I’ve only been to New Zealand once before, and this was the first time I’d been to the south island. It’s probably the most southern part of the planet I’ve been to so far. The University of Otago in Dunedin was hosting the politics conference I spoke at. It dates back to the 19th century and is a key part of the town, economically and culturally. Dunedin is a small and beautiful town, with some fabulous old buildings, beautiful gardens, hills and ocean views – and very clean. The international airport terminal in Brisbane has a clear view back to the city centre and the seemingly permanent smear of brown smog and haze hanging over it was depressingly obvious when I was leaving this week.
Having said that, the newspapers here showed that even the cleanest environment is at risk if you let your guard slip. Confirmation came through this week that an algae had been found in the southern rivers, which could have significant environmental impacts and will undoubtedly have some economic and social ones for a region which rightly sells itself on its clean green image. It would be bad enough if the algae was simply known by its scientific name of Didymosphenia geminata, or didymo. Unfortunately, the colloquial name for it is ‘rock snot’, which does tend to create a more unpleasant image. Even more unfortunately, from the photos I saw, it seems like a reasonably accurate description.
Having said that, if you were thinking of coming to this part of the world, don’t let that put you off. One of the best parts of being in politics is the fascinating and capable people you get to meet, and one of the fascinating people I met in Dunedin was a guy called Najibullah Lafraie. He’s a lecturer at the University of Otaga, and was previously the Foreign Minister for Afghanistan in the late 1980s, between the fall of the communists and the coming to power of the Taliban. He had some very interesting insights about what the best ways forward might be for Afghanistan (and Iraq). Not someone I expected to meet hidden away in a University in Dunedin, but a reminder of the value we can all get from multiculturalism and from accepting rather than rejecting refugees.
While being exposed to inspiring and interesting people and groups is the best part of the job, the worst part is sitting on planes, which is what I have to go and do again right now. I’ll write a bit more about the conference and impressions of New Zealand later.