An unequal matter

Dialogue page, The Australian, 20 September 2001

In the book of Paul Kelly’s excellent television survey of the Australian federal century, New Zealand rates just a handful of passing and insubstantial mentions and no index entry.
This is despite CER, the free trade arrangement which has locked the two economies together, and despite New Zealand membership for three and a-half decades of the ANZUS treaty.

Yet Kelly has written sensitively, sensibly and often about the place.

To New Zealanders this is a paradox. It goes beyond paradox when they see the word “Anzac” used in Australia as if the “NZ” is silent. To appropriate a shared tradition, New Zealanders think, is Australian arrogance.

Actually, it is Australian size.

Australia is New Zealand’s biggest export market, the next step up the international job promotion ladder, owner of wide swathes of its business, arbiter of much policy and a high benchmark against which to test sports skills. So important is Australia that Wyatt Creech, a former Deputy Prime Minister, has suggested designating a Minister for Australia.

New Zealand rates far lower to Australia. It is an occasional buddy in arms, as, critically, in East Timor (though more often a defence disappointment). It is a useful extension of the Australian consumer market (though hardly vital). It is an afterthought — and occasionally, as with the Ansett debacle, a nuisance or worse.

When New Zealanders think hard about New Zealand, Australia always comes into the frame. No television series on the broad sweep of New Zealand’s history could omit Australia. When Australians think hard about Australia New Zealand does not come into the frame. Kelly’s omission is no paradox.

Australians seem to see New Zealand as a quaint, economically insecure offshore Tasmania which should have joined the federation but inexplicably did not — and inexplicably continues not to. But ask around in Wellington and you are likely to be told that if New Zealand is to federate with anyone, it will take the United States.

Two conferences this year have addressed the topic; a third will next month. The tone has been that the two countries are drifting apart, not into bed.

That case is most commonly made on defence, most recently Helen Clark’s Labour-led government’s scrapping of the air force fighter wing. But it was the conservative National-led governments which cut defence spending by a third as a percentage of GDP during the 1990s.

The second obvious example is in a clutch of issues around migration. Though New Zealanders who live in Australia do better on average than native Australians and bring with them an education supplied by New Zealand taxpayers, the policy and popular focus is on “dole bludgers” — especially Maori and Pacific islanders. Rational cost-benefits arguments failed the test of Australian politics. New Zealand conceded in February the loss of automatic citizenship for its emigrants.

On the New Zealand side is a gripe about 78-year-old import ban on apples because of fireblight, which New Zealand’s science says is not a threat to Australian apples.

New Zealanders had their own Ansett New Zealand debacle in April when that airline, trading under a Qantas franchise and inherited from same Australian former owner as sold Ansett Australia to Air New Zealand, folded overnight, at a cost to jobs and businesses comparable with the Australian collapse. Yet there was no anti-Australian outrage similar to the vitriol from Australian newspapers and unions this past week.

Are we drifting apart? In at least two senses, no. The Warriors play in the NRL, Australians claim New Zealand film-makers. They illustrate two entwining societies. And the web of policy and administrative connections between the bureaucracies and politicians has spread wide and deep, drawing the two administrations close together.

But in at least three senses, yes. Try to buy a New Zealand novel in Australia or an Australian novel in New Zealand, even in Dymocks. New Zealand’s non Anglo-Celt population is mainly polynesian, Australia’s more south European and Asian. And the two countries do see the world differently.

This was best put by Hugh White, Australian Deputy Secretary of Defence, at a conference in Dunedin in July.

Since the 1930s, he said, Australia’s strategic focus has been on threats from Asia, while New Zealand, a continent away from Asia, has discounted those threats and put more focus on multilateral initiatives, such as the United Nations.

New Zealand has little sense of strategic vulnerability but is anxious about its economic viability. Australia is the other way round. “Same bed, different nightmares,” was how White put it. So White reckons neither country has properly understood the other. “It is time to take the hint,” White said of Clark’s defence decisions.

But does this amount to divorce? For much of the twentieth century the two countries barely spoke to each other and personal and business commerce was limited. Then from the 1970s the countries and societies draw closer together. Now there is some distancing — Australians too condescending, as the Evening Post put it this week, New Zealanders too snide about their big siblings.

Is it a permanent trend? Unlikely. More a phase in an evolving relationship.