Colin James



Colin James

To turn Laura Tingle’s question around: can Aotearoa/New Zealand learn from Australia? Or are we too different?

Most in each country think we are “family,” an ethnic accident born of Britain’s joint colonisation. Over two centuries, we have swapped people, turned bushland into farmland, developed similar accents, believed ourselves rough and ready, down-to-earth and sporty (even if not always sporting), and reckoned on a “fair go.” We shared what Geoffrey Blainey called a “tyranny of distance” from Home – that is, Britain.

We have squabbled a lot, as a family does: over what we should do in wars and international politics, how to treat those of us who live on each other’s turf and more. For much of the time from the 1900s to the 1970s, we spoke less to each other as countries than to Mother Britain, and when we did talk, Australia spoke down to its smaller cousin, at times even leaving the “NZ” off “ANZAC.”

Then the two of us put together a model free trade agreement in 1983. Though we have not turned it into the promised single economic market, it nevertheless reaches far behind the border into a wide range of regulatory matters, including cross-recognition of professional qualifications. Some of our sports codes have developed single competitions. Mid-level bureaucrats talk to each other.

But the two countries are also foreign to each other. Aotearoa/New Zealand has a starkly different geology, seismology, topography, geography, climate, and native flora and fauna from Australia’s. Those natural differences have over time shaped differences of demeanour and attitudes, most starkly evident in New Zealand’s anti-nuclear policy at the heart of an “independent foreign policy.”

We also have different indigenous histories. Britain insisted on a treaty of cession from Māori with safeguards – the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi. The treaty was disregarded for twelve decades from the 1860s, but in the 1980s it set Aotearoa/New Zealand on a long, winding path towards becoming a bicultural nation. Māori animist culture and the British post-Enlightenment culture introduced by colonisation are formally equal and increasingly inform each other and therefore government policy and practice. Growing numbers of non-Māori learn the Māori language, te reo Māori. Māori names are increasingly used for places alongside the imported colonial names, as “Aotearoa” is added to “New Zealand.” The country is only partway down that long path towards biculturalism, but so far it has not strayed from it.

Māori came from the Polynesian Pacific around 800 years ago, many tens of thousands of years after Australia’s Indigenous people arrived. Other Polynesians, from islands that were at one time occupied by New Zealand, have immigrated over the past five decades in large numbers. Biculturalism and the Pasifika infusion have made Aotearoa/New Zealand a nation of the Pacific, no longer just in the Pacific. Australia is on the edge of the Pacific.

There is one other huge difference between the two countries: size. Australia is many times larger in landmass, population and economic output (not least due to its abundant mineral resources, a major factor in its higher income, which Kiwis crave and have migrated to Australia to get a slice of). Accordingly, attentiveness runs much more westwards than eastwards. Australian foreign policy only bothers about Aotearoa/New Zealand if it thinks New Zealand has gone off-track or can be useful – to Pacific security, for example. New Zealand’s foreign policy cannot avoid Australia, to the extent that Australian policy is quasi-domestic policy in Wellington. The smaller economy needs the larger one to do well, even as China has loomed large. Australian firms like their subsidiaries and exports across the Tasman to do well, but they look north more than east. An honest New Zealand diplomat posted in Canberra will quietly tell you that a proposal from Wellington for a trans-Tasman policy or program only gets a positive response from Australia when it comes towards the top of a list of priorities determined by domestic interests. Consider the response to New Zealand’s efforts to establish mutual recognition of dividend franking/imputation credits: Australia has rejected the proposal, because its short-term revenue needs trump the economic findings that, overall, Australia would benefit.

But, for all our foreignness, we are family. We both belong to that minority of countries that are liberal democracies. And we are in a minority within that minority – two democracies still functioning by the book, unlike the dis-United States, dis-United Kingdom and most of Europe. We are both aligned with old “Western” values based on liberty.

So, while of course Australia and New Zealand need to adopt good practices from wherever they crop up in a diversifying and rebalancing world (New Zealand formed the Small Advanced Economies Initiative in 2012 so similarly sized countries could share ideas and data), we can still learn from each other’s cities, sub-regional and national governments, businesses, non-profits and researchers. A high-ranking official said to me of Laura Tingle’s article that we should turn its central question around and ask what New Zealand can learn from Australia.

In a post-COVID-19 world, which is searching for new social, economic and international norms (Aotearoa/New Zealand is experimenting with “wellbeing economics”), our two open, flexible societies potentially have an edge, especially if we combine efforts.

We are not too different to learn from each other.


Colin James worked as a political journalist in Wellington for half a century from 1969, which included tracking the development and evolution of the Closer Economic Relations agreement. He participated in the Australia New Zealand Leadership Forum from its inception in 2004 until 2019. He has published eight books.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 80, The High Road. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 81, Getting to Zero.


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