This speech was delivered to Auckland Grammar students, family, Old Boys, and staff on ANZAC Day 2024 by David Seymour ’97, MP for Epsom.

Thank you Mr O’Connor and this great school for inviting me to give this address. It’s a great honour to speak here on this day, as those who serve, have served and sacrificed are among us and watch over us.

I thank the school also because its teachers, some of them still here, gave me the skills to write such a speech. That said, any errors are my own so you shouldn’t blame them if you disagree or don’t like it.

Past addresses have been exceptional. For example, my former colleague Chris Finlayson’s dissertation on the role of dissent. He meditated on parallels between World War One conscientious objection and contemporary dissent against the then Government’s COVID-19 response. I can only hope to present something comparable.

Auckland Grammar is not an outwardly militaristic school, but it’s difficult to miss the influence of military ethos from the inside. The bell rings, students and guests stand in unison. Only the slam of the Headmaster’s door and the prayer break the silence before everyone is seated. Students are called by last names, line up neatly outside the class, and are expected to wear their uniforms with pride and their socks pulled up at all times.

Perhaps that’s because, for better or worse, the school’s formative years were dominated by war. Beside the stage is a small memorial to those lost in the Boer war, before Grammar stood at this site. Shortly after it moved here to Mountain Road, in 1916, it was necessary to construct a memorial to those old boys and teachers lost in the First World War in front of the Great Hall.

Less than thirty years passed before the wall surrounding that memorial was needed to record the names of more Grammar men lost in an even bigger conflagration. In the decades that followed, the teaching staff was filled with veterans who brought back the horrid lessons of war.

Many of us have family stories. My great grandfather Walter Faithfull was decorated in World War I for catching German grenades and throwing them back before they detonated. A very early example of my family saving money for the taxpayer. It’s good to see so many wearing medals on their right breast to remember how war touched their family each year.

Walter was left angry by the war, marching his children up and down the family hallway. We might sometimes think that mental health is a modern concern, but the scars of war were often on the mind even a century ago. We also think of the past as a harsher time with little sympathy to those facing mental health challenges. One tragic story of an old boy sent to war shows neither of those things are true.

Grammar Old Boy and Teacher Bombardier Richard Kinloch, 1909, was one such victim. Mr Kinloch’s name is recorded on the Roll of Honour even though he died two years after the war.

He distinguished himself as a student. He came to Grammar after winning a District Scholarship, and left with a University Entrance Scholarship, going on to study law at the then Auckland University College. In his final year he helped the school win the Natal Shield, a rifle shooting competition for high school students.

Bombardier Kinloch enlisted when he turned 20, in 1916. After training he arrived in England in January 1917, and France that March. He served at Passchendaele and witnessed the horror of Bellevue Spur. Although physically unharmed, he carried deep scars of the mind. The star pupil returned to this school where he was made an Assistant Master. The school archive records that he was shown “remarkable compassion by offering him time off, limited hours and much personal support.”

Unfortunately, that help was too little and the trauma too much. He took his own life in May 1920. The Herald recorded his passing as ‘A Victim of the War,’ and his name was added to the roll of honour outside.

As we remember those who served and sacrificed, it is worth remembering the values they practiced. Bravery and sacrifice, yes, but also compassion and pragmatism. While it’s easy for us to lambast the futility of World War I with over a century of hindsight, they showed unity of purpose in protecting our fledgling nation.

When they returned from World War II, they were determined to enshrine universal human rights. They wanted to create a world where each human being was alike in dignity, never again subject to the inhuman prejudice and subjugation that went with that war.

Our then Prime Minister Peter Fraser was instrumental in founding the United Nations. Whatever people may think of the institution today, it was founded on a Universal Declaration of Human Rights that said “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood,” and “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

We all benefit from their sacrifices, and those of veterans since, and those serving in the New Zealand Defence Force today. We can also use the poignant times in history to ask ourselves how our national project is living up to the hopes of those who fought for it.

People who measure these things tell us that, 104 years after Bombardier Kinlock passed, our faith in our national project is at a low ebb. This is not a lament, because I suspect these things run in cycles, but here’s what they’re saying.

Ipsos, a French polling company, has run an annual survey of populist sentiment in various countries since 2016. This year they included New Zealanders in their survey, and their findings sadly pierce our beliefs about New Zealand exceptionalism.

60 per cent said New Zealand is in decline, against an all-country average of 58. Since it’s ANZAC day, I should mention the same figure in Australia is a significantly healthier 48 per cent. Meanwhile, 58 per cent of New Zealanders agreed the country is ‘broken’. That’s slightly better than the U.S. at 60 and slightly worse than the all-country average of 57.

Before New Zealand was incorporated into the survey, most countries were in decline on most measures. It’s likely New Zealand figures have been declining, too, we’re on the low side of a bad track.

Further figures challenge our self-image that we are a kinder, gentler village-like society. For example, 54 per cent say we need a “strong leader willing to break the rules,” not very reassuring stuff if you fought for democracy.

The figures go on from other surveys. 64 per cent say the country is more divided than five years ago, versus 16 per cent saying we are more united. Before COVID-19 hit, 53 per cent trusted media, today it is only 33. Before you think I’m lecturing, I know politicians and journalists tend to track each other in these figures. It seems we exist to make Lawyers and used car salesmen feel better, but the news is bad for everyone.

What are some of the reasons for this trend? Well, here’s two, one being the declining diversity of thought in institutions, and the other being the post-modern trend of identity politics.

A clue to this decline in unity and trust might be found in a story I heard from someone last week. He is involved in several community groups around their city. Because of some of the divisive topics in the world today, he lives multiple lives. He feels he can’t talk about one group in the company of another, or in one case even reveal they were involved in one group to another.

I suspect that such a person is rare, many of us don’t even cross the divides in belief that separate New Zealanders. People who conduct market research, focus groups tell me that their job has gotten harder in recent years because the participants are more cautious about sharing their opinions. Hard luck if your business is public opinion research, but the wider problem is we talk to each other less about hard topics.

Someone who’s studied this trend more scientifically is the American moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who’s documented the homogeneity of belief amongst university staff. He reasons that institutions reach a tipping point where people become hesitant to express a view contrary to the overwhelming majority. In academia that’s deadly to inquiry, and there’s no reason to think it’s limited to American universities.

There is less research on New Zealand institutions, but one might be found in the political views of our media. A survey of New Zealand journalists last year found that 81 per cent of journalists self-identify as having left wing political views, versus 15 per cent with right wing views. On the face of it, such homogeneity of belief cannot be good for dissenting against the norm. Suppressing those who challenge the orthodoxy might explain why trust in media fell so precipitously through the COVID period.

Of course there will be those who point out most organisations are more diverse than ever today. They’re right, when it comes to demographics, and that’s obviously worth celebrating. They’re also right that demographic diversity should bring diversity of thought, but they’re not the same thing.

The intellectual trend of post-modernism makes diversity of thought harder regardless of who’s in the room. It’s a belief system that tells us there is no objective reality. Instead, each person constructs a subjective world for themselves.

Then your beliefs are just a product of your “lived experience,” or pre-determined by your culture. That’s why people open their opinions with “as an a, b, c type of person,” or “writing from an x,y,z perspective.” In this world, to attack a person’s belief is not just that, it is to attack a person’s identity and even their value as a person. As another person summed up for me once, “this is supposed to be a time of enlightenment, but you have to walk on eggshells all the time.”

The result is a world where people can’t talk to each other. There is no common project of understanding the world as it is. Instead, we are forced to reconcile competing versions of the world without the common ground of objective reality. That makes for a divided world.

It’s harder to imagine taking on a collective struggle like defeating Nazism or defending our free land without that commitment to universal humanity and common objective reality.

If I’m right that homogenous thought in institutions thanks to post modernism has made it harder for people to share their views and deadened the life of professions and organisations alike, then we have a challenge living up to the ideals of the Universal Declaration. We also have an idea of what it would take to reverse the trend.

It's ok to hear unpopular views in our workplace, school or club. The criticism of an idea is not a criticism of a person. Ideas come and go. The great thing about being human is that we’re free to pick them up, try them out, and discard the ones we don’t like.

It helps to believe that the world is real, not constructed, and we are all equal; thinking and valuing beings able to make up our mind about it. That’s a much better epistemological vision than believing there is no real world, no common ground, just a range of competing views tied to identity.

This school’s founding values point us in the right direction. “For persons of all races and classes who may inhabit this colony,” and “per angusta, ad augusta.” In those founding words are the foundations of a belief that any student, no matter their background, can study the world and achieve excellence.

The people we remember today were kind, sympathetic, and had great hopes for a world of universal humanity. One where we join hands to make progress understanding the wonders of the natural world to improve human welfare. The best way to remember them is to cherish and live by those values they lived, fought for, and recorded at the war’s end.

Lest we forget.

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