Loving NZ - from 19,000km away

20 August 2014

Today is exactly one month until the New Zealand general election. It’s also three years and one month since I last lived permanently in New Zealand.

Conventional wisdom suggests I shouldn't really care what happens when my compatriots vote on September 20. But I do. More so than I ever have in the past.

People ask me why I care so much. Some even say I don't have a right to try and influence the election. A few months ago, I had the opportunity to write asmall piece about being a Kiwi in London for a New Zealand paper. I mentioned that I was involved with the Greens. One of the comments was “Why involve yourself in NZ politics if you don’t intend living in NZ?”.

Friends also question me. When I occasionally post political stuff on Facebook, I’m sometimes told that it doesn't make sense for me to care so much. Others have told me privately they don’t really understand why I’m so invested in politics on the opposite side of the world from where I live.

I never really stop contemplating the relationship I have with New Zealand. It defines a part of me that I haven’t put my finger on. I’m not sure I’ll ever live in my country again but I’m still attached to it for the rest of my life.

And it is my country, no matter where in the world I live. I've only got one passport. It’s black and white and has a silver fern on it.

My parents live in New Zealand. So do my little brother and my sister-in-law. I have many friends across those two islands. All of them have their own their own families. Some have kids of their own. Every one of them is part of New Zealand society.

I didn't leave all of that behind when I moved to the UK. If anything, being so far away from people that are important to me has made me realise how much they mean to me and how much I care about them. I still feel like I’m a part of New Zealand society as well.

When I landed in the UK in 2011, I got a sudden dose of homesickness. It was a few months before that year's general election and I decided on a whim to do something I’d always wanted to do. I joined the Greens and got my first taste of campaigning standing outside gigs and rugby matches, handing out flyers to fellow ex-pats.

A big part of my 20s was taken up with being a journalist and I took politically impartiality seriously. Joining a political party was something that was incompatible with my career choice. Even voting seemed somewhat dubious. At the same time, my priorities and personality were still in a state of formation. I bounced around various political viewpoints for a long time.

It was a perfect storm of circumstances that finally led to me getting involved in politics in a serious manner. I was becoming mature enough to realise what was actually important to me and suddenly had the motivation and opportunity to act on it.

I've been helping to run the UK branch of the Greens for the last two years. Being involved in an international branch has its own unique challenges (finding New Zealanders in London is the toughest), but our group of volunteers has gone from strength to strength in the last year and we've now got ten awesome people who are committing their time to try and  make New Zealand a better place.

London is full of young, well-traveled Kiwis, many of whom don’t vote or who want to but don’t know how. Our main drive is to remind them of the election, make sure they know how to enroll and hopefully convince them to vote for us.

The Greens are the only NZ political party with a dedicated international presence. We have volunteer groups based in London, San Francisco and Melbourne. There are more than one million New Zealanders living overseas. Kiwis live in Australia, in the UK or dotted around Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. Almost all have NZ passports. Many of us will move back to Aotearoa at some point. We all still have friends and family at home.

Some countries seriously engage their international diasporas. France has dedicated electorates for citizens living in foreign countries. The Democrats in the US canvas ex-pats when they choose their presidential nominee. That’s an acknowledgement that international migration is a fact of modern life. Living in Europe has made me realise just how blurred borders are, and how we can no longer define ourselves simply by where we live.

It baffles me that the larger parties in New Zealand haven’t made more of an effort to engage Kiwis living abroad. One million votes are more than enough to sway an election. By virtue of our international presence, overseas voters have helped elect an extra Green MP in almost every election since 1999. This year, it could be vital in deciding the final result.

This year our efforts are more sophisticated than ever. We’re running a two-tier approach – engaging as many London Kiwis as possible in person by running events or integrating ourselves in the ex-pat culture of this city. Then we use this to promote ourselves on social media. All up, I think we've reached about 5000 London-based New Zealanders this year, which is a pretty good result when you factor in the “needle in a haystack” problem – finding Kiwis among the 8 million people who live in London.

We still stand outside gigs and rugby matches handing out flyers, but we've become smarter. We’re running enrollment parties and special screenings of All Blacks matches. We’re creating social media content and creating meaningful links with Kiwi businesses and organisations in the UK. No other party is doing this.

And the best part of this is that it’s completely genuine. Our team includes a variety of people from a variety of backgrounds. Some have been involved with the party in NZ before moving to London. Some, like me, have only ever been involved while overseas. Some of us are new to London and some have lived here for more than a decade. But all of us care passionately for what happens back home.

Living abroad gives you a unique perspective about home. New Zealand is unquestionably one of the best places to live in the world. It frequently leads the world in studies on fairness and quality of life. It’s something we should be proud of but that we should never take for granted. We should never settle for what we have. We should always strive to be greater.

I get asked what New Zealand is like a lot, and I wish I could say it is paradise. But it’s not. There are 200,000 children in NZ living in poverty. That’s 200,000 too many. Our rivers are some of the most polluted in the world. Our economy is too dependent on dairy, forestry and other industries that simply won’t remain sustainable over the next century.

 My dream is that we can build a better New Zealand by building a fairer, more equitable society. One of the ways I motivate myself is imagining my friends’ kids and the future they are going to inherit. I feel a debt to them – to do everything I can to make sure they grow up in a society which provided the same opportunities as it did to me.

And I’m filled with genuine passion when I see our party roll out policy which I feel can achieve this. Whether it’s creating a green bank to help finance sustainable entrepreneurship or committing $1 billion to tackle child poverty, I am proud to promote these goals among Kiwis like me who have chosen to make their home overseas.

One thing I've realised is that our party is, almost exclusively, made up of people who are genuine about what they believe. I've never run into egos or selfishness. Its politics flipped on its head - the Greens aren't a place for people looking to simply assume power.

There are disagreements of course, but we always end emails with a smiley face or a “Keep up the good work. You’re doing great”. It’s refreshing, and it makes me want to wake up and keep on campaigning for what I think is important.

For a long time I've been looking for something meaningful to complement my life. I’m luckier than many people I know. I've had opportunities that aren't presented to everyone. I've been to university and had the chance to travel the world. Now I've been fortunate enough to involve myself in something which means a huge amount to me.

Campaigning is exhausting . It takes up a huge amount of my time and finances but it’s incredibly rewarding. I motivate myself by daydreaming about what New Zealand will look like with Green ministers in cabinet. I like to imagine all the amazing changes we can make to society – more support for people who are struggling, protection for our amazing natural environment, a smarter transport policy and incentives for responsible, sustainable innovation.

If I didn't care so much about New Zealand society then I wouldn't expend so much energy on this. I do it because I genuinely want the best for my country. I want to tell people proudly that I’m a Kiwi and because I want the best for everyone I know who lives there. I want New Zealanders who live overseas to be represented by a government that acknowledges the role ex-pats play in building a society.

There’s a hand-written note above my desk that says “I can’t change the world….but I can change a little bit…and that’s better than changing nothing at all!”

Right now, I feel like the biggest positive change I can make in the world is advocating for the kind of New Zealand I want to call home. Eventually, if I become a British citizen, I might decide to involve myself in politics in this country. Or I might look into non-partisan campaigning for charities or lobby groups. I’ll need a break and time to reflect after September 20, and the skills I've learned in the last two years will come in handy when I set my mind to a new challenge.

But right now my focus is on what’s important to me, and that’s building a better New Zealand. I grew up in the Manawatu and I still feel that river flow through my veins. I still look adoringly at pictures of my friends’ kids on Facebook and want them to have an amazing life. I want to advocate New Zealand passionately on the other side of the world.

Being an ex-pat has many challenges. It’s often tough being so far away from my family and my friends. But no one can take away my connection to New Zealand. It’s my home and I care deeply about it. That’s why I do what I do.

(check out our page www.votefornz.com for information o how to enroll and vote from abroad)

(I told you there would be more politics posts. Sorry, I guess)