Unprickling the pair, Spiro Zavos

The Prickly Pear: Making Nationalism in Australia and New Zealand
Denis McLean
University of Otago Press, $49.95,
ISBN 18772776472

About 20 year ago I was sitting at my desk at The Sydney Morning Herald wondering what I would write for the next day’s editorial when the telephone rang. It was Don Hunn. We had done the MA history course together at Victoria University of Wellington and he was now a senior official at the New Zealand High Commission in Canberra. He wanted to arrange a conference of prominent New Zealanders living in Australia to discuss how New Zealand could raise its profile in Australia. “Would you be interested in attending?” he asked.

“Save the taxpayers’ money,” I told him. “Australians look north not south and nothing much can be done to stop this.”

Looking back on this incident, I realise how negative my response was and how deflating it must have been for a skilful and enthusiastic diplomat like Don Hunn. I did not hear back from him, presumably the conference was never held. In a sense, Denis McLean’s The Prickly Pear, a meticulous and deeply researched study of nationalism in Australia and New Zealand, is the official reply my negative response deserved. This is an important book. It is part history, part manifesto, part memoir. It reflects the life and working experience of its author, who was a Rhodes Scholar and later Secretary of Defence in Wellington, New Zealand Ambassador to the United States from 1991-1994, and a visiting fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre of the Australian National University at Canberra.

The book is elegantly written, magisterial in tone, fair in its analysis, and oriented towards suggesting a solution – the task of the diplomat is to find answers for seemingly unanswerable questions, after all – to the most important political, economic, and social dilemma facing New Zealand. That dilemma remains now, as it was when Don Hunn confronted it, the matter of what New Zealand is to make of its relationship with Australia.

Reading between the lines of the text, it seems fair to suggest that Denis McLean would prefer, in the best of all worlds, that the two countries unite into the Republic of Australasia. Removal of all impediments to trade and financial exchange would, he argues:

be capable of  triggering new economic dynamism to match the potential of the region. Merger would create a vast Exclusive Economic Zone of great potential. With focused foreign and defence policies and re-jigged political systems, the new Republic of Australasia could become something not seen before – a dispersed modern nation-state held together by shared commitments to western ideals and commitments but straddling both the eastern and western worlds, at ease with both.


McLean immediately rejects this vision, though, as being incompatible with the pull of nationalism in both countries. The head accepts the rationale of Australasia, he insists, but the heart, “in guise of nationalism”, cannot. He dismisses the notion that economic consolidation will eventually build up an inevitable momentum for political consolidation:

It is an open question whether other more metaphysical considerations to do with history and national pride, affinities with places and peoples, cultural identities and sporting loyalties will ever be broken down by closer economic relationships or intensive day-to-day interactions.

This is the correct analysis, in my opinion. But I would go further. A Republic of Australasia is not a good thing in itself. It is not an ideal that should be pursued, even if the local difficulties that prevent it were somehow to disappear.


It is sometimes forgotten that there was an Australasia in the sporting context. Combined New Zealand and Australian teams competed at the Olympics as Australasia until 1920. When the Wallabies won the gold medal for rugby at the London Olympic Games in 1908, that medal, in theory at least, was also a New Zealand medal because New Zealanders were in the Australasian team. Australasian tennis teams, too, with the Cantabrian Anthony Wilding being a leading light, won and held the Davis Cup in the 1900s.

There, feeling for an Australasia was reflected in the rugby community when New South Wales rugby union officials begged their New Zealand counterparts to form an Australasian rugby team to play against the Rev Mullineux’s British side in 1899. Fortunately, the Otago Rugby Union rejected the request. Fortunately, because playing overseas teams as New Zealand, rather than as Australasia, allowed the All Blacks to be created and the sense, with the success of the 1905 All Blacks, that New Zealanders could compete on all the fields of life, not only the rugby field.

The sporting field is a mirror for all the other fields of achievement marked by New Zealanders. When you compare the lacklustre cultural, scientific, academic, economic, sporting, and literary achievements of, say, Tasmania with the achievements in virtually every area of New Zealand life, you have an overwhelming argument in favour of the independent nation of New Zealand.

If there is not to be a merger between “the closely similar people” of Australia and New Zealand, then what should be put in place? What is the preferred vision? In a closely argued and convincing chapter called “Prickly Pear”, McLean points to the way the two countries have accentuated their different experiences and their perceptions of their national interests and sovereignty by having “frequent and often bitter” rows. The voice of the frustrated diplomat is clearly heard here. Australia is taken to task for tending to take herself too seriously. This seriousness, more pomposity perhaps, has led to chauvinistic behaviour that insists “its offshore neighbour has no place in this picture of grandeur.” New Zealand, for its part, is criticised for being too eager about, as the national song says, “preaching love and truth to man”. This tendency of New Zealand leaders to impose moral perspectives on other nations, McLean finds distasteful.

McLean is led to the conclusion, after an exhaustive investigation into the creation of the nationalist ethic in the two countries, that “what is needed is a deeper and formal commitment to an Austral-Asian regionalism.” This is McLean’s big idea. As he notes, a Nordic Union has achieved common law enforcement arrangements, the creation of a common labour market, mutual recognition of academic degrees, an airline consortium, and the abolition of visas.

New Zealand and Australia through CER and ad hoc agreements have something similar to these arrangements. But there is, he argues, the continuing impediment of New Zealand and Australia always emphasising their distinct, separate qualities and virtues. The answer lies in the McLean vision:

A look at the map should make it plain that such irritants fade into insignificance against the need for a new world view – an “Austral-Asian” perspective of shared and fully inter-penetrating, vital national interests …  Formal marriage may be out, but a modern partnership agreement – an exchange of commitments based on a vision of common destiny – is very much needed: a Declaration of Interdependence perhaps?


This is an exciting and practical solution to New Zealand’s big problem. It needs a great deal of further discussion to round out all its dimensions. Where do New Zealand’s interests in the Pacific rest within this vision? Would Australia be interested in New Zealand tagging along with its inevitable push and shove into Asia? One imagines, or hopes, that Otago Univesity, having shown foresight in publishing this vigorously argued and well-written book (Denis McLean is related to New Zealand’s greatest journalist, Sir Terence Power McLean, after all) will set about organising conferences for New Zealand’s political class to tease out the details of the Austral-Asian perspective. The political class who, aside from a handful of enthusiasts like Denis McLean and Don Hunn, have been notably lacking in ideas and enthusiasm for the Prickly Pear theme.

The debate and thinking this timely book should encourage might put an end, as well, to the boring utterances of Australian politicians and public figures like Justice Michael Kirby justifying junkets to New Zealand with tired, cliché-ridden rhetoric about Australia and New Zealand merging. Hopefully it will encourage the political class in both countries to work towards the Austral-Asian destiny. The “not identical, but inseparable” interests (Sir Robert Menzies’ memorable phrase) of New Zealand and Australia deserve this investment of intellectual capital in the future from the best and brightest minds of the two countries.


Spiro Zavos wrote editorials for The Sydney Morning Herald. His How to Watch a Game of Rugby is reviewed on p18.


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