From the late 1960s, New Zealand’s highly regulated economy began to falter. With exchange and interest rates and much else fixed by the government, Wellington became a byword for red tape. In the 1984 election the regulatory National government was swept from power by a Labour Party landslide. A period of rapid reform followed.
Pledging to make New Zealand more efficient and competitive, the government deregulated the economy, reduced trade barriers and cut its own workforce. These measures weakened Wellington’s economy. Companies had less need to be close to central government, and many moved their head offices to Auckland – now New Zealand’s commercial and financial capital.
Lay-offs and unemployment
Reduced import tariffs made the car assembly industry in the Hutt Valley and Porirua uneconomic, and the plants closed. Some inefficient factories – such as Petone’s extensive Gear meatworks – also closed. There were large-scale redundancies in the public sector, and unemployment in Wellington soared.
The economy revives: 1990s onwards
During the 1990s Wellington overcame its setbacks, branching into service-based, ‘creative’ industries such as film, information technology, biotechnology and design.
Today the region’s economy is driven by the service sector. Part of this change is due to renewed growth in the public sector. In 2013 the government employed 31,800 people (14% of the region’s total workforce). This has driven growth in the city’s commercial property market, which is among New Zealand’s strongest.
The cultural capital
With numerous cultural venues and events, including the successful biennial International Festival of the Arts (established in 1984), the city promoted itself as New Zealand’s cultural capital. Its reputation was boosted by the 1998 opening of the state-funded Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, on a revitalised waterfront. This and other facilities, including a sports stadium on the waterfront which opened in 2000, attract a growing number of visitors.
During the 1990s many new apartments were built in the heart of the city, and the liquor laws were liberalised. Once virtually deserted at night and at weekends, by the early 2000s Courtenay Place – the city’s entertainment district – was teeming with life.
In 1990, the upbeat slogan ‘Absolutely Positively Wellington’ reflected the city’s new confidence as the ‘capital of the arts’. Two years later the phrase was made official. The success of film-maker Peter Jackson’s Lord of the rings trilogy led to a modified version –‘Absolutely Creatively Wellington’.
The global city
The people on the street also changed. For a long time, most Wellingtonians were of British descent, but by the 21st century the population was more diverse. As well as significant Māori and Pacific Island communities, there was a growing Asian presence. Boosting the existing community were migrants from China, India, South Korea, Cambodia and Vietnam. Groups of Somali refugees arrived in the city from the 1990s.
In the 21st century the region had recovered from the doldrums of the 1980s. Even so, Wellington remains vulnerable to cuts in government employment, and the departure of businesses and workers. Growth strategies focus on the region’s communications network and its intellectual and creative potential.