I was mooching around in the kitchen the other day, generally getting in the way, as I do, when something caught my eye.It was a vacuum pack of German sauerkraut that my wife had bought at a local food outlet.
Now who would have thought, in the New Zealand I grew up in, that in the future you’d be able to buy German sauerkraut (for the uninitiated, that’s fermented cabbage, which sounds gross, but it’s not) in a provincial town like Masterton?I think back several decades to when I first lived in Wellington. Even in the capital city there was only one place where you could be confident of finding exotic foods such as sauerkraut, Gouda cheese and Bismarck herring.
It was a small Cuba St supermarket called Fuller Fultons, and it was mainly patronised by European immigrants – Dutch, Austrians, Swiss, Poles and Jews – who yearned for the food they had known in their homelands. My Polish father-in-law was a frequent customer.In those days, sauerkraut would have been brought into the country under a special import licence. There were lots of odd little companies that imported and distributed small lines of specialist foodstuffs.
No New Zealand companies bothered to make them, because there was no money in it; not enough demand. New Zealand then was still a monocultural, meat-and-three veg society.Nonetheless, in the tightly controlled economy of that era – Fortress New Zealand, as it was sometimes known – anyone wanting to bring in such goods had to obtain an import licence, which was not always easy.
The theory was that New Zealand manufacturers were thus protected from overseas competition, an approach promoted by the influential left-wing economist Bill Sutch and adopted by both Labour and National governments.This policy had several consequences. One was that inefficient New Zealand industries got away with producing overpriced, second-rate goods because there was no competition.
Another was that companies fortunate enough to obtain import licences for sought-after products were on the pig’s back. Many old New Zealand merchant families became wealthy purely on the basis of the goods that passed through their warehouses. Having secured their gold-plated import licences, they hardly had to lift a finger.And of course everyone – shippers, importers, wholesalers and retailers – clipped the ticket on the way through, meaning higher prices for the hapless consumer.
A third, and incidental, consequence was that the public servants in charge of granting import licences were treated to a lot of lavish lunches and dinners. Sir Des Britten, who owned a classy Wellington restaurant called The Coachman, once told me of an official who dined there several times a week at the expense of businessmen wooing him for favourable treatment.But the distortions in the rigidly controlled economy (which were all for the benefit of the public, of course) went far beyond these little quirks.
That was also the era when, bizarrely, you needed a doctor’s prescription to buy margarine. Why? Because the dairy industry persuaded the government that without such restrictions, sales of margarine would hurt butter producers. It’s hard to believe now, but that restriction wasn’t lifted until 1974.Then there were the incomprehensible and utterly irrational limitations on what corner dairies – the only retail businesses allowed to trade at weekends – were allowed to sell when everything else was shut. You could buy a tin of shoe polish, but not a pack of sausages; a packet of clothes pegs, but not a jar of marmalade.
Alright, I can’t recall whether those specific examples were literally correct. But no one could fathom the logic – for want of a better word – behind the list of goods that were approved or forbidden. Committees of bureaucrats seemed free to impose whatever pettifogging rules they chose, and to heck with reason.Many dairy owners ignored the regulations anyway, but did so at the risk of being pinged by government snoops who prowled the suburbs looking for subversive shopkeepers. Doubtless they were considered enemies of the state.
How quickly we forget all that. A generation has grown up since the era I’m writing about, and in the meantime New Zealand has changed radically.The Labour government of the 1980s took bold steps to deregulate the economy and drag it into the modern era. It dismantled the complex tangle of tariffs and import licences that protected the privileged. Not surprisingly, many complacent, long-established companies collapsed once exposed to competition.
Among the new businesses that sprang up in their place were Stephen Tindall’s the Warehouse, which took full advantage of the newly deregulated economy by sourcing cheap goods from Third World countries.There was great wailing and gnashing of teeth, because the Warehouse pulled the rug out from under local manufacturers – which had prospered in the absence of cheap imports – as well as taking business away from traditional retailers. But I applauded its arrival because it made a wide range of low-priced goods accessible to consumers who had previously been disadvantaged by the cosy status quo. Low-income shoppers remain the Warehouse’s core market.
For similar reasons I applauded when the car trade was opened up to used Japanese imports and the car assembly companies (none of which survived) were stripped of their protection. Who could possibly object to low-income people finally being able to afford decent, low-mileage vehicles?Not all the sweeping changes ushered in by Sir Roger Douglas worked. (When she was prime minister, Helen Clark liked to call them the “failed reforms”, even though she was a member of the same government and was happy to leave them in place.) But I doubt that many New Zealanders who remember the days of Fortress of New Zealand would want to regress to that era.
Of course other things have changed too. A more liberal immigration policy has exposed us to multicultural influences. Cheaper international travel and more open borders have enabled us to experience a world our grandparents could only read about, and to bring back new ideas and ways of doing things.For me, a telling symbol of New Zealand’s transformation was the opening several years ago in sleepy, bucolic Carterton, just down the road from where I live, of a Turkish restaurant (a very good one, too); and only a year or so later, a French one (also very good).
We have become, dare I say it, a great deal more sophisticated. Which, to bring me back to where I started, explains why a store in provincial New Zealand finds it profitable to stock imported sauerkraut. And very nice it was, too.