Top of mind and proximate

Colin James’s comments at the launch of the New Zealand Australia Research Centre, 10 October 2008

1. A comparative history

Fifteen years ago I spent four weeks as the first New Zealand fellow at Cheryl Saunders’ Centre for Comparative Constitutional Studies at Melbourne University. Professor Saunders’ price for this privilege was an address. The topic I chose, to the mystification of her captive audience, was apposite to our purpose today.

I said:

“I want to suggest it is time for an inclusive or at least a comparative history of the two countries — time for a Manning Clark or Keith Sinclair of Australasia. It is time we knew what separates and binds us in our histories and our history — in which, of course, I include geography, society, culture and economy … I mean something that goes much further than relations between the two countries and treats each country as, in a sense, part of the other.” (1)

I suggested that, the better to be accepted in Australia, the history should be written in the larger country by an established though still young historian whose origins were in New Zealand but whose primary loyalties were Australian.

I had a twofold interest in such a history — benefit for myself as a journalist (a sort of contemporary historian) but also better policy, both trans-Tasman and domestic. An example I would now use would be that Australians might have wasted less energy on bluster and indignation over New Zealand’s anti-nuclear stance and related defence matters if someone in Canberra had inquired into New Zealand’s military and strategic history, as a puzzled, frustrated but ultimately understanding Hugh White eventually did, with the result that now those same energies are applied to working together.

This difference went far beyond defence. I noted in that 1993 address that Paul Kelly’s recent End of Certainty “drew me some comfortable parallels but also … illustrated some important differences. To read Manning Clark, or Geoffrey Blainey, or Russel Ward, or Richard White, or John Rickard, or John Thornhill, or Hugh Mackay gives me the same sense of recognition and disjunction.” Later, in a paper in 2001, I phrased this duality as being simultaneously foreign and family. (2)

The polite incomprehension of my audience made the point. Eight years later Paul Kelly’s book of his centenary of federation television series remade the point. He mentioned New Zealand a mere seven times, all in passing, three times in connection with Gallipoli, once in a footnote and once as a snide Paul Keating aside. His entire treatment of ANZUS (the Australia, New Zealand and United States treaty of military alliance) left the NZ silent; CER (the Closer Economic Relations free trade agreement) was not mentioned at all even though New Zealand was, and is, the foremost destination of Australian foreign investment and manufactured exports. Yet Kelly, in an earlier guise as editor-in-chief of The Australian newspaper, had appointed the Australian media’s first fulltime New Zealand correspondent. He judged New Zealand irrelevant to 100 years of Australian history.

2. Unnecessary misunderstandings

Kelly could make that misjudgment because actually for much of that 100 years the two colonies/dominions/countries had much less to do with each other than now: the relationship was more a triangular one with its apex in London or Washington. It didn’t help that New Zealand kept the bulk of its troops in Europe in the second world war when Australia wanted them in the Pacific theatre where its territory was under direct threat from the Japanese.

This changed with cheap jet travel, Britain’s shuffle into Europe and the rise of the United States and then Japan as trading partners for both countries. From the 1960s the two countries had to bother about each other at government-to-government level. At the pubs and clubs level, a New Zealand win at cricket and an Australian win at rugby union made the point.

But the long divorce left large holes in our memories of each other. We assumed we were family, perhaps with some prodigality on each side but essentially of the same stock. And we were family. But, as I suggested in my 2001 paper we were, and are, in fact as much foreign as family.

Here is how I put it in a paper to an Australian Strategic Policy Institute conference in 2006:

“New Zealand is profoundly different from Australia — in geology, climate, flora and fauna and its indigenous people. Those differences have shaped the way New Zealanders think. Australians and New Zealanders are foreigners.

“New Zealand is profoundly the same as Australia — in British colonisation and an Anglo-Celtic majority, the common law, Westminster politics and a rich European and British cultural heritage. Australians and New Zealanders are family.”(3)

This tension between foreign and family infuses and confuses the relationship.

Socially, culturally, administratively and economically, we are entwined — arguably more than any other two independent nation-states. Large numbers of New Zealanders, including Maori (Ngati Kanguru, itself a topic worthy of research), go to live in Australia and don’t find it much different except that wages and a raft of fiddly costs are much higher; they fit in easily and are for the most part readily accepted; many occupy high positions in business, the arts and culture, the media and administration. As a result a large number of New Zealand families live in both countries.

The two economies are deeply enmeshed and much of the government-to-government traffic, as Lianne Dalziel noted, is about the single economic market. We cooperate in a wide range of fields, from science to advanced university-level teaching of public administration. Our ministers sit on Australian councils of state and federal ministers; officials several levels down from the top deal directly with counterparts in Canberra or the state capitals. We are, in a sense, one country in two places.

My term for that in 1993 was that New Zealand was a “superstate”, operating in some ways as part of a shared space, in some ways on a par with the states and in some ways as the equal of the Commonwealth — though maybe, now that our GDP per capita is below Tasmania’s, perhaps “super” is a bit grandiose.

Yet, even if we are entwined, we are also separate. Few Australians have much grasp of our biculturalism, our “recognition of a shared land with title vested in two races”(4), which our language, rituals, politics and, more recently, our economy, reflect and which is rooting us more firmly here, in the Pacific, the homeland and origin of nearly a quarter of our people. We in New Zealand are increasingly, generation by generation, not just in the Pacific but of the Pacific. For Australia, though this is beginning to change, the Pacific is Melanesian, black and threatening, or at least a nuisance. To New Zealanders the Pacific is first and foremost Polynesian, brown and part of our extended family, the source of a large proportion of our population in two waves of migration 800 years apart. In my 2006 ASPI paper I summed it up thus: “Australia looks on the Pacific. New Zealand looks on the world from the Pacific.”

There are also differences of culture — humour, gender attitudes, competitiveness at sport, for example — which, though relatively small compared with those between most nations, do distinguish the two societies. Those cultural differences are also to be found in business. Some hard lessons have been learned: Ansett is an east-to-west example. In the other direction Australian and multinational companies’ have discovered that melding the New Zealand operation into the Australian one as if it is just another state doesn’t work as expected, so some have increased the New Zealand operation’s autonomy — National Australia Bank, owner of the Bank of New Zealand, and Unisys are notable examples.

This admixture of foreign and family, of difference and sameness underlines the value of a dedicated research programme. Of course, we understand each other exceptionally well. But we don’t understand each other as well as we presume.

3. It is an exceptionally busy relationship

Being so intertwined, a great deal goes on between us. We pinch a lot of each other’s ideas, laws and people.

We cooperate closely in defence and security. We haven’t fulfilled the early 1990s ambition of a real “closer defence relationship”. But the two countries’ forces are complementary — in equipment and in manner — and are reported to work well in Timor, the Solomons and elsewhere. Australia needs New Zealand in the South Pacific and on its borders. There is a high degree of common purpose, though there are also important differences, the result of Australia’s closer geographical proximity to Asia and its greater perception of threat to its territorial integrity, its sense of itself as a middle power and its recent history of very close alliance to the United States. If I am to guess where the big (post-Iraq) test of commonality of strategy and purpose will come, I pick West Papua.

Lianne Dalziel has detailed the wide-ranging single economic market agenda. I see SEM as a process rather than an endpoint, a continuous, though often uneven, dialogue designed to improve the business environment within both countries and between them by progressively harmonising, or overcoming differences in, the substance and administration of legislation and regulation — as, in fact, Australia is doing internally through its Council of Australian Governments process, into which the new government has injected a new and ambitious impetus, and in which New Zealand is partly involved. Federation is incomplete after 107 years; we should not expect quickly a perfectly seamless market across the Tasman border. There will be advances, periods of stasis and occasional retreats and oversights — the process demands constant vigilance to avert disharmonies. It is possible still that if the world goes bad the two countries might draw their economies apart, but that seems unlikely. And, logically, if the SEM process continues a decade or so yet we might reach the point of a common border, though there are for now deep differences over visas and differing biosecurity needs and focuses which keep that off the table.

One bulwark against a new drawing apart is the development of joint, or closely associated, institutions to widen the pools of expertise on which both countries draw. The Australia New Zealand School of Government is an intriguing innovation which could point the way to imaginative educational cooperation. There is potential for extensive scientific cooperation. We might in time jointly stage world cultural and sporting events.

Our competition and financial watchdogs cooperate and increasingly our courts do, too, despite jurisdictional jealousies and niceties. We jointly manage food standards. At some point the Parliament here will come to its senses and legislate for the Joint Therapeutic Goods Agency. Logically, we will join forces in standards-setting and oversight in other highly technical fields. And if we get used to that sort of supranational institution over the next 10 or 15 years, that could make it easier to contemplate a joint Reserve Bank if the SEM process evolves towards a common border.

Will we draw closer together politically? The answer is: “Why bother?” We have done not too badly over the past 25 years at achieving many of the benefits of being a single nation-state while remaining two distinct states. So, short of a disaster, we are unlikely to marry formally when we can live de facto. In any case, why would anyone want to join a federation that would far more sensible be a single nation-state.

4. And remember: there is a wider world

Twenty five years ago when CER was being negotiated there was much talk that it must not just be focused on bilateral matters but also be outward-looking, the springboard for greater international competitiveness and stronger trade links. That has not been carried through — though this year a joint trade deal has been done with ASEAN and Australia seems ready at last to join in the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership, now that the United States has become interested. Australia intended the Therapeutic Products Agency to be a standards-setter for other countries, particularly in south-east Asia.

The fact is that Australia, for all its chest-puffing, is actually small beer. New Zealand is smaller beer. Both are increasingly in the east Asian, and particularly Chinese, sphere of influence, economically, demographically, strategically and politically. It makes great sense to coordinate our responses.

And that highlights one last point I want to make.

Australia is often described as New Zealand’s most important external relationship. That this is not reciprocated does not gainsay it and for the great majority of New Zealand citizens and for the state it is a truism that Australia is both proximate and top of mind.

But in Mangere, is it Australia that is most proximate and top of mind of other countries? Or is it Samoa? In Howick is Australia top of mind or is China?

There’s that paradox again: foreign as well as family. But it is a paradox we seem able comfortably to live with. And over time there will be Samoan families and Chinese families who are both Australian and New Zealand and thus for whom Australia may well be proximate and top of mind.

Which makes the point that the Australian connection is fluid and evolving, as well as straightforward and paradoxical. It is, in short, rich pickings for researchers.


1. James, Colin, “So near and yet so far — the case for a comparative history”, inaugural address, Australia and New Zealand Foundation fellowship, Centre for Comparative Constitutional Studies, Melbourne University, 5 May 1993, typescript in writer’s files

2. James, Colin, “An ethnic accident”, paper presented at a Stout Centre/Institute of Policy Studies conference on Australia-New Zealand, 27 October 2001 archived at

3. James, Colin, “From the Pacific. A New Zealand Perspective on Australia’s Strategic role”, paper at the Australasian Strategic Policy Institute Global Forces conference, 26-27 September 2006

4. James, “So near and yet so far, op cit