I always enjoy it when I catch Philip Adams’ “mingle with Tingle” segment on Late Night Live. She always has a way of looking at things that brings a different perspective to the day’s news, and she ‘interprets’ more than she ‘reports’. I was a little disappointed in the last Quarterly Essay (Katherine Murphy’s The End of Certainty, which I reviewed here), which seemed to be just a lengthier extension of her every-day reporting in The Guardian. Tingle’s essay, on the other hand breaks new ground by drawing our attention to something almost unremarkable: the similarities and divergences between Australia’s political scene and that of our neighbour, New Zealand.
There are many times, especially since the ascension of Jacinda Ardern, that Australians look ‘across the ditch’ and wish that we could co-opt her too, (as well as the Finn Brothers and the odd New Zealand comedian or two). But I am old enough to remember an older New Zealand that was even more sheltered and Anglo-centric than Australia was. I went on an home-stay exchange visit to New Zealand in the early ’70s when I was about 16 and certainly the house was austere and rather cheerless. I recalled that old, protected New Zealand, when we visited Janet Frame’s hometown Oamaru in New Zealand, which seemed likewise cold and straitened. Even today, Australians are reminded of Australia’s relative advantage by the pricetags on purchases that show the Australian and inevitably-higher New Zealand prices, despite the lower wages in New Zealand.
Tingle identifies 1973, when Britain joined the Common Market as the seminal date when both Australia and New Zealand were forced to ‘grow up’ and reduce their reliance on agricultural exports to the ‘mother country’. From that date, Australia and New Zealand had to forge their own ways, sometimes acting in synchrony; other times striking out in their own.
But there were other important historical events before then. New Zealand was at first conceptualized as part of the colony of New South Wales (indeed, my very own Justice John Walpole Willis was slated to be New Zealand’s first Resident Judge in 1839-40. I wonder how that would have worked out.) The signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 has allowed a completely different racial politics to emerge, especially in recent decades. Australia’s decision in 1901 to go with bicameral parliaments in most states and New Zealand’s go-it-alone single chamber, one state parliament, and more recently their almost accidental adoption of mixed-member proportional representation in 1996, has led to a different concentrations of political power.
As Tingle points out, the importance of each other’s economy has often been overlooked. At times, both governments had similar economic policies. I had forgotten ‘Rogernomics’, the extremely harsh free-market reforms introduced by David Lange’s Labour government during the 1980s. Although Australia’s Labour government under Hawke and Keating introduced deregulation and the Accord (something that probably only a Labour government could do in Australia) at much the same time, it was nothing like Rogernomics. And when New Zealanders put in the Nationals in 1990, instead of repudiating Rogernomics as they promised, they turned round and gave the country more of the same.
After losing the safe assurance of a British export market, both countries have been held hostage to their largest economic successes. In Australia’s case, mineral exports have dominated our economy and spawned a single-minded mineral lobby group that dominates Australia’s climate change policy and taxation arrangements. In New Zealand, flourishing under Hobbit-tourism, director Peter Jackson turned out not to be so benign when collective bargaining rights emerged under industrial relations unrest. Different players, but the same dilemma when one industry has a dominant role in a small economy.
But there are a number of other areas where Australia and New Zealand have taken different approaches, forming a type of laboratory experiment where two very similar nations, acting under similar geographical and population constraints, have adopted different policies. The most striking is the different experiences of Maori and Australian Aboriginal politics. I have often been struck by the use of the haka and Maori language by the broader New Zealand community, in a way that would be awkward and contentious in Australia. The Treaty of Waitangi, signed under the same colonial policies emanating from the Colonial Office, even though overlooked and dismissed for many years, was the springbroad for a judicial and political reckoning – something that Mabo and more recently the Uluru Statement could be if it hadn’t been dismissed out of hand.
Then there’s foreign policy, most particularly New Zealand’s firm stance on a nuclear-free Pacific, its deliberate distancing from US adventurism, and more recently in its approach to China which – let’s face it – Australia is stuffing up big time. None of these stances seem to have done New Zealand harm, as Australia always feared by throwing its lot in with the US.
Then there’s the policy continuity that a single-house, single government constitution provides. Although, as in the pre-Common Market days, this can lead to a stultifying dominance of one party, the recent mixed-member proportional representation has made coalitions of political parties the usual way of doing politics. There does not appear to be the huge culture war divide between the parties, who adopt each other’s policies (e.g. Rogernomics) to maintain a centrist government, less beholden to the extremists on both sides. I just can’t see “kindness” ever being adopted in Australian government speech despite a brief and fleeting flirtation during the recent pandemic.
Events have aligned to give Tingle a neat narrative circle. Just as UK bumbles its way out of Brexit, the final act of the economic play which began with the 1973 Common Market decision, we have Boris Johnson floundering in an ever-heightening pandemic, while Ardern calmly and decisively has given New Zealand a COVID-free community.
For me, the best Quarterly Essays are those that bring to the forefront something that is hiding in plain sight. I don’t think that I’ve read a historical or political comparison of Australia and New Zealand written in this way, and having read it, I don’t know why it hasn’t been done before.
My rating: 8.5/10
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I have read this as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2020.