The odd couple, Eric Richards

States of Mind: Australia and New Zealand 1901-2001
ed Arthur Grimes, Lydia Wevers, and Ginny Sullivan
Institute of Policy Studies, Victoria University of Wellington, $39.00,
ISBN 0908935644

There is something peculiar about two affluent and well-established small countries sitting together and piously contemplating whether they are happy to remain as they are, whether they are seriously different from each other, and whether they might one day demolish the fences between them and live together. Talking like this intermittently over many decades, the conversation follows the same moves each time. It is all the odder because there has always been plenty of free movement between the two places. Many of their offspring live with each other and are virtually indistinguishable anyway. There is a sense of overfamiliarity between the two.

Making fun is not helpful when one of the parties feels unequal or overwhelmed by the other. Scots used to liken their relationship with their much larger southern neighbour to being “in bed with an elephant” – its every movement having disproportionately large and unavoidable repercussions for the other. But elephants have their uses.

It was a bright idea to arrange a conference in Wellington in October 2001 to review the passage of relations between New Zealand and Australia over the century since the federation of Australia in 1901. A gathering of heterogenous talents was assembled. Questions of ethnic and national identity, race and immigration were dominant, reflecting the times. There was also the curious legacy of Australian federation itself: New Zealand declined to join in 1901 but the door was left open (it still is) for a future association. Whether this was ever a real possibility remains a good question.


Predictably there was little conflict at the conference as this bundle of 21 papers, rather random and prismatic, shows. There was no bruising of national sensibilities, no rankling of historical slights. The nearest approach to contention is in a playful piece by Jennifer Hillier on intellectual property rights regarding a pudding, the Pavlova, about which we now know more than we ever needed. Kathryn Hunter also raises the temperature because she is indignant about the use of indigenous symbols in a monument representing New Zealand/Australian friendship and co-operation on Anzac Parade in Canberra. She says it’s a war memorial in disguise and signally fails to incorporate colonial wars against the indigenous populations and other victims of conflict and prejudice. Otherwise the papers are about the differing degrees of association between the two nations. We are told repeatedly that globalisation is the dynamic force of our times: nations across the world are regrouping and we too need to reconsider our relationship.

Stuart Mcintyre’s sparkling overview laments the low consciousness of Australians about their history – he talks of the “slough of despond” in civic awareness. The quiet success of federation and its surprisingly smooth operation as a commonwealth are perhaps enemies of citizenly interest. Back in the 1890s there were stresses making for federation, including economic decline and strategic insecurity, and this cemented white Australia at the core of the new nation. Nation-building each side of the Tasman was not determined by mundane business considerations: Australia and New Zealand became separate entities because they spontaneously generated an independent sense of identity, indeed two “states of mind”. Mcintyre bemoans Australians’ ignorance of their history, but alludes to the deep rifts among its historians, and suggests that Australia today is divided, uncertain and fearful. The people least likely to disperse these demons are its own historians.

Defining the differences between New Zealand and Australia is tricky, partly because of their obvious similarities, partly because the focus keeps changing. Thus Patricia Grimshaw gives greatest emphasis to the contrast in their respective relations with indigenous peoples, dating from colonial times. Mary Kalantzis offers a rhetorical commentary on the recent disharmonies in Australia regarding multiculturalism. Paradoxes won’t lie down, and Pansy Wong wreaks posthumous revenge on Katherine Mansfield for her slur on the Chinese in New Zealand in her 1913 story “Ole Underwood”. Meanwhile, as Sir Tipene O’Regan points out, large numbers of Maori cross the Tasman in a long tradition of migration: there are now more in New South Wales than in the South Island. Until 1965, most of the net flow of people of all sorts was from Australia to New Zealand. But now there are 435,000 New Zealanders residing in Australia and 50,000 Australians in New Zealand.

This exchange of population is clearly the most vigorous and direct of all the associations between the two countries. It has for many decades been virtually a single labour market. The benefits and costs of these people-movements are hard to quantify. John Yeabsley offers some new calculations about the effect of New Zealanders on Australian welfare and employment levels. He concludes that Australia probably benefits slightly from the movement. The freedom to move easily between the two places is the most important dimension of the relationship. It is difficult to believe that the transit has been disadvantageous to the two peoples. If it were seriously blocked by governments, it would swiftly provoke intense political pressure. As Melbourne political scientist Brian Galligan suggests, in a usefully mixed metaphor: “With the safety valve of easy migration, New Zealanders can vote with their feet and simply relocate to Australia, as many Maori and Pacific Islanders do.” This is the true trans-Tasman intimacy.

Migration and closer economic and political association create tensions because they seem to threaten the status quo. In the past few decades, the interchange of people has occurred in a context of relatively high levels of unemployment and amid ageing populations: the circulation of people is much less predictable and stable. These are not easy conditions in which to plan closer association. Manying Ip points out that in the 1990s New Zealand was generally the largest source of Australian immigrants and that the flow included an increasing proportion of people of Asian origin, which primarily reflected New Zealand’s own changing complexion.

Meanwhile there have emerged seemingly inexorable international tendencies to diminish trade barriers and increase economies of production. Models of dramatically closer economic associations are found in Europe and North America. As Brian Galligan puts it, “Australia and New Zealand have been somewhat left out in the cold despite the outstanding success of CER.” “Closer Economic Relations” is the quiet pragmatic process which has set the tone and pace of co-operation during the past three decades. Unexcitingly, but progressively, this has gradually redefined the relationship. Eventually the process affects everything, including population growth, currency, trade, the costs of government, law and even sovereignty – which is the ostensible sticking point.


There are two larger issues. One is the question of whether the divergence which occurred at Australian federation in 1901 caused any significant changes in the destinies of either country, This is a tricky counterfactual matter – would a fuller integration of New Zealand and Australia in 1901 have made much material difference to either party? The fact that the two countries have generally marched lock-step through the end of empire, war and industrialisation may suggest that it was not much of an issue. Australia and New Zealand in the 20th century were parallel social experiments; but neither social scientists nor historians are able to measure the outcomes nor isolate the active influences and outcomes. Political leaders have little hard evidence with which to persuade the sceptical electorate – and we are not even sure whether the two economies are converging or diverging.

A second question relates to more recent experience. While Australia and New Zealand remained near the top of the international league of living standards, they were both evidently lucky countries. But now, as Allan Behm bluntly points out, their stars have fallen. Australia has been relegated into the second eleven and New Zealand into the third, and this is obviously disturbing. It is natural to think that greater integration might raise both performances. The fact that trade between Australia and New Zealand is surprisingly small (only 20 per cent of New Zealand trade is with Australia) adds credibility to the idea. Closer integration is more likely in the face of common anxieties, such as sagging living standards and population loss and ageing, all of which are current realities.

Tax harmonisation is not a subject to excite the average reader but it is a vital element in the convergence of the economies. Stephen Titter and Angela Williams offer a detailed account of the nuts and bolts of such problems as the new GST, “franking credits” and “differential fringe benefits”. These issues operate as brakes on the progress of trans-Tasman integration. There remains much variance in the two tax regimes, which are, ultimately, central to the maintenance of sovereignty. Clearly further progress depends on politicians – especially those in Canberra – giving  the process a shove. Similarly the prospect of a uniform currency, according to Arthur Grimes, is a matter of political willpower – a common dollar is likely to be beneficial to both countries but any opportunistic politician can make political capital of the issue as the recent experience in Ireland and Britain nicely demonstrates.


All these technicalities can be overcome but the politics of interdependence present deeper issues. Brian Galligan argues that the debate is stuck in an anachronistic track. Sterile discussion about sovereignty distracts attention from the widening modern possibilities of flexible forms of inter-national association. But old notions of absolute sovereignty or total submergence (such as the idea of New Zealand as a regional state of Australasia) continue to dominate the public perception of the options. Galligan is adamant that there are several ways to combine “different levels of inter-governmental relations between [these] two congenial nations and among governments of a de facto quasi federation”. These entail “functional collaborations rather than jurisdictional consolidation”.

Neither “functional consolidation” nor “CER” are clarion calls to set the blood racing. Nevertheless they suggest a progressive incremental evolution of closer relations which will circumvent the immoveable issue of sovereignty. Indeed the process can be accelerated or impeded as circumstances – and “states of mind” – permit. The “symbols and rhetoric of national sovereignty” can be retained while closer connections evolve. This is just as well since, as Terence O’Brien says, “Federation is not on the agenda of either New Zealand or Australia.” And though there may have been a deep (though not unprecedented) rift on defence matters, and despite allegations of Australian interference and arrogance, several contributors declare that even in defence the pressure of global change renders the region “a single strategic entity”.

A neat but distorting window into trans-Tasman relations is offered by Ian F Grant’s study of  political cartoons over the past century. There has been an unequal trade in satire and mockery marked by “a low level of bickering and grizzling”. Australian newspapers rarely mention New Zealand, but New Zealand cartoonists endlessly poke fun at Australia. This is not uncommon between large and small counties and has similarly applied between Australia and Britain. Other windows on the trans-Tasman relationship are left curtained in this collection. There is virtually no word on the cultural and educational flows between them, nor on the social implications of the great inter-migrations between the two peoples. In the long run the growth of informal co-operation is probably the more important nexus which sustains the essential goodwill in the relationship. Academics, public servants and politicians see the world limited by their self-made blinkers, but mostly the world spins along regardless.

The outcome of these discussions – not spelt out here – suggests that further closer association between Australia and New Zealand will almost certainly benefit both parties. There will always be fictions and irritations in the path of a higher degree of legal, fiscal and economic integration – but the benefits will be worth it. Moreover the closer interdependence can be achieved without formal political integration – these two countries can live together in a de facto relationship (as they have almost always done anyway) and no one will chastise them. There are many ways for countries to live together which are perfectly respectable, reproductive and durable.

States of Mind is a miscellany of opinions and research findings, some in dense detail. There is virtue in this unstructured diversity since, in reality, the relationship between two such nations is always criss-crossed with sensitivities and imponderable calculations which defy simple solutions. Even when the sums are done, the collective psychologies of these two nations – otherwise so close and congenial – will remain distinct. As Keith Sinclair asserted, New Zealanders in 1900 were already a people destined to be a separate nation. The current received wisdom is muted. The economic benefits are not so compelling that closer integration would be irresistible to either party. So in the end we rely on political judgements and guesswork. Readers in both countries will plunder States of Mind for arguments and evidence for the future evolution of relations between these two nations. But it will never be a rigorously rational progression.


Eric Richards teaches in the Department of History at Flinders University, Adelaide.


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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Politics & Law and Review
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