Interview

with author Wendy McGuinness

Q. What is the inspiration for Nation Dates?

A. Nation Dates is the result of several years of research. As a think-tank exploring New Zealand’s long term future, the first question we focused on is ‘where is New Zealand going?’ However, we very quickly realised that in order to answer this question we needed to understand where New Zealand has come from. We first put a timeline together when working on Project 2058 and soon appreciated the value in linking similar events through time, what we have called ‘threads’. Mark Twain’s famous line ‘history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme’ continues to resonate, so Nation Dates lists the rhymes that have occurred in the past, and are likely to propel us into the future.

Q. What is the inspiration behind the cover?

A. The cover was designed by our in-house designer Kelly Gordon. We chose the orange because 2011 is election year. Orange is the colour of the overarching elections campaign and so references the election without aligning with a specific political viewpoint.  As the Sustainable Future Institute is a non-partisan think-tank this is very important. The layout of the letters parallels the layout of an eye-chart, referencing the idea of ‘sight’ or in our case hindsight in order to develop better insight, and foresight.

Q. What are ‘threads’ and how do they work?

A. Each event in the timeline is allocated to one of 65 ‘threads’. Each thread is a key theme or pattern that runs through the timeline and that has been central to our development as a nation. The threads allow the reader to access the timeline in three ways; by reading the timeline start to finish in Chapter 1, by tracking individual threads through the timeline using the square brackets at the end of each entry, and by simply reading through the threads in Chapter 8, while being able to flick to the timeline to find out more about any specific entry.

Q. Who endorses this book?

A. Professor Sir Mason Durie, Dame Claudia Orange and Professor Philip Joseph have all contributed endorsements for Nation Dates and we can’t thank them enough for their support. Dame Claudia Orange, who spoke at the book launch, contributed the following kind words for the back cover:

‘This meticulously researched book embodies the commitment and passion of Wendy McGuinness’s work through the Sustainable Future Institute. Nation Dates includes events of real significance to New Zealand’s past and will become a key text for libraries, schools, universities and anyone with an interest in this country’s past and future.’ – Dame Claudia Orange

Q. Who will want to read this book?

A. This will appeal to anyone with an interest in this country’s rich history. We hope it will be a reference for schools and libraries and other academic institutions. It makes for a really interesting read – I found it fascinating to see the linkages and patterns that emerged – and because the format is easy to digest, you can dip in and out of it. People have commented that they get a bit ‘hooked’ once they open it up. We hope everyone has that experience! The book is data heavy, but is designed to be information friendly and events are organised in such a way to inform and invite a deeper reflection as to where we want our country to go.

Q. Why does the timeline begin at 1770?

A. Although New Zealand has a rich history that predates 1770, this date was selected for the beginning of the timeline as it is when our isolated group of islands was first claimed to be one nation.  In 1770, the British Crown appears to have been the first to lay claim to both islands together. It was this initial idea of sovereignty that led to the Treaty of Waitangi.

Q. How did you select the dates for the timeline?

A. Selecting the dates for inclusion was not always an easy task. Sometimes a significant date was determined by the establishment of a committee, a royal commission, a publication, a national tragedy or triumph, and sometimes just a moment of interest. There are also events that have a ripple effect, and at times we have noted both prior and later dates within a single entry in order to be concise.

Q. Who did you talk with about the dates for inclusion?

A. The book’s first draft was approximately half the size! We distributed this to the participants, consultants and speakers at our StrategyNZ: Mapping our Future event. We got quite a bit of feedback and suggestions for inclusions. It was great because people came from such varied professional and academic backgrounds that a lot of dates of significance to particular groups of New Zealanders emerged that we may not necessarily have picked up on ourselves.

Q. What were key years of change for New Zealand?

There are three graphs that represent the last 240 years of New Zealand history. The first includes all 440 events from Nation Dates. The second shows the significant disasters over time, indicating that they will increase along with population increase. They do happen and will continue to happen as wildcards in the future. The third graph excludes the disasters and therefore represents the significant events that have happened as a result of leadership, or lack of leadership, whether it be from New Zealand or Britain. When broken down, the third graph shows that there are about eight eras in New Zealand history where significant change occurred. Interestingly these eight eras mirror the growth of a human; the birth happens in 1770 and the teenage years happened in the 1960s and 1970s. This would place us in early adulthood now, arguably putting New Zealand at the age of 21 today.

Significant disaster events

Just significant events

Significant events


Q. What else is in the book besides the timeline?

A. As well as the timeline, the book contains a few short chapters listing key information on subjects like Heads of State, Governors and Governor-Generals, Royal Commissions and more. We have included this information because we think it is an important record of our nation’s history and is not readily accessible.

Q. What is the relevance of the constitutional review?

A. New Zealand has a long and, at times, complicated constitutional history. In fact, the longest thread in the book is ‘constitutional developments’. The current constitutional review is an amazing opportunity to look back at our constitutional history and think about where we would like this thread to go in the future. This information is a resource for those who may wish to contribute to this review. The Sustainable Future Institute has established a new project, Empower.

Q. Why was the launch held on 6 September?

A. The launch of Nation Dates was held 6 September 2011, to commemorate the passing of the British Nationality and New Zealand Citizenship Act 1948. It was this act that established the concept of ‘New Zealand citizenship’. Before this time, all people born in New Zealand were British subjects. We wanted to recognise this date as a turning point our country’s journey towards becoming an independent nation.

Q.  Why is this book important for someone who wants to shape the development of our future?

A. We want our leaders to be exceptional, particularly when our society is facing major questions about the way forward. There is now evidence, published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, that thinking about our ancestors increases not only our expectations of our capabilities, but increases our actual intelligence as well, what scientists now call ‘the ancestor effect’. This concept aligns with the application of whakapapa in Maori culture today. Whakapapa describes genealogies and stories from the past; rather like building a visual timeline, one layer upon another, from the past towards the present, and on into the future.

Q. You are a futures institute so why are you writing about history?

A. The future is a mystery. I firmly believe that to understand where we are heading, we need to know where we have been. You cannot separate history from the future. This idea of threads running through time is central to our work. Earlier in the year we published A History of Future Thinking Initiatives in New Zealand so that we could understand the other initiatives that our peers have undertaken in order to provide the context for our own work and learn from the successes and lessons of other future thinkers.

Q. If the future is a mystery, how do we develop the skills and knowledge to shape the future?

A. I remember reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book, What the Dog Saw (Allen Lane, 2009), and one of the articles draws a distinction made by Director of the Center for Global Risk and Security at the RAND Corporation (Gregory Treverton) between puzzles and mysteries. He argues that the skills required to solve puzzles are very different from the skills required to solve a mystery. A puzzle assumes you do not having enough information and that one additional piece of information will solve the problem. Therefore a puzzle solver needs to be energetic, inquiring and persistent. However, the skills required to solve a mystery are based on the over-supply of information. A solver of mysteries therefore needs to be observant, patient and reflective. They must sift through the information and use one’s judgement and assessment to formulate a conclusion. Nation Dates sifts through events, to solve the mystery “where does New Zealand come from”, but allows the reader to formulate the conclusion and reflect on “how can we shape its development in the future?”.

Q. Why did you decide to use macrons on Māori words?

A. During the research for this book we discovered that the Māori Language Commission, establish by the Maori Language Act 1987 to act as the authority on Māori spelling and orthography, favours the use of macrons to stress long vowels in the Māori language. Macrons have not been introduced where they were clearly not used in the original text such as quotes and the titles of Acts and Ministries.

Q. What is the significance of the James Duncan Reference Library?

The library is owned and operated by the Sustainable Future Institute.  As our collection of publications grew we came to the realisation that we had the beginnings of something unique. Just like our book Nation Dates, our library is designed to preserve a record of the past in order to set the context for thinking about New Zealand’s long-term future. In researching the significant events that have shaped New Zealand we used the books from our library to explore the history of New Zealand. We endeavoured to find up to three sources that all verified the same information, then we would only use the best source in the references. In selecting the best source, we privileged NZ History online and Te Ara, these are both Ministry of Culture (MCH) and Heritage sites. We found MCH to be an invaluable independent body for verifying facts, providing consistent and concise references and we wished to support this valuable resource and encourage our readers to use it.

Q. What do you do with the money made from the book?

The Institute is a not-for-profit organisation and money from the sale of the books goes toward covering the research and printing costs. There are other costs associated with the production of the book that we will not recover but these are absorbed by the Institute. I believe this is an important reference for New Zealanders and our priority is to make it as widely available as possible. With this is mind, we are working with a corporate partner to achieve our goal of giving a book to every secondary school in the country.

Q. What is your favourite date?

A. I have always been fascinated with fossils and started collecting them when I was young. I was walking up a newly made track on our hill country farm when I was about eight and noticed seashells in the clay. I now have a collection of fossils at home in Wellington, including my very first fossil. As a result a friend bought me Deborah Cadbury’s book on fossil hunting in the 1800’s. While reading this book I read of Walter Mantell, the son of Gideon Mantell (a famous Englishman and amateur palaeontologist who’s wife found the first dinosaur tooth in 1820), who travelled to New Zealand. Out of curiosity I googled Walter and found he was  appointed  Native Minister in 1861. He took this position on the condition that the government would fulfil promises that he made on their behalf to Ngāi Tahu when acquiring land in 1848. They failed to do so and so six months later, in protest, he resigned.  This shows integrity and honour in the face of what has proven to be an on-going issue for our nation. It is stories like this which makes Nation Dates so special. As a side issue, the first dinosaur tooth found by Gideon Mantell was given to his son and now sits in Te Papa.

Q. What is Miriam’s favourite date?

A. When David Lange won the Oxford Union Debate in 1985. In researching for this date I actually sat down and read the entire transcript and was completely absorbed. I was so inspired by the fact that for such a small nation we showed such a great deal of tenacity in standing up for what we felt was right when it would have been so much easier to fit in with the status quo. The result is that people like me, who wasn’t even born in 1985, now live in a nuclear free country.

Q. Are you planning updates?

A. Yes! We are already planning for another edition in a few years to reflect events as they continue to take place, as well as to capture any historical events that are brought to our attention after print.

Q. What if someone has a date they would like added?

A. Please email us at nationdatesnz@mcguinnessinstitute.org.  We would love it if people engaged with us to include dates of significance to groups of New Zealanders that we may not have been aware of.