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Culture of New Zealand

The culture of New Zealand is a fusion of Maori culture and that of the descendants of the early British colonists and later settlers, many of whom were of working class origin.



While British culture predominates within the country, it is Maori culture which is increasingly being identified worldwide as the New Zealand culture, due to haka displays by New Zealand sporting teams, and to tens of thousands of visitors who each year experience and film or photograph Maori culture events held at places such as Rotorua.

British culture in New Zealand has been significantly influenced by Maori and other Polynesians, and Scottish influences are particularly strong, mainly in the South Island. In general, early immigrants from other parts of Europe and Asia, and World War II refugees (particularly the Dutch) were readily assimilated.

Small enclaves of these early immigrant cultures remain as islands of unique heritage in a sea of British colonial culture. Unlike Australia, New Zealand has not experienced sizeable immigration from Mediterranean countries in Southern Europe, but in recent years there has been a considerable influx of migrants from Asia, which now makes up a significant proportion of the population, particularly in Auckland.

After the Second World War, significant immigration from the Pacific Islands began, so much so that there are now more nationals from some Pacific island nations living in New Zealand than on their home islands. The wide variety of Pacific Island cultures has combined in New Zealand, mostly in South Auckland, to form a distinctive subculture that is separate from the Maori culture.

For a variety of reasons many Maori and Pacific people have been socially disadvantaged, forming an underclass in some areas. Cultural considerations for both Maori and Pacific people now have a significant influence on educational, medical and social organisations, particularly in areas with high concentrations of these population groups.

Immigration policy in New Zealand has often been controversial, with some politicians claiming that the pace of immigration has been too rapid for New Zealand to absorb, and that recent immigrants are having trouble adapting to the New Zealand society. This position is seen by others as a cynical appeal to xenophobic sentiment in order to gain votes near election time, and these views are not widely supported by the general population.

Is there a separate New Zealand culture?

A number of New Zealand commentators have observed that there is no culture in New Zealand. This has led to protests from those who believe that there is a uniquely definable New Zealand culture. Perhaps one of the more memorable protests was the 1980 song "Culture" by The Knobz after outspoken Prime Minister Sir Robert Muldoon stated that New Zealand pop music was not part of the New Zealand cultural scene.

The three "R's"

The three "R's" of New Zealand culture are Rugby, Racing and beeR. This cultural image probably has its origins in colonial agricultural New Zealand, when hard farm work such as harvesting, shearing and droving took place in hot summer conditions. The large number of soldiers who left New Zealand to fight in the First and Second World Wars and their subsequent socialising have contributed to this image.

Although less obvious today, in the past team sports, particularly Rugby football, gambling on horse races, and sharing a beer after a hard day's work with some good friends or work mates have been significant images of New Zealand life. This predominantly working-class male cultural image has previously been so strong that it has overshadowed other, perhaps higher, cultural aspects of New Zealand society.

Sporting and outdoor activities still play a significant part in the recreation of New Zealanders. Participation in a sport, rather than mere spectating, is considered a worthy pursuit. Team sports and sporting abilities are generally held in high regard, with top-performing players often becoming celebrities. World-class achievement and continued winning at the international level are primary requirements. Being second, or worse, after having achieved winner status, indicates that the players have become a bunch of losers and should not be playing the game any more. However, any player or team who puts in a maximum effort and still loses, especially in a challenging situation, is often praised as if they had won anyway.


The word

Kiwi (usually capitalised) has been applied to and adopted by New Zealanders as a nickname for themselves and as an adjective for their culture. It originates from kiwi (usually uncapitalised), the Maori word for several species of flightless birds endemic to New Zealand. The plural form for New Zealanders is always Kiwis. The plural forms for the birds are the anglicised kiwis or, following the Maori language, kiwi without an s.

Kiwi (bird) logos are often associated with New Zealand military forces and New Zealand goods.

The New Zealand dollar is often called the Kiwi dollar (or just the Kiwi) and the bird's image appears on both the 20 cent and one dollar coins.


Items and icons from New Zealand's cultural heritage are often called Kiwiana, and include:

  • All Blacks - national Rugby Union team
  • Black singlet - worn by many farmers, shearers as well as representative athletes
  • Buzzy Bee - child's toy
  • Claytons - originally a non alcoholic beer, advertised as The drink you have when you are not having a drink, that did not gain market acceptance; now refers to any form of inferior substitute
  • Kiwi - native bird; its stylised image or shape frequently appears on things associated with New Zealand
  • Kiwifruit - fruit from a vine originating in China but selectively bred by New Zealand horticulturalists to obtain egg-sized fruit with green or gold flesh
  • L&P - Lemon & Paeroa, a popular soft drink
  • Paua - the polished shell of the native paua (abalone) shellfish, turned into jewellery, souvenirs, just about anything. Once considered kitsch, it is starting to regain its popularity
  • Silver fern - native plant; its stylised image or shape is displayed by many of the national sports teams
  • Tiki - Maori icon, often worn as a necklace pendant
  • Footrot Flats - popular cartoon strip by Murray Ball

There are Kiwiana sections in many New Zealand museums, and some are dedicated to showing Kiwiana only.


The remoteness of many parts of New Zealand and the distance of the country from much of the developed world meant that things that were easily obtainable in other parts of the world were often not readily available locally. New Zealand has only recently experienced economic development outside farming, so traditionally, Kiwis are jacks-of-all-trades to some extent, willing to roll up their sleeves and have a go. Most highly industrialised countries produce experts trained in narrow fields of specialisation, but New Zealand professionals are often generalists as well. This reputation often makes New Zealanders uniquely valued employees in overseas organisations.

This has given rise to the attitudes "She'll be right, mate" as well as "Kiwi ingenuity".

She'll be right, mate

is the attitude that the situation, repairs, or whatever has been done is adequate or sufficient for what is needed. This is often perceived as carelessness, especially when a failure occurs.

Kiwi ingenuity

is a "Can-do" attitude that the problem or situation can be solved, despite apparently insurmountable odds. This has sometimes led to spectacular failure instead of success when inadequately prepared. This is a matter of pride and national identity, summed up in the saying "If anybody can a Kiwi can". Another expression is "if you can fix it with a piece of No. 8 wire..." meaning that it can be fixed with anything. Australians and Americans have similar expressions involving coat hangers and duct tape.

Cultural Cringe

Many New Zealanders are very conscious of belonging to a small country remote from the world centres of power and culture. Because of this they need reassurance that things in New Zealand are every bit as good as those in the rest of the world, coupled with a sneaking suspicion that maybe they are not. This manifests itself in several forms such as: adulation of any visiting celebrity; asking visitors what they think of New Zealand, usually as they are arriving or; the desperate assertion that sheep shearing is a valid sport or maybe art form. Cultural cringe as manifested by the media and some politicians means that New Zealand should experience the same disasters and vicissitudes as the rest of the world. Thus in late 2002 and early 2003 the New Zealand media appeared quite upset because the country could boast no cases of SARS or examples of international terrorism .

  • Cultural Cringe is not necessarily shared by those New Zealanders exhibiting the first two examples of Kiwi attitude but it is a pervasive New Zealand attitutude.

Because many New Zealanders have to go elsewhere in the world to achieve fame and fortune, New Zealand society is keen to attribute famous people as being New Zealanders, however short their residency in New Zealand might have been. While being born in New Zealand is an absolute qualification for being identified as a New Zealander, attendance at a New Zealand school, or being a permanent resident in New Zealand when fame is initially achieved also qualifies, irrespective of national origin. This sometimes leads to famous people being identified as coming from both New Zealand and another country - often Australia, such as the pop group Crowded House, the actor Russell Crowe, and the Pavlova dessert, all of which are claimed by Aussies and Kiwis as 'theirs'. However, New Zealanders are generally proud to have disowned controversial figures such as Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen.

Social Conservatism

While New Zealand has pioneered social reforms, including votes for women and the welfare state, its society can also be very conservative in outlook. Until the late 1960s pubs would close at 6pm, while until 1980 shops would close all weekend. Both were considered attempts to preserve family life, but increasingly locals and overseas tourists found them stifling. In 1986, restrictions on shopping hours were repealed, but shops in smaller towns still close for the weekend on Saturday afternoons, while alcohol could not be sold on Sunday until recently. However, the current government has reversed this reputation, with a programme of liberal legislation. In their current term of office, Censored page was decriminalised, the legal drinking age was lowered from 20 to 18, and civil union laws were passed in December 2004.

Macho culture

While the image of New Zealand men is of the 'strong, silent type', this can have a downside, namely that the country has one of the highest suicide rates among young males in the industrialised world.


While New Zealand, like Australia, prides itself as being more egalitarian than Britain, there is a degree of inverse snobbery known as the 'Tall Poppy Syndrome', in which people who are seen as (over)ambitious and having ideas above their station are cut down to size. This is also known as the 'Great Kiwi Clobbering Machine', and has prompted many of the country's best and brightest to emigrate.

Regionalism and Parochialism

While small in comparison to Australia or the US, there are regional differences in New Zealand, either between North Island and South Island, whose inhabitants refer to each other as 'Pig Islanders', or increasingly, between Auckland and the rest of the country. Auckland, though no longer the national capital, is the largest city, and dominates New Zealand culturally and economically. The New Zealand Herald, despite its name, is the daily newspaper of Auckland and the surrounding region, not the national newspaper. Aucklanders (sometimes known as Jafas - Just Another F*cking Aucklander) dismiss anywhere 'south of the Bombay Hills', as backward, in much the same way as Londoners dismiss anywhere 'North of Watford', while people from the rest of New Zealand regard Aucklanders as brash, sharing many of the characteristics of Sydneysiders in Australia (Auckland, with its harbours, has been described as a 'Clayton's [i.e. ersatz] Sydney'). The popular saying "New Zealand stops at the Bombay Hills" is thus used equally no matter which side of the hills the speaker happens to live on or be referring to.

Anti-Government Attitudes

Following the experiences of the 80s (1981 Springbok tour, Rogernomics) and 90s (Ruthanasia, "User-pays") there is a profound distrust of politicians in New Zealand. A national survey of 'most trusted occupations' ranked politicians the least trustworthy. This also manifested itself clearly in two recent referenda, on 'Proportional Representation' and on 'Extending the Parliamentary Term'. In both cases the general public seemed to establish in their minds what the politicians wanted and then voted almost 90 per cent against it. A vigorous national media and blogosphere often presents harsh criticism of elected figures.


In contrast to the above, many people are apathetic about local government issues, with turnout as low as 10% for local body election in 2004. In the sixties, with full employment and lucrative farm exports to the UK the government of the day established a widely-acclaimed "cradle to the grave" welfare system. The welfare system, and subsequent economic/labour reforms reducing the state sector, have had long term effects on society, with the creation of a significant underclass that is perpetually on welfare. This underclass is mainly composed of ethnic minorities.

Fair Go

The attitude of "everybody deserves a fair go" originates from the colonial era and the Christian ethic of each person being of equal value. This is the motivation behind much of the social liberalism and welfare legislation mentioned above.

Iconic characters

See also List of New Zealanders

  • Sir Robert Muldoon, nicknamed 'Piggy', authoritarian Prime Minister of New Zealand (1975-1984) who was either loved or loathed. His supporters were known as Rob's Mob.
  • Fred Dagg, a satirical character on Television New Zealand in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Created and portrayed by commedian John Clarke, who later created The Games for Australian television.
  • Sam Hunt , poet, who presented his work in pubs rather than theatres.
  • Barry Crump, humorous writer about New Zealand society, particularly the good keen man. Portrayed the stereotypical man from the land in several books and TV commercials.
  • The Wizard, eccentric British-born figure described as "a living work of art"
  • Sir Edmund Hillary, beekeeper, mountaineer, explorer, aid worker, and ambassador. His face appears on the $5 note.
  • Kate Sheppard, women's suffrage campaigner. Her face appears on the $10 note.
  • Sir Apirana Ngata, Maori politician and historian. His face appears on the $50 note.
  • Lord Rutherford, physicist and Nobel Prize winner for chemistry, who "split the atom". His face appears on the $100 note.
  • Billy T. James a successful Maori comedian.
  • Sir Howard Morrison, a perennial singer.
  • Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, opera singer.
  • Sir Peter Blake, who won the America's Cup for New Zealand.
  • Any All Black, past or present.

The arts

New Zealand does possess the usual cultural activities such as theatre, dance, fine arts, classical and popular music and creative writing. However, due to the small population base and a lack of arts funding sources, many artists have struggled to sustain themselves economically, even though they may achieve popular success. For this reason many of New Zealand's best artists go overseas, especially to Australia, but also to Europe or America, so they can further their careers.

New Zealand imports much of its cultural material from overseas, particularly from Britain or the United States. Most successful Hollywood films screen on New Zealand cinema screens and New Zealand Television shows a lot of British and American television programmes. It is somewhat ironic that some of these programmes are now made in New Zealand but receive their first screening elsewhere. The New Zealand cinematographic industry is becoming one of the country's major export enterprises, with several major motion pictures being filmed on New Zealand locations recently, including the highly acclaimed film adaptation of Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" directed by the Kiwi Peter Jackson.

There are museums in many towns and cities that preserve the country's heritage. Some museums specialise in particular themes, such as vintage transport, Maori culture or a particular historic building or event. The country's national museum is Te Papa, the Museum of New Zealand , in Wellington. The New Zealand Historic Places Trust and the Ministry of Culture and Heritage are national bodies that assist with such heritage preservation.


God's Own Country, or Godzone, is generally accepted, by New Zealanders if nowhere else, as the alternative name for New Zealand. God's Own Country was the title of a poem about New Zealand written by Thomas Bracken about 1890. (He also wrote God Defend New Zealand, which became the country's second national anthem). It was a favourite saying of Richard John Seddon, Premier of New Zealand for 13 years (1893-1906).

Related topics

External links

  • Kiwi Ingenuity

Last updated: 02-16-2005 08:14:51
Last updated: 03-18-2005 11:16:12