Trailblazers is a beautiful film about a spectacular country – New Zealand. Made by Swedish filmmaker Johan Norberg, who clearly fell in love with his subject, the film might easily have been made by the New Zealand government – propaganda maybe, but what beautiful propaganda. With breath-taking coastlines, rolling farmland, Lord of the Rings-esque mountainscapes and plenty of smiling people happy to tell the camera how this is the best country in the world to live in.
But New Zealand was not always the happy success story it is today – and that is the film’s departure point. In the 1970’s, New Zealand’s primary market for its agriculture exports, the UK, joined the European Economic Community (today’s EU) which shut out non-European importers. Unable to find a quick replacement for its lamb and dairy exports, New Zealand’s economy crashed. In response, the government introduced price controls and subsidies and import restrictions, all aimed at reducing the economic pain while in fact having the opposite effect. “We were like a benign form of North Korea then,” said one interviewee in the film. New Zealand ended up with one of the tightest government-controlled economies anywhere outside the Iron Curtain. One man recalled how his 72-year-old mother had to apply to the Finance Ministry for permission to subscribe to a foreign magazine, since it was technically a controlled import.
By 1984 New Zealand was on the verge of complete economic collapse, with a serious financial crisis, looming international debt payments and exhausted foreign exchange reserves. A new government was elected and a visionary finance minister, Roger Douglas, began to implement a dramatically new approach. Subsidies were abolished, regulations were cut, and markets were opened up in a series of reforms that came to be known as “Rogernomics” – and looked a lot like American-style free-market capitalism. There was some short-term pain as more jobs were lost, but the country quickly found its footing and began a remarkable growth path that continues to this day.
The New Zealand coastline.
Norberg tells this story through the eyes of farmers, fishermen and entrepreneurs who lived through the crisis and the years that followed. One man lost his farm because he couldn’t make the payments, but this spurred him into setting up a new business exporting abalone and now he can afford to buy another farm as a hobby on the side. Maoris who predated the arrival of white colonists were given a stronger say in the economy – we see one Maori man who started out with a small 15-foot skiff and now has a fleet of fishing boats. He exports the fish all around the world, including to the Fulton Fish Market in New York City.
In the Q&A after the film, Norberg said that the landscape of New Zealand “hurt your eyes it was so beautiful.” New Zealand Consul General Leon Grice then took the audience back to the 1980’s, when he was growing up. He recalled that as a teenager he would spend all Saturday and Sunday shoveling chicken droppings to earn enough money so his mother could cover their mortgage payments. Today, New Zealand has a stronger economy and “the country is putting a lot of energy into diversifying” so that it doesn’t repeat the mistake of the 1970’s when 70% of its agricultural exports went to one market. One thing the New Zealanders have learned in the interim – resilience.