I’ve been reading a study of how the ANZAC concept has been used as a tool in forging national ideology in New Zealand and Australia.[1]

After the Gallipoli military disaster, with its considerable loss of life, commemorations were held annually to honour the veterans and the fallen. The dominant theme was that of the colonies proving their valour and their maturity and thus establishing their place in the Empire. For Maori, participation was a claim to full citizenship. It is worth noting the intertwining of war and the ideology of the nation.

Fifty years after the Gallipoli event, the concept of the commemoration (as a symbol of the nation), became stressed and fragmented by the passing of the veterans, the countercultural rejection of the Vietnam war, the looming possibility of nuclear catastrophe and the feminist movement which emphasised the suffering of women through war. A rebranding was required and the ANZAC experience was recast as one of colonial innocents being betrayed by imperial masters in an ill-founded war, but nevertheless performing with valour and sustained by a culture of mateship. These good humoured and rugged victims, supported by a contingent of nurses, could not be blamed for imperial crimes and fought for the liberal values of freedom, democracy and equality. The WW11 struggle against fascism had produced a new cohort of veterans who shared these values.

Seventy five years after the event, the indigenous struggle had become energised and needed to be incorporated through honouring the deeds of the Maori Battalion and the Aborigine and Torres Strait contribution to the war efforts. National war memorials were built to provide a central shrine in each nation. The need to persuade younger generations without direct experience of war into accepting the national mythology was met through films and literature, Peter Weir’s film, Gallipoli being incredibly popular. Services were held at Gallipoli, with backpackers participating as part of their OE and ANZAC Day in the Dardanelles became a special, sacred tourist experience. The young began to flock to local services as well.

And then, with the Gallipoli centenary, Te Papa and Weta workshop produced a larger than life diorama and the ANZAC myth justified the NZ and Australian role in the South Pacific, with indigenous media given a major role to play. An unknown soldier, in NZ an unknown warrior, was brought home and entombed to complete the circle. All along, prime ministers have been keen leaders of the myth making and the sharing of the myth has covered over any potential disruption of fraternal relations between the two countries.

It is a very useful study of how national ideology is built, the investment required, the role of politicians and cultural workers and the violence at the core of the state.


The modern state requires three elements: sovereignty – the right of the ruler to do what they wish within the defined territory (that right being given through majority vote in a democracy); a bureaucracy which enforces the wishes of the sovereign power throughout the territory; and charisma: the willingness of the population to go along with it all through respecting/admiring or simply having to put up with the leadership – and in a democracy justified through the electoral process.

The violence of the state and sovereignty is disguised but nevertheless experienced as an irritation at the bureaucratic level, which can grow into anger. It is often an intricate business of command as we know from such formats as the Resource Management Act. On a lesser level, we have authorities such as the Teachers Council which looks after teacher registration.  It could simply check qualifications, citizenship, work record and criminal record and perhaps gauge the comparative merits of qualifications earned in other countries. But it has, instead, entered the business of defining the aspirational values of the profession. When there is the issue of people qualifying, working and then taking time out, this aspirational judgement proves problematic.

I know of a case of a teacher who qualified, taught for a decade then took time out to have a family. When she returns to the profession, there is a possibility she will need to spend a year retraining because it is assumed that serious aspirational changes will have occurred within the time she has been absent. Her previous experience of the training year was that it was largely useless in terms of preparing for the classroom. And aspiring to the aspirational is a mystifying process, a part of ‘nation building’, similar to militarism and increasingly invaded by digitalisation. The result will be a return to the profession with a layer of the bitterness and weariness which accompanies much dialogue with the bureaucracy.

This tendency toward aspirational nation building rather than more simply providing a public service is beginning to infect many areas of the bureaucracy e.g. the Charities Commission, Culture and Heritage. CNZ, MBIE, WINZ, DOC and reforms such as Three Waters… Where aspiration is required, as in Oranga Tamariki, the failure is profound. Add a growing remoteness and difficulty communicating with ‘the powers that be’ and the disenchantment with the state becomes explicable.


A more positive story of the role of the state and empire is provided by a beautifully composed and recently published history of NZ nurses, from 1880 to the end of our dominion status in 1950.[2]

During the Crimean War, Florence Nightingale established the role of the nurse as part of the health system. The vocation of caring for the sick and invalid became a profession and this model spread through the Empire. NZ played a very progressive role: the first country to have a system of nursing registration, the first country to have a nurse within the Department of Health looking after the service, at the forefront of establishing district and rural nursing services, and not doing too bad at establishing a Maori nursing service to provide care in remote indigenous communities. These nurses had to deal with the tension between traditional practices and modern medical practices with their emphasis on hygiene. They were supported by the Young Maori MPs keen to change traditional ways. There was a nursing magazine from early on and during the wars, NZ nurses were able to compare their skills with practitioners from other countries, which led to a reassurance that they were as good as anyone. Mainly middle class women, these early nurses were stalwart, hard working and articulate, some even calling to account slack doctors. This story is part of NZ being considered the social laboratory of the western world at the turn of the century. But the patriarchy nevertheless considered it necessary for them to retire upon marriage. As well, the service was not unionised during this period, with the vocational and professional mythology standing in the way. Nevertheless, with its oral history component providing personal accounts, this is a positive story of state organisation.

So, we have the state as a war mongering creator of identity via violence; the state as a mystifying bureaucracy and lastly, the state as an effective organiser of essential services, by providing the means for the people involved to do the organising. It’s relatively easy to choose between these options.

[1] Anzac Nations: The Legacy of Gallipoli in New Zealand and Australia, 1965-2015, by Rowan Light, OUP 2022.

[2] NZ Nurses Caring for our people 1880 to 1950 by Pamela Wood, OUP, 2022