On this side of the Tasman at least, many still believe that New Zealand and Australia are joined at the hip. Perhaps it's time for a reality check. By Paul Little
Brothers in arms. Best of frenemies. Cousins. Neighbours. The Australian-New Zealand relationship is often cited as a fine example of nation-to-nation bonding, especially on Anzac Day. But how much do we have in common, really?
At the time six colonies joined together to become the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901, it had been suggested that New Zealand should also join the club. But in Wellington, a 10-man royal commission decided against the move, expressing in orotund prose its view that "merely for the doubtful prospect of further trade with the Commonwealth of Australia … New Zealand should not sacrifice her independence as a separate colony".
This established a pattern of on-again off-again enthusiasm, which has distinguished the relationship ever since. It was strengthened some 14 years later when soldiers from both countries combined to form the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, which landed at Gallipoli on April 25, an engagement in which 8141 Australians and 2779 New Zealanders died.
The two countries have many other things in common. In both cases, an inhabited nation was colonised by forces from Britain; both have Indigenous populations with strong cultures of their own; both have an abundance of natural resources; British culture was imported wholesale and only slowly adapted in each; both still pay fealty to a sovereign on the other side of the planet; unlike many neighbouring countries, both speak the same language; our populations are clustered around our coastlines. As well, Auckland is a lot closer to Sydney than Perth is. But each country has taken those traditions and moulded them in different ways, without paying much attention to how far we have drifted apart in the process.
"Is that what the NZ in Anzac stands for?" an astonished Australian once asked Tim Woodhouse, when told the shocking truth.
Woodhouse is a film editor, raised in Sydney but resident in NZ for 30-plus years. He is married to writer Stephanie Johnson, who was born and raised in Auckland. The two met in Sydney and their transtasman relationship encapsulates a lot of the complications between the two countries while giving them complementary perspectives on each other's homelands.
"When Steph and I got together in the mid-80s, I would often go to parties in Sydney – my own home town – and be the only Australian there. And when we came to New Zealand at the end of '89, it was just like changing suburbs."
Johnson thought she had made a big mistake when the pair moved back here: "For a long time I had a sense of another life that was going on in Australia without me."
This hints at the notion that things in Australia are bigger and better than they are here. It's a view held by many New Zealanders, and even more Australians.
"I was desperate to go back to Australia for about four years," says Johnson. "I was miserable. But Tim and I have been glad that we've been here for more than 30 years. I think it's very important to live close to your roots. And my family have been in New Zealand since the 1840s."
Richard Walsh has played a major role in print media in Australia and New Zealand for more than 50 years. Currently a consultant publisher at Allen & Unwin, he previously ran ACP Magazines in both countries. He would agree that the general Australian attitude to New Zealand could be described as benevolent obliviousness. But that doesn't mean we're special.
"It's a weakness in Australia," says Walsh, "not only in our relationship with New Zealand but our relationship with New Guinea and our relationship with the Pacific region in general, that we aren't able to rouse within ourselves a great interest. It's insularity more than arrogance, and let's be brutally frank, it's not entirely unrelated to the realities of the world. Australia is much more engaged with the international world than New Zealand is."
Robert Ayson, a professor of strategic studies at Victoria University of Wellington, wonders if the two countries sometimes resemble "allies, not friends".
"I think we often find Australia to be distracted as it focuses on bigger players," he continues. "For New Zealand, Australia is one of the top two markets, the most important defence partner, the most important diplomatic partner, the most important member of the Pacific Islands Forum. There are just so many aspects where Australia is much more essential to New Zealand than we can ever be to them."
Walsh still argues for a bond that goes beyond trade and politics: "I can't think of any two countries that lie side by side so peaceably. The Scandinavian countries, I suppose. Americans and Canadians don't ever talk of themselves as cousins. But I think that's a very good description of Australians and New Zealanders."
Cultural politics can take those involved by surprise. Johnson wrote a book called West Island, about five remarkable New Zealanders whose careers were made in Australia.
"I submitted the book to Penguin Random House, because they are normally my publishers, and [publisher] Harriet Allen said it wouldn't find a readership. The Australians would say, 'Sod them, they're New Zealanders,' and the New Zealanders would say, 'Sod them, they're Australian.' But it was published by Otago University Press and received very good reviews on both sides of the Tasman and elsewhere."
Walsh is aware of this lack of interest. His company does good business on both sides of the Tasman. But on the Sydney side, "if one of our authors is a New Zealander, we don't go out of our way to promote that too much". On the other hand, "we have a very active and terrific team in the Auckland office who are doing fabulous stuff and manage to produce a lot of books that we're able to sell here, so that is changing a bit".
Also changing, oh so slowly, is the situation of the Indigenous population, which was often referred to, in its infrequent media appearances, in the racist phrase "Australians and Aboriginals".
"When I was attending university, there was only one Aboriginal person engaged in tertiary education," says Walsh. "I knew him. He was Charlie Perkins. [Perkins, who died in 2000, was a prominent and effective Aboriginal activist.] Now, of course, we have Indigenous lawyers and doctors. And their culture is widening. We haven't reached nirvana, but we have got to acknowledge that we have progressed a great deal."
This framing of the situation by listing small gains will be familiar to Pākehā and Māori alike.
In 2008, in what was seen as a watershed, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologised to the Stolen Generation – an estimated 100,000 Aboriginal children who were removed from their families in a state-sponsored policy of assimilation between 1910 and 1970. Myriad other abuses and outrages remain to be acknowledged.
"I was moved to tears at Sydney Museum, where they had a 'Sorry Book' after Rudd did this apology," says Woodhouse. "People could write their own regret or apology. I started reading it and was literally crying. It was so moving. Stephanie looked at it and was furious. 'Too little, too late,' she said."
More recently, in a process that echoes one that has been seen for some time in New Zealand, Johnson has observed people taking pride in finding they have some Aboriginal heritage. "That's quite a leap," she says. "Although I don't know what it would be like if you went out to Alice Springs – you're probably going to encounter just the same sort of antediluvian racism as always."
She points out that where early Europeans frequently wrote with admiration about the Māori they encountered, "I can't think of one place where you'd see that admiration for Aboriginal culture".
The reality of race in Australia is not just unfortunate in itself, it also feeds the voracious New Zealand appetite for sanctimony. But anyone fancying a bout of indignation on behalf of the Stolen Generation could consider recent activity by Oranga Tamariki.
"I think New Zealanders have to be careful about feeling superior to Australians," says Hannah Ellison, a New Zealand-born Māori journalist living in Sydney. "In terms of how a colonised indigenous group is doing, we are at the front of the race to a better way of coexisting. But that's not because of Pākehā. That's because Māori learnt very quickly that they had to work within a Pākehā world and get into those institutions."
Woodhouse says he gets sick of New Zealanders taking the moral high ground. "The boat people thing is a classic. People going on about how awful it is. But New Zealand was never going to have to deal with it."
Once, when overseas, Johnson got pulled up by another writer for defending New Zealand's record on race against his criticisms. She received some consoling counsel later from Witi Ihimaera: "He said, 'Look, it happens all the time when New Zealanders are overseas.' If you're a whitey skiting about our marvellous race relations, you are likely to be rounded on, because actually, that's not true."
Similarly, there are reservations over the much-lauded recent success in persuading Australia to let us take in 450 refugees – boat people – from its detention centres.
"I think New Zealand is virtue signalling," says Jim Rolfe, senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, "because New Zealand's record on refugees generally is not generous. Development assistance is nowhere near the 0.7 per cent of gross national income we signed up to."
He points out that while the Ardern government has complained about repatriations of the so-called 501s, "we read of New Zealand doing the same thing to Pacific Islanders. Each country is asserting its rights against a weaker state. I don't criticise Australia for that. I criticise New Zealand for whining about it. When I first travelled between the two countries, you didn't need a passport."
The passport requirement was part of a pattern of diminishing privileges for New Zealanders in Australia that has been going on since it was introduced in 1981.
In 2001, an agreement between the Howard and Clark governments saw welfare privileges withdrawn from New Zealanders in Australia. In return, New Zealand no longer had to keep increasing its contribution to those payments.
Although copious research showed that New Zealanders in Australia contributed to its economy out of all proportion to their numbers, the stereotype of the "Bondi bludger" was strongly entrenched and this move played well with Howard's constituency.
Further emphasising the differences between the Anzac mates is the nexus involving the economy, the environment, natural resources, three uranium mines, media ownership, concentrations of immense personal wealth, semi-institutionalised corruption and race.
"The right have just got their claws into the populace," says Woodhouse. "A lot of it is to do with ripping sh** out of the ground and going, 'Here we are. You can make a lot of money.' Your average left-wing, coffee-drinking, elderly person, whose pension fund relies on mining, is going, 'We don't like mining,' but they are doing well out of it."
"Our wealth is based in the ground," confirms Walsh. "Unfortunately, the people who own the mines are so wealthy that they're able to, in a way, corrupt the political process. Our Liberal-National Party coalition is way to the right of your National Party. We have some mega-wealthy people who have made their money out of dubious pursuits like mining and casinos. They basically own the coalition. Trying to change things, to make our society more equitable, is a hell of a job. When you've introduced that inequity, it's really hard to unwind."
It's complicated by the fact that when people are motivated by money, they can never have enough.
"They do outrageous things and basically many of them are old-fashioned rednecks," says Walsh. "They can say the whole Australian economy will collapse if we listen too hard to Indigenous people, or if we don't mine our black coal. They can make arguments that are basically self-interest and backed by money and particularly by Murdoch newspapers."
The power of capital feeds into the country's legendary levels of corruption, particularly at police and state-government level, but hardly unknown elsewhere. "It goes back to larrikin culture," says Woodhouse, "and there is a kind of grudging admiration for people who get away with it."
Getting away with it won't be made any harder by a February decision not to establish an anti-corruption Commonwealth Integrity Commission, which had been announced by Prime Minister Scott Morrison in 2018.
Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index ranks New Zealand alongside Finland and Denmark as the world's least-corrupt nations. Australia was 18th.
The Glebe Island Bridge is one of the lesser-known Sydney bridges. In 1998, it was renamed Anzac Bridge. A statue of an Australian Anzac was erected at one end in 2000. He waited alone for eight years before the long-planned New Zealand counterpart was installed at the other end.
That time lag is an apt metaphor for the Australian perception of New Zealand's enthusiasm for co-operation in military matters.
If there is one area of endeavour in which the Anzac alliance should be functioning to keep the spirit alive, it is surely defence, the one on which it was founded in 1915. And it is perhaps the deterioration in this relationship, driven by Australia's focus on its northern neighbours, on China as a threat, and on the US as the country it would most like to take to the prom, that shows how much the Anzac cousins have diverged.
The revelation that members of New Zealand's elite combat unit, the SAS, were prepared to give evidence against its trans-Tasman counterpart in a military trial is merely one example of the gap.
Another is the announcement early this month that Australia, with its Aukus partners the US and United Kingdom, will develop hypersonic missiles "in the face of a rising China and belligerent Russia".
We are still Anzac friends, on the surface, of course. "The capabilities are complementary, but Australia doesn't trust New Zealand," says Rolfe. In line with its foreign-policy objectives – and self-image – Australia looks elsewhere and in particular aligns its defence strategies with those of the US. This is not without its problems.
"We do not look to the Pacific," says Walsh, "and that's where we're totally different from New Zealand. It's proving to be a terrible weakness already, with the Solomon Islands and China [the two countries have agreed to a draft security co-operation agreement that could see China deploying police and military personnel in the Solomons]. And with many of the [Pacific] countries likely to sink in the next 20 years, this is going to create migration pressures."
It's probably a mistake to expect a single joint defence strategy, given there has never been one.
"There is no unbroken pattern of sustained defence co-operation ever since 1915," says Robert Ayson. "In his book The Prickly Pair, [diplomat and academic] Denis McLean said that in the lead-up to World War II, the defence relationship between New Zealand and Australia was 'little short of pathetic'.
"There is the Canberra Pact near the end of the war, but then the Cold War takes over. They both attach themselves to the United States, but it doesn't enrich their own relationship that much. And it's really only after the disappearance of Britain as a power, and the decline in America's role, that they look at each other in the early 1970s and think, 'Oh, we need a bit more of a relationship here.' And that takes off. It's not a continuous pattern of closeness."
Ayson concludes with a general warning about legends: "I think one of the real hazards is that Australia and New Zealand get caught up in their own mythologies about each other, rather than thinking about what's really going on."