Time to reflect on the A(nz)ac phenomenon

It’s Anzac Day, a day to reflect on the nation-shaping event we shared with Australia at Gallipoli, We might also reflect on the disappearing “NZ” in Anzac.

This is centenary year of Australia’s federation of its six colonies, now states. An illuminating description of that century has been running on the ABC television, written by Paul Kelly, doyen of Australian political commentators.

Kelly, now international editor of The Australian newspaper, knows New Zealand and visits regularly. As the paper’s editor-in-chief in the 1990s, he appointed its first fulltime Wellington correspondent.

But his ABC series is deafeningly quiet on this country. In the companion book (100 Years: The Australian Story, ABC Books) New Zealand is absent from the index.

I counted only three references, in parentheses on tariffs, a disparaging Paul Keating aside and as an element of British policy. In an excellent chapter on Australia’s international and defence relations, New Zealand is not mentioned once in its own right — not even in relation to the all-important Anzus three-way treaty with the United States. Nor is CER, our far-reaching free trade agreement.

New Zealand, it seems, is irrelevant in a century of Australia’s history, even to a sympathetic analyst.

That is despite the parallel course of much of the two countries’ social and political history in that century.

It is despite the trans-Tasman traffic of ideas, including one of the most potent in early federal history, industrial conciliation and arbitration, pioneered here.

It is despite frequent military cooperation, free trade since 1983 and deep social intertwining over the past 30 years. It is despite the fact that, under Australia’s constitution, New Zealand was given and still has the opportunity to join the federation.

To Australians the “nz” in Anzac is a consonantal hiccup in a name to which they claim proprietory rights.

We count in Canberra and the state capitals not as an opportunity but as, at best, a requisite afterthought and, more often, a niggling nuisance.

It doesn’t help that after 1984 our governments in effect lower-cased the first “A” in Anzac and took the “nz” out of Anzus by running down defence capacity. Partly as a result, we have few buddies in the Australian cabinet these days to stick up for us on sticky issues.

That showed in the refusal to offset against the costs of welfare for some expatriate Kiwis the greater gains to Australia in supply of hard-working, tax-paying New Zealand-educated workers and professionals (and actors and singers and movie-makers). In February Helen Clark had to give away the long-held right of Australian citizenship.

Of course, there have been many differences in our histories. From Gallipoli to the mid-1960s we ran on separate, even if parallel, tracks, talking to London far more than to each other.

And, of course, we repay the compliment in much of our media and in our daily thinking by treating Australia more as if were just another, if close, foreign country, than as the most pervasively important relationship to us our politicians say it is. Even the Australian Dymocks book chain here carries little Australian stock.

The business world thinks differently. No New Zealand business can grow past a certain size without expanding into Australia and long before that stage most are selling there. The two economies are very deeply integrated, demanding constant efforts by politicians and bureaucrats here to harmonise laws.

Many bureaucrats are in fact in close and frequent contact with counterparts in Canberra and the states. Many of our ministers attend federal-state ministerial portfolio councils, which are sometimes even held in New Zealand.

So the linkages are myriad. Food safety is administered by a joint body and therapeutics may get a similar regime. We are daily tightening our official relationship.

But it is monstrously lopsided.

National’s Wyatt Creech argues New Zealand should appoint a Minister for Australia, to nurture the relationship and keep tabs on what is of special interest to us. If we don’t do something like that to sharpen the focus, Mr Creech argues, the distance, already growing, will grow still more.

Perhaps he has a point this A(nz)ac day.