An ethnic accident

Colin James’s paper to Stout Centre/IPS conference on Australia-New Zealand, 27 October 2001

This is the tabloid slot. After two days of erudition, a journalist — and did not Professor Mackay admonish us on Thursday evening that nothing disturbs the “enduring stability” of the Australasian relationship except the “popular” press? I stray into discord at my peril.

I am also at the disadvantage, coming near the end of the conference and after two emi-nent commentators in this session, of having little new to say and, moreover, having heard much that has challenged or undermined in advance what little new — and even old — I might have said.

So I shall abandon the course I alleged to the programme compilers I would take. I shall remake my topic as “An ethnic accident”.

I want to suggest that any conference held 100 years ago and also any conference held this year is held in a bubble — the bubble of an ethnic accident. It is a convenient bubble and owes something to the “end of history” Allan Behm mused on yesterday. We in these two countries live in democratic capitalist societies and share values both between us and with the related societies of North America and Europe — but, as September 11 rudely reminded us, share them with no other society except at best in attenuated form.

Fast rewind 200 years back from today. Australia was aboriginal, New Zealand polynesian. They were separated by geology; by flora and fauna; by climate; and by geography — Australia large, continental and a step from Asia, New Zealand small, archipelagic and in the South Pacific.

That separation was not by a ditch but by a wide sea, almost an ocean. There was no Australasia in 1787, except in antipodean — that is, European — imaginations. There was nothing in common, nothing at all. We are, in our foundations, deeply different.

Fast forward 100 years from today, through this century of large migrations and interminglings. It seems probable to me that these two empty and inviting outposts, or at least this one, will be Asian, mainly Chinese — by which I mean in the Chinese sphere of economic influence, with very substantial numbers of ethnic Chinese here, many times the present tiny proportion. For the first half of this century Chinese, both overseas and on the mainland, will have more than enough to excite them building the Chinese home nation and economy. But what then? In the second half of this century that power and energy will surely turn outwards. The sporadic economic colonisation we have already seen in the past decade or two will likely re-accelerate. Chinese save, invest and work hard; ethnic Europeans spend, borrow and work to rule. Unless there is a radical change of values on both sides of the equation, there will be no contest. Tampa is a harbinger, Howard an early Canute.

If you think that prospect far-fetched, my next comment is not. Aotearoa will be much more polynesian than now in 100 years, even in the 30-year timeframe Lyndal McLean enjoined us last night to think in. This will profoundly change social organisation and attitudes here and is already doing so. Possibly Enlightenment values of democratic capitalism will survive that sea-change unscathed — but I think not. Polynesian values, at least as they are expressed by the most vocal Maori, are animist, not judaeo-christian. Even allowing for a relatively high degree of cross-cultural identification (as charted by Sir Tipene O’Regan yesterday), reaching an accommodation between those two disjoined worldviews will test tolerance and goodwill on both sides.

And in 30 years, despite Professor Kalantzis’s misgivings about current policy, it seems logical from this side of the Tasman that the changing mix of Australia’s population will play some part in changing the mindset there. Maybe Professor Kalantzis’s fears will be realised: assimilation will extinguish all differences except in the names. But even so, the two countries’ social compositions will diverge, not converge.

What I want to suggest is that it is not what divides us that is superficial, as Professor Mackay seemed to me to be saying, but what unites us. The unity is in the superstructure, not the foundations, and superstructures can be readily remade. Only by understanding that, I suggest, can we put this relationship on a truly enduring footing.

At foundation level, let me restate, we are divided by geology, by indigenous flora and fauna, by climate, by geography and by ethnic makeup.

What binds us is the ethnic accident — the coincidental colonisation of these two wildly different places (and peoples) by the British. The shared values across the Tasman, of which much has been made at this conference, owe almost everything to that colonisation. The word “ditch”, British slang for the English Channel (40 kilometres wide at its narrowest point) to describe the Tasman Sea (2000 kilometres wide), to suggest we really are cheek-by-jowl neighbours neatly encapsulates that.

If in this bubble there is much more that unites us than divides us — and there is — that is the legacy of Britain, the product and buttress of the ethnic accident. There is also more that unites both of us with Britain than divides us from Britain.

Except that “us” is not all of us. The British dimension is about threequarters of us in each case. That is less than it was a generation ago and more than it will be a generation hence. My guess is that as the generations pass, Australia and New Zealand will drift apart, in culture, in values and in fact.

But let’s say I am wrong. Let’s assume the minority accepts the overwhelming moral, civil, social and intellectual superiority of democratic capitalism, that the shared values continue to be shared. This is not out of the question: though many Maori may express a romanticised animism, many other Maori eat McDonalds (ugh!), play rugby league and netball, buy managed funds and live the atomised lives of the best of British; there is no conclusive reason Chinese will remain confucian when tempted by the sirens of consumer capitalism.

But even on this assumption about the future of our cultures, there remain enough divisions to rule out federation.

I don’t mean just “sovereignty”, a concept which Helen Clark intriguingly insisted was at the centre of her decision in February to give away New Zealanders’ privilege of automatic citizenship in Australia. Sovereignty — or at least nationalism — is important to enough New Zealanders to rule out federation, at least in foreseeable circumstances.

Let me illustrate the differences by supposing New Zealand had joined the federation.

First, defence policy would have been decided in Canberra. There would have been no Anzac corps, just an Australian force. New Zealand would have fought in the Pacific, not in Italy, in the second world war. New Zealanders would have been conscripted to fight in Vietnam in the 1960s. New Zealanders would be paying more tax for armed forces and their equipment.

And Australians have appropriated “Anzac” anyway to mean “Australian”. As I noted in a column on Anzac day this year: 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.

Second, trade policy would have been decided in Canberra, with higher protection in the 1930s (and an even worse suffering in the depression) and lower protection in the 1970s and so less need to go cold turkey in the 1980s.

Third, tax policy would have been mostly decided in Canberra, with limited revenue sources left to Wellington. New Zealand would probably not have been able to develop the world’s first comprehensive welfare state. Certainly, we would never have had the Economic Stabilisation Act, which gave governments mind-boggling powers of fiat over the economy.

Fourth, migration and race policy would have been decided in Canberra. There would have been latitude for adjustments and modifications. But we would have had a tougher anti-Asian regime from 1901, far more southern Europeans in the 1950s and, judging by the pressure from Phil Ruddock over the past year or two, probably more restrictions on Pacific island immigrants.

Fifth, the shape of the constitution would have been decided by the continental majority and the High Court in Canberra. That might have cramped our options in dealing with claims of breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi (and probably ruled out some of the claims based on “taonga” which are, in any case, highly controversial) though for the most part we could, as a state, have found a way to make reparations (though that, as Sir Tipene O’Regan said yesterday, does not constitute restitution on its own, because mana as well as money is involved). Certainly, we could not state, as we do of our tiny slice of sovereignty, that the treaty is the founding document of the nation and fountainhead of the constitution (though not, as some mistakenly claim, the constitution).

Sixth, Patrick White would have been one of ours, Katherine Mansfield one of Australia’s. We would have shared Graeme Murphy and Douglas Wright. We would have Crocodile Dundee and Australia The Piano. New Zealand would, by association, have had far more Olympic gold medals. New Zealanders wouldn’t have expended so much energy in contest with superior Australian sportspeople and wearisomely tried in all manner of arenas, from wine to business, to prove the equal or better of Australians. “Look at me,” New Zealanders keep saying to their cousins — who have more interesting places to look or just don’t see the point in comparisons.

Personally, I would have been little, if at all, fussed about any of that — with one exception, the non-accommodation of biculturalism, to which I will come later. I like Australians and Australia — a lot. I would even now, with the same caveat, be comfortable with federation. A moderate to fair number of New Zealanders, judging by opinion poll readings and the readiness of around half a million to migrate westwards and readily assimilate (as Southlanders once did into Auckland), would share my relaxed attitude. Certainly, it would make David Goddard’s job a lot more straightforward.

But the majority here does not share my relaxed attitude. We would have chafed. We would chafe.

This seems to faintly puzzle Australians, who seem to me never quite to have understood why we didn’t federate in 1900. Surely, as Bob Catley wrote earlier this year, federation is this country’s only hope of economic salvation? And even if not that, it seems to me most Australians would agreed with Paul Kelly, reviewing Catley’s book in his column in April, that federation is unfinished business.

But it isn’t. Politicians are of course opposed: no more “significant pull-asides” by United States Presidents (unless by virtue of winning high office in Canberra). But there are some real reasons.

First — and here I must defer to Peter Lloyd but I would need more argument to be convinced — I don’t think there would be automatic economic improvement. There would be some advantageous fiscal transfer, which would lift incomes, but no magic bullet to lift productivity growth. South Australians and Tasmanians put the lie to that. And in any case, if merely hitching ourselves to someone else’s wagon made us run faster, we would be much better off as the fifty-first state than as the seventh.

Second, we have been able to extract most of the value of statehood without federating and we should be able to get a bit more yet. I agree with Brian Galligan that we have been able already to invent a number of constitutional mechanisms to achieve practical and mutually beneficial ends and there is no reason we can’t continue in that vein. Moreover, there is value to Australia, too: among its principle motivations in entering into CER, as conveyed to me by the then Deputy Prime Minister Doug Anthony, was to ensure New Zealand did not become an economic basket case, destabilise its eastern flank and distract it from more important business elsewhere. (This, I think, is the extent of Australia’s “Pacific” dimension; it is on the edge of, not in, the Pacific as is Aotearoa.)

And, third, as I said before, we are different. And that difference is not just in the foun-dations; it is also in the superstructure. A partial selection:

* Our strategic focus is different (and has been for 70 years and maybe longer): the “distance of tyranny” plays a big role here. Enough has been said about that already.

* Our economy is geared only 20% to Australia, not 80%-plus as Canada’s and Mexico’s are with the United States — and they are distinct nations with very distinctive ways of doing things.

* Our business culture is different. Each year I sit in on a session in Australia in which chief executives who have operations in this country chew over this phenomenon. Not only do New Zealand businesses fail — and I have to add succeed — in Australia; Australian businesses fail here.

* We are greener. We had the world’s first nationwide green party. Our anti-nuclear policy is fully understandable only by first understanding that greenness. So is our prophylactic attitude to genetic modification.

* We have the post-colonial responsibilities of empire towards our Pacific peoples and now they are a fast-growing part of the population.

* And, to return to the foundation level, we are bicultural. This is not easy to understand if you haven’t experienced it and I could spend the rest of this session attempting an explanation. Briefly, I see multiculturalism as acceptance that people of minority cultures might maintain their customs, ceremonies and language and that the state might even help them do that. Biculturalism, by contrast, acknowledges that two cultures stand side by side as equals and command mutual recognition and respect. Glacially, but definitely, this country is going bicultural.

Australia could not, I think, comprehend or accommodate biculturalism. That is, for now and for a good while to come at least, a conclusive bar to federation.

So where does that leave us? With Terence O’Brien’s paradox: closeness but distance.

First, the closeness. Since jet travel and superfast electronic communications, the two societies and economies have been intertwining. This is an organic, natural and sensible phenomenon for two ex-British ethnic relatives, accelerated by the neoliberal tide.

People move easily between the two societies; the Warriors play in the Australian league, Australia adopts successful singers, actors and film-makers as its own. Business treats the two markets as one and gradually, as we heard this morning, the laws and administrative mechanisms are being synchronised, though progress is very slow where it is more an issue for New Zealand than Australian businesses. We have one supranational body, on food safety, which enables both countries to spread scarce resources and smoothes business; more such bodies are likely and, who knows, Arthur Grimes might get his common currency (though the greenback would surely be better). At quite low levels in the bureaucracies there is pick-up-the-phone contact between Wellington and Canberra and some state capitals.

We are in each other’s pocket more than any two other independent states. That is a truism. The ethnic accident has great binding power yet.

But within that envelope, there is asymmetry.

This was graphically demonstrated in Paul Kelly’s book of his excellent television series on the century of federation. Kelly has long taken an interest in this country, appointing The Australian newspaper’s first fulltime correspondent and himself periodically visiting and writing about New Zealand. Yet in his book Kelly mentioned New Zealand a total of seven times, three of those in connection with Gallipoli and all seven just fleeting mentions, some of them no more than asides, one a footnote. New Zealand is not mentioned in the context of Anzus; CER is not mentioned at all.

The message, from this writer who is knowledgeable and sympathetic to New Zealand, is clear: when Australia thinks about itself, New Zealand doesn’t figure. When New Zealand thinks about itself, it cannot ignore Australia. No twentieth-century history of New Zealand could be written without Australia figuring.

Put it another way: Australia is New Zealand’s most important relationship; for Australia the most important relationship is with the United States. Australia’s economic strategy looks north and north-east; New Zealand is a mature and relatively small market. Australia is New Zealand’s biggest market.

As far back as 1978, Robin and Alan Burnett laid out the consequence of asymmetry: “Almost every aspect of the Australia-New Zealand relationship is important to New Zealand but the reverse is not the case´┐Ż It is likely that the onus will always be on New Zealand to take the policy initiatives, to be skilful in its diplomacy in Canberra and the state capitals and to be persistent and flexible in negotiation.”

If you doubt this, ask Canada and Mexico. They both say they must work hard to get items on to the agenda in Washington and keep them on the agenda. That means doing things the United States wants (Canada is compliant on defence issues, for example) and not doing things the United States does not want done.

It also means there are consequences for a smaller partner of not doing things the larger partner wants and doing things the larger partner does not want, whereas in reverse the consequences are small or zero for unilateral actions by the larger partner — and this year has produced quite a crop of such unilaterals by Australia. Sure we can assert our “sovereignty”, as Helen Clark has done in defence. But it does affect attitudes in Canberra where we need maximum goodwill to extract concessions and agreements.

Attitudes are generally benign and polite, both ways and the “popular press” does exaggerate incidents of tension. But, as Thomas Jefferson wrote a quarter of a millennium ago: “We have seldom seen neighbourhood affection among nations. The reverse is almost the universal truth.” We seem recently to have been taking this to heart.

Except for some points of admiration like pinot noir and yachts, Australians do look down on this country, at best with indifference, perplexity or sadness but, as the collapse of Ansett laid bare, at worst in contempt and with abuse, reaching up to the highest levels. In reverse, Australians report an increasingly prevalent inferiority-complex sniggering from New Zealanders that is at best childish and sometimes racist.

I think these are not good-humoured banter nor mere tiffs amid enduring stability. While the continuing closeness is undeniable and in the short term Professor Mackay was right, I think these attitudes are harbingers of deeper differences to come. I think we are now within 50 years of the drawing aside of the veil the ethnic accident laid over the deep differences I described at the outset. And, while those differences do not preclude a continued complex and intertwined relationship, over time, as this country becomes more Pacific, the relationship will change.

Unlike Lance Beath, I think Hugh White was right and that his analysis can be widened to the whole relationship; his paper at the Otago Foreign Policy School was a seminal contribution to a re-examination of this relationship and should be widely read. And I also think his admonition correct, that the sooner we own up realistically to the differences, the sooner we can we can get the relationship on to a genuinely durable footing, in anticipation of the changes to come. We might make a start by changing the ritualistic incantation from “We have our differences, but…” to “We have our differences and…”

We are now at least as much foreign as family. And the direction is clear.