Friday, September 4, 2009

Waltzing Matilda? No thanks, cobber

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, September 2.)

One day, someone may attempt to write a book explaining why Australia and New Zealand get along much better politically when there’s a Labour prime minister in power on one side of the Tasman and a conservative on the other.

John Key, nominally a conservative, clearly has a warm rapport with Kevin Rudd, Australia’s Labour prime minister, just as left-leaning Helen Clark did with Rudd’s conservative predecessor John Howard.

On the other hand Norman Kirk and Gough Whitlam – both Labour men, but chalk and cheese in every other respect – had a prickly relationship, while feisty little Robert Muldoon had nothing in common with the cold, patrician Malcolm Fraser, though both led conservative governments.

Labour prime ministers David Lange and Bob Hawke, big egos both, made little attempt to disguise their dislike for each other, while Paul Keating barely noticed that Jim Bolger existed.

It’s fair to say that right now, following Mr Key’s recent visit to Canberra, the relationship between the two countries is the warmest it has been in decades.

That’s fine, up to a point. I like Australia. I worked there for several years and have an Australian daughter-in-law. A surprising number of my friends and former colleagues from New Zealand have ended up there – a reflection of the opportunities offered by a much bigger, more dynamic economy.

The bonds between the two countries are close and it makes a lot of sense for us to pull together when it suits our mutual interests. We are both liberal democracies in a part of the world that could do with more of them. But in focusing on all the things we have in common, it’s very easy to overlook the many ways in which we’re dissimilar.

We may speak the same language (more or less), look similar and be in relatively close geographical proximity, but the historical and cultural forces that have shaped us are quite different.

New Zealand was settled largely by middle-class idealists with a vision of an egalitarian society that had all the best features of Britain, minus the class structure. The colonisation of Australia, on the other hand, was initially driven by Britain’s need for a place to dump its convicts.

We remained staunchly loyal to Britain, even after it turned its back on us in the 1970s, whereas Australia struck out on a different path by hitching its wagon to the US as early as World War II. When I first lived in Australia in the early 1970s I was struck by how American it seemed, though the difference between the two countries has narrowed enormously since then.

Australia also pursued a bold (if intrinsically racist) post-war immigration policy that created a vibrant, multi-cultural society while we clung to a timid, Anglo-centric model that produced a drab, conformist one. It’s only in the past couple of decades that we’ve caught up.

Australia tapped into its vast mineral wealth while our prosperity depended largely on our ability to grow grass. And so on, and so on.

Notwithstanding the Anzac legend, all these historical factors have combined to create two very different cultures. Australians are brash and exude confidence; New Zealanders by comparison tend to be modest, self-effacing and almost apologetic when they succeed.

Even climate has played a part in forging these distinct cultures. The iconic Australian is a sun-bronzed Bondi lifesaver wearing Speedos; our equivalent is a grim-faced, mud-spattered rugby player clad in – well, black of course. What else?

Politically the trans-Tasman relationship has often been strained, for reasons already outlined. A consistent pattern has been the tendency for Australian leaders to have at best a patronising, at worst a dismissive, attitude toward their smaller neighbour.

That attitude typifies the way many Australians see us. They like us enough, but we don’t rate. They try to be nice, in a patronising way, but Australians have more important things to think about than this quaint little country languishing in their shadow. It’s a pretty place for a cheap skiing holiday, but not much else.

Australia is far more important to us than we are to them. To a large extent, this defines the relationship between the two countries.

Internationally New Zealand punches well above its weight, but we have no delusions about the fact that we’re a small state whose influence depends on us being seen as a fair, generally neutral player and an honest broker in world affairs. Australia’s international ambitions, as befits its size, are less modest. It sees itself as a middle-ranked power and pursues its policy goals in a more assertive manner that sometimes ruffles the feathers of touchy Pacific countries.

Much as New Zealand can benefit from a closer relationship, it’s important not to overlook these differences, especially in the sensitive area of international relations. Which brings me to the proposal to form a joint Anzac military force.

New Zealand is liked and respected in the world because we’re not big enough to be a threat to be anyone. We have no nationalistic baggage.

This colours the way our armed forces operate overseas. They are low-key; they don’t swagger. In trouble spots like Afghanistan and East Timor, they work hard to blend into the scenery and win the confidence and respect of the communities they serve among.

Can the same be said of Australian forces? To be honest, I don’t know. But from my observations of how the average Australian views the world, as against the average New Zealander, I think it likely that Australian troops would be less sensitive to local needs and feelings.

I’m no military man, but I can see potential for real tension at ground level in joint operations because of fundamental differences in character and outlook. On top of that, there’s the wider danger that New Zealand could get drawn into military operations that serve Australia’s strategic interests but not necessarily ours.

As gratifying as it is to have an Australian prime minister who sincerely wants us to go waltzing Matilda with him, it might be prudent to sit this dance out.


Nicola M J Young: The Occasional Panjandrum said...

I totally accept your view that Australian and New Zealand Prime Ministers have generally had stronger relationships when from opposite sides of the political spectrum...but your article implies Paul Keating wasn't Labour and he most certainly was (after all, a Liberal would have known that touching the body of Her Royal Highness was a no-no!).

Karl du Fresne said...

Thanks for making that clear Nicola. I did know that Keating (or the Lizard of Oz, as the Fleet St tabloids dubbed him after he manhandled their Queen) was a Labour PM.