Australians are perplexed – and I suspect slightly miffed – that New Zealand is likely to beat them to a new flag.Stone the crows, cobber, they complain. Aren’t they supposed to be the rebellious ones?
Australia, after all, is the country that gave us Ned Kelly, who embodied the spirit of anti-authoritarianism, and the Eureka Stockade rebellion of 1854, in which Victorian gold miners rose up against the British colonial government.New Zealanders, a much more genteel lot, have never displayed the same eagerness to cast off the shackles of British colonialism. Until relatively recently we were seen as a distant mirror image of the Mother Country, stolidly loyal to the Crown, whereas Australia from the very beginning was determined to forge its own identity.
This can partly be attributed to the high proportion of Irish in Australia, a group not noted for their affection toward Britain. Former prime minister Bob Hawke reckoned Australia was the most Irish country in the world outside Ireland itself.In the latter part of the 19th century, roughly one-third of the white Australian population was Irish. Peter Lalor, who led the Eureka rebels, was an Irishman, while Kelly was the son of an Irish convict who had been transported to Tasmania.
Perhaps due to the Irish influence, republicanism has always been a stronger political force in Australia than here, although Australians voted against becoming a republic by a comfortable margin (55-45) in a 1999 referendum.Republicanism seems to be off the agenda there now – not surprisingly, since Liberal Party prime minister Tony Abbott is a former executive director of Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy, which played a key role in the “no republic” campaign in 1999.
That aside, Australians still think of themselves as more overtly nationalistic than New Zealanders. Hence their bewilderment at the fact that we’re seriously considering dropping the Union Jack from our national flag – a proposal considered too radical for Australian politicians to contemplate, even those on the left.Their puzzlement is compounded by the fact that the idea is being pushed here by an ostensibly centre-right prime minister, John Key.
In the Australian view of the world, this doesn’t make sense. As a conservative, Tony Abbott would no sooner drop the Union Jack from the Australian flag than pass a law allowing same-sex marriage. The same could have been said of his Liberal Party predecessor, the long-serving John Howard.But right there you have a clue to the difference between the two countries, which many Australians fail to understand. Mr Key did pass a law allowing same-sex marriage – and in doing so, continued a tradition of supposedly conservative New Zealand governments refusing to conform to standard conservative dogma. His promotion of a new flag is entirely in line with that tradition.
Even someone as knowledgeable as the high-profile Canberra political commentator Michelle Grattan doesn’t grasp that we do things differently over here. Grattan wrote a column on the proposed flag referendum in which she was plainly surprised that a centre-right New Zealand government would do something no centre-right Australian government would contemplate.But it’s nothing new. New Zealand governments march to a drumbeat which is often out of synch with conservative agendas elsewhere.
In the 1960s, National prime minister Keith Holyoake resisted American pressure to commit more New Zealand troops to the Vietnam War. New Zealand made only a modest contribution to the war effort; enough to show that we supported the Americans in principle, but no more.Australia, in contrast, succumbed to American browbeating, even sending conscripts to fight. Prime Minister Harold Holt became famous for his craven commitment to go “all the way with LBJ” (American president Lyndon Baines Johnson).
The Australian commitment in Vietnam continued a pattern of close co-operation with America that dated back to World War Two. New Zealand, on the other hand, has increasingly shown a tendency to chart its own course, under National governments as well as Labour, and particularly since Britain abandoned us for Europe in 1973.In the 1990s, National under Jim Bolger signed up to the former Labour government’s nuclear-free policy, although it had caused a deep rift with both Australia and the United States and continued to be an irritant in our relationships with Canberra and Washington.
Bolger also tried, without success, to promote republicanism – another initiative that must have confounded Australian observers who associated republicanism with the left. I suspect his republican sentiments had something to do with the fact that he was the son of Irish immigrants.It was under Bolger, too, that National initiated a programme of Treaty settlements, which may have been another manifestation of his Irish sympathy for the victims of colonialism. Again, it was a policy that ran counter to expectations from a supposedly conservative government.
What it all adds up to is that centre-right governments in New Zealand don’t always conform to conservative norms. They are essentially pragmatic; they know they must capture the centre ground to stay in power and are prepared to compromise conservative principles (and even jettison them altogether, as in the case of same-sex marriage) if that’s what it takes.It might not conform to other people’s expectations of us, but that’s the way we are.
For me, there is a sense of satisfaction in getting the jump on the Australians over the flag issue.Our neighbours have an unfortunate habit of treating us condescendingly. As far as most Australians are concerned, New Zealand might as well not exist, other than as an object of disparaging jokes about sheep and fush ’n’ chups. So it startles them when we do something that many of them probably envy us for.
But the government’s proposal to push ahead with the flag referendum is consistent with the way we conduct our affairs in other spheres, where we often demonstrate a more independent spirit than they do (for example, by refusing to go to war in Iraq, and by limiting our contribution to the Afghanistan war – an echo of Vietnam).Let me make a prediction, though. If we decide to adopt a new flag, whatever the design, the snorts of derision from Australia will be long and loud. But underneath the bluster, they’ll probably be wishing they’d done it first.