This is a series on five major election issues seen through the eyes of the national museum.
In the lead-up to the 2017 General Election, we have linked each of these issues to objects from the collection, or education programmes, run by Te Papa. In this post, Senior Curator History Claire Regnault writes about Housing.
Te Papa’s collection is rife with imagery pertaining to houses and notions of home. Unsurprisingly, the New Zealand State House is a recurring theme. Margaret Marr (Te Arawa) created this ensemble for the World of WearableArt competition in 1997, 60 years after the Labour government officially opened their first State House at 12 Fife Lane, Miramar, Wellington.
Marr’s ensemble comprises a smart two-piece suit, made from astro-turf and trimmed with flowers and a white picket fence. Its crowning glory is a hat made in the instantly recognisable form of a State House. The work is inspired by Marr’s memories of the Māori Affairs Department state houses of her childhood which she recalls seemed to be ‘everywhere’.
Marr entered this cheerful and rather nostalgic costume into the ‘Pacific Paradise’ section of WOW, the theme for which was ‘Kiwiana’. Titled Kiwi 1/4 Acre, the costume pays homage to what is known as the ‘New Zealand dream’, that is the desire to own a freestanding house on a quarter acre section.
This ‘dream’ was supported through-out much of the 20th century by a range of government policies and schemes that grew out a series of compounding issues in the late 19th century – namely the proliferation of inner city slums, poor wages and high living costs.
1905 Workers’ Dwellings Bill
In 1905 Parliament passed the Workers’ Dwellings Bill, making the New Zealand government the first ‘in the Western world to build public housing for its citizens’. While the scheme was not a success, the Bill heralded the beginnings of state housing in New Zealand.
In the 21st century, the quarter acre dream is no longer attainable for many New Zealanders, due to increasing population and escalating house and land prices. Nor is it, in reality, every New Zealander’s dream.
A different view
In the same year that Marr made Kiwi 1/4 Acre, Ava Seymour produced a series of photo-montages entitled Health, Happiness, and Housing (1997) for which she photographed State Houses around the country. Controversially she populated the surrounding grass berms and streets, not with happy families, but with freakish residents, collaged together from magazine cut-outs.
Robert Leonard, in an essay entitled ‘The End of Improvement: In Defence of Ava Seymour’, argues that the images suggest the degeneration of the democratic dream represented by state housing:
‘In these dark days, state housing holds an ambiguous position in the New Zealand psyche, being at once nostalgically tied to modernist ideals of egalitarianism – the New Zealand Dream – yet also to a stigma of depressing sameness, a vicious cycle of poverty and paternalism. State housing is at once something to defend and something to be defensive about.’
The following year, fashion designer Laurie Foon turned her back on more ‘fashionable’ locations and populated Naenae, a suburb famous for its state housing, with models dressed in her Liberation collection, in defence of the state house and suburbia.
She commented: ‘I wanted to see Starfish show a stronger reflection on what it was to be a New Zealander. I wanted to see ourselves, the realness of what it meant to be a Kiwi. I had grown up being embarrassed about growing up in the suburbs. Now I wanted to see it celebrated.’
From the 1/4 acre dream to homelessness
The creation of the above works coincided with my first real trip abroad, and my first experience of homeless. Seeing people living on the streets in London, often huddled in filthy tube stations, rattled me to the core. I remember being grateful that New Zealand ‘was not like that’. Twenty years later, walking home each night through central Wellington, New Zealand is ‘like that’.
Like Michael Joseph Savage, the Prime Minister who proudly opened his government’s first State House 80 years ago, ‘I want to see humanity secure against poverty, secure in illness or old age’. Decent housing is a crucial part of this equation, along with related policies on health, equality, education, work and income.
As Ben Schrader has observed in his history of the New Zealand State House, We Call It Home, the 1905 Workers’ Dwellers Bill not only marked the beginning of State Housing in New Zealand, but it also ‘established the themes for debate on housing policy for the next 100 years’ – the most important being ‘the extent to which the state should intervene’. In the lead-up to this year’s election, this debate continues.
Housing policies 2017
For an accessible introduction to each parties’ policies on Housing, including social, healthy, and affordable housing as well as renting, visit the Spinoff’s handy Policy site. You can ‘like’ policies as you browse and see a breakdown of the ones that suit your aspirations for New Zealand.
Most importantly, remember to cast your vote on Saturday 23 September.
-  Mark Derby, ‘Suburbs – The state builds suburbs‘, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand (accessed 7 September 2017)
-  Laurie Foon quoted in Dan Ahwa, ‘Why Designers Love New Zealand‘, Viva
-  Social Welfare and the State, Slice of Heaven, Te Papa
-  B. Schrader, We Call It Home: A History of the State House in New Zealand, Reed Publishing, 2005, p. 24
Remaining blog topics in this series include environment, education, immigration, and the economy.