Professor Tony Ballantyne of the University of Otago kicks off HRI's 2020-21 research theme The Global and Its Worlds with a talk titled “Beyond the Shadow of Empire? The state, mobility and difference in New Zealand’s COVID-19 response.”
The response of the New Zealand government to COVID-19, especially the leadership of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, has received global attention and garnered considerable praise. In offering a historical reading of the strategies developed and revised by the New Zealand state this year, Ballantyne will reflect on three critical elements of New Zealand’s development within the broader field of the British empire: the centrality of public health in the state’s self-image as a sponsor and protector of progressive reform, reforms that frequently undermined Māori rangatiratanga (chiefly authority) and cultural autonomy; the importance of border controls and an explicitly anti-Chinese migration policy that was seen to be fundamental to the construction of a liberal and progressive settler state, from the 1880s through to the 1970s; the role of empire-building in the Pacific as a mechanism for establishing New Zealand’s status as a state that was both mature and modern. Ballantyne will demonstrate how the strategies adopted by the Labour-NZ Firest government can not only be read as a response to the nation’s repositioning in the geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific region, but can also be understood as a rejection of the durability of these racialising historic formations. He suggests this conscious desire to move beyond the well-worn scripts of empire reflects fundamental shifts in electoral politics as a result of demographic change and the ways in which the New Zealand state has reinvented in the face of indigenous critiques since the 1970s. But while this response has proven relatively effective in managing COVID-19 thus far, he argues that that the cultural vision that has underwritten the response is anchored in a strongly nationalist vernacular, which is central to understanding the popular support for the constraints on mobility that were a key feature of the government’s public health response.
Tony Ballantyne is a Professor of History and Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Humanities at the University of Otago, where he is also Co-Director of the Centre for Research on Colonial Culture. He has published widely on empires in modern world history, the cultural history of the British empire in the nineteenth century, and colonialism and its consequences in New Zealand. Much of his writing has explored the development of colonial knowledge and the connections between empire-building and the development of archives. His most recent monograph is Entanglements of Empire: Missionaries, Māori and the Question of the Body (Duke University Press and Auckland University Press).
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