(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, November 24.)
The first time I went to Australia, in early 1972, it was like travelling to another planet.
Melbourne’s then-new Tullamarine Airport terminal (where I landed in a Lockheed Electra, last of Air New Zealand’s turbo-prop airliners) was vast and ultra-modern after Wellington’s scruffy converted hangar.
On the freeway into the city I was struck by the unfamiliar preponderance of orange brick houses. For lunch on that first day I was taken to an up-market Chinese restaurant where the menu included exotic dishes I’d never heard of, still less eaten.
Pub conversations with my new Australian workmates were a challenge. They seemed to speak a different language.
Australian seemed brash, racy, cosmopolitan and sophisticated after isolated, insular New Zealand. It was a society that had clearly taken its cue from the rampant capitalism of America rather than the relative austerity of Britain, which served as New Zealand’s model.
The Aussies had Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut when takeaways in New Zealand still meant fish and chips. Restaurants were classier and infinitely more varied, the clothing was more stylish, the cars were newer and there were four TV channels. I felt like a bit of a yokel.
How things have changed since then. Australian houses are still made of brick while most of ours are made of timber, but in virtually every other respect the cultural gap has narrowed to the point where it’s almost imperceptible.
Downtown Brisbane or Sydney seem not too different from Auckland or Wellington. The people are no better dressed, the cars are no flasher and the pubs and restaurants are certainly no more sophisticated. Even the names on many of the shops in the giant malls are the same – evidence of the homogeneous global economy.
One of the most conspicuous contrasts in the 1970s was the preponderance of immigrants across the Tasman, but even that point of difference has largely been eliminated. In Auckland in the 2006 census, a staggering 39 percent of the workforce was born overseas – one of the highest figures of any city in the world. (For New Zealand as a whole, the figure was an only slightly less staggering 24 percent.)
In other words we’ve caught up with Australia, at least superficially. Today you could fly from Wellington to Melbourne for the first time, just as I did in 1972, and not notice anything conspicuously different. In fact I’ll stick my neck out and suggest that in many ways the average New Zealander is now more worldly and sophisticated than his or her Australian counterpart, particularly once you get beyond the city fringes.
So what, if anything, still sets them apart from us?
The economic disparities are well known. The income gap is growing ever wider, despite half-hearted attempts (and lots of largely empty political talk) about narrowing the gap. More than half a million New Zealanders now call Australia home, including one of my own sons and several nieces and nephews.
Depressingly, none of the expat New Zealanders I spoke to during a recent three-week visit to Australia expressed any urge to return. They like the climate, the lifestyle and the affluence.
You can’t help but notice the all-pervasive Australian sense of self-confidence. It’s evident in sport, in the media and in popular culture. They really do believe they are the Lucky Country, and I wonder whether this winning attitude is one of the defining differences between us.
We tend, by contrast, to be a bit of a hang-dog nation, acutely conscious of our chronic economic under-performance (though we simultaneously celebrate, with almost desperate eagerness, our success stories such as the All Blacks and Sir Peter Jackson). There’s a grain of truth in the way Australian satirist Barry Humphries placed mousy, timid Madge from Palmerston North in the shadow of the magnificently ebullient and self-assured Edna Everage from Moonee Ponds.
In some respects each country carries the legacy of its history. Australians display traits that can be traced back to their convict heritage: for instance, their larrikinism, their suspicion of authority and their disregard for what others think of them. By contrast we were settled by idealistic middle-class migrants and remain anxious to do the right thing and fretful about how the rest of the world sees us.
This is not altogether bad. For one thing, New Zealand remains uncontaminated by the institutional corruption and venality that infest Australian politics (and nowhere more than in the scandal-plagued New South Wales Labor Party, which seems determined to emulate the worst excesses of New York’s infamous Tammany Hall political machine).
Similarly, even the most trenchant critic of New Zealand trade unions would have to concede that organised labour here conducts itself impeccably compared with Australia, where the line between trade unionism and outright gangsterism is sometimes alarmingly blurred. (The convict heritage again, perhaps?)
Speaking of gangsterism, Australia has an entrenched criminal sub-culture with its origins in urban slums and clannish ethnic minorities. Organised crime there has a far longer history, and exists on a much larger scale, than in New Zealand.
But there’s a refined side to Australia too. I spent hours in Canberra’s National Gallery of Australia, which has a spectacularly good collection that encompasses contemporary Australian art (including Sidney Nolan’s iconic Ned Kelly paintings), French impressionists (Monet, Cezanne) and 20th century masters such as Jackson Pollock and David Hockney, along with some fine works by colonial-era Australian artists such as Frederick McCubbin, Charles Conder and Arthur Streeton.
I recall the Whitlam government creating an uproar in 1973 when it paid more than $1 million for Jackson Pollock’s famous abstract painting Blue Poles, but seeing it now, I think it was a good buy.
Incidentally, Canberra doesn’t entirely deserve the bad press it gets. A recent article in the Australian edition of Spectator magazine called the city of 320,000 a waste of a good sheep paddock, while a New Zealand friend of mine unkindly describes it as “Waiouru with trees”. Yet even Canberra has its appeal. While it lacks the character of older cities and is frequently mocked for its blandness, it’s relaxed, well laid-out, family-friendly, easy to get around and endowed with vast areas of open recreational space.
The other revelation for me on this latest Australian trip was Melbourne, which I hadn’t visited for 20 years. Once relatively staid by comparison with Sydney, the Victorian state capital has transformed itself and now seriously threatens its traditional New South Wales rival for charisma and visitor appeal.
Melbourne will never have Sydney’s great natural asset, its magnificent harbour, but it uses every man-made trick in the book to present itself as a vibrant, colourful, spectacular and supremely confident city. Its adventurous architecture, particularly along the fringes of the Yarra River, makes a very bold statement.
If I were one of Sydney’s city fathers, I think I’d be looking nervously over my shoulder.