ming Mok’s Yellow Peril blogsite in 2006, following her satirical posting in response to Statistics New Zealand’s decision to include “New Zealander” as a separate ethnic category in its analysis of the latest census data. The other discussion involved a series of emails circulated between members of the Aotearoa Ethnic Network (AEN), a non-profit organisation that brings together New Zealanders with an interest in diversity. The AEN e-list discussion that occurred in 2008 was ignited by an online news report that used the label “New Zealand passport holder” to describe a New Zealander of Kurdish ethnicity.

This new identity construction was one in which all New Zealanders—regardless of ethnicity, culture, or religion—would share in the common purpose to help New Zealand succeed as a global competitive player.

Although the online commenters in both these case studies were relatively small and not a representative sample of the New Zealand population, the findings from this research still highlight important issues emanating from a range of voices. These give some insight into how people responded to the “new” national identity discourse. The key finding of my analysis was that there was a divided image of the nation. Differing interpretations of national identity as people perceived it to be and as the Government projected it to be led to a clash of imaginings.

Anderson’s concept of each individual having to imagine his/ her community because it was impossible to know everyone, meant that New Zealand was now imagined in increasingly diverse ways. With diversity came differing world views, interpretations, and perspectives about what it meant to be a New Zealander.

My analysis showed that a strong belief that people had the democratic right to be recognised as “New Zealanders” regardless of whether they were Pākehā, were from an ethnic minority, or had a hybrid identity was a point of complete agreement. Feelings of belonging, whether through an attachment to the land, indigenous status, or the justification of citizenship through the holding of a symbolic artefact of membership, such as a New Zealand passport, were some of the arguments used to frame national identity. However, there was also concern that not all New Zealanders were seen or treated as equal.

Some people argued that “New Zealander” was a bona fide ethnic classification that was inclusive of all ethnicities. A number of people justified their preference to categorise themselves as “New Zealander” rather than as “New Zealand European” because they had no connection with Europe and in some cases had never visited there. The fact that some of their families had lived in New Zealand for several generations was also used to claim an identity that was unique.

In response to this, other commenters stated that the label “New Zealander” actually merged ethnicity with nationality in favour of New Zealand Europeans. Some commenters interpreted this as demonstrating an act of exclusion or a subtle form of racism, while others denied that this was the case. Concern was also shown for the need to acknowledge equal rights for all ethnic groups living in New Zealand and the rights of Māori to be classified as indigenous.

Differences of opinion were also apparent when it came to interpreting the meaning of certain labels, particularly those that sought to convey both an ethnic identity and a national identity. If, for example, a Kurdish-New Zealander chose to self-define that way, it was seen by some as enabling that person to freely express his or her ethnicity. However, if the media used this term, or “New Zealand passport holder,” it was seen to highlight that person’s difference in a negative way. While it could be argued that hyphenated labels were used to maintain ethnic distinctiveness at the risk of assimilation, at the same time they could be regarded as an acculturation strategy, whereby acceptance as a New Zealander in some form is sought even if that requires clarification with an adjective.

Although my analysis highlighted that the Government “spoke” the new political language of integration with a particular emphasis on diversity, its justification for new immigrants based on economic advantage dominated any meaningful engagement with minority groups. Resisting, challenging, or appropriating the dominant narrative as it appeared in either the official 2006 census data about New Zealand’s ethnic groups, or in a news headline about a “New Zealand passport holder,” in fact highlighted the difficulties people faced in determining a common and substantive national identity.

In effect, the analysis of the online discussions showed that New Zealand national identity was marked by enduring processes of domination, struggles over the right to speak, and the power to act to frame identity in such a way as to construct “legitimate” citizens of the nation.

mountain trig sunset national identity
mountain view sunset national identity


Crucial to the nation’s future is the need to feel that we are equal citizens regardless of whether we are a member of a minority group or the majority group, or even whether we have a hybrid identity drawing on several ethnicities or nationalities. I believe that the messages posted by commenters in these online discussions made visible those issues that rarely get debated publicly. My research, therefore, performs a critical function in creating an awareness of societal influences—whether governmental, media or institutional—that contribute to the construction of the nation’s identity.

Labelling, for example, is an important issue in national identity construction, where concerns need to be heard and suggestions sought as to how this might be dealt with more sensitively and equably, whether this is in the discourse of official documents or news reports. While some may scoff at the suggestion of subtle racism in New Zealand, regarding it as an overreaction, the fact that this topic emerged in both online discussions is indicative that it is a very real phenomenon which people are sensitive to, and that attempts need to be made to address it.

The key finding of my analysis was that there was a divided image of the nation. Differing interpretations of national identity as people perceived it to be and as the Government projected it to be led to a clash of imaginings.

At the beginning of this article I questioned whether it was possible for New Zealanders to have a collective identity as the nation became more diverse. I believe that the answer is yes, but that the national identity of today differs from that of those experienced by earlier generations and that it is necessary to adapt.

My research, though only briefly described in this article, has shown that while people consider themselves to be New Zealanders, there needs to be flexibility so that people can express their diversity without feeling that this marginalises them or makes them lesser New Zealanders. What is missing from this picture is an on-going national “conversation” about what being a New Zealander really means. The value in understanding how others construct national identity within the same nation cannot be underestimated, and developing sensitivities to other points of view is perhaps the first step to learning to live with difference.

It is important for us not only to stop and think about how we envisage ourselves as a nation in the years ahead, but also to acknowledge and listen to the views of others so that we can truly imagine who we are.


Dr Philippa Smith

Dr Philippa Smith is the Research Manager at the Institute of Culture, Discourse and Communication and a senior lecturer at the School of Language and Culture at AUT University. Her research interests include identity, media and communications, and discourse analysis.