Umbria, 2019. We were sitting in the sunny piazza of a small Italian village, crouched around Glasgow George’s phone, watching live as the President of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, Baroness Hale of Richmond (Brenda to her friends), elegantly eviscerated Boris Johnson. If her words were not compelling enough, the giant silver spider poised menacingly just below the shoulder of her court blacks was hard to ignore.
The Court had been asked to rule on the legality of the advice given to Her Majesty the Queen by newly installed prime minister Boris Johnson that the parliament should be suspended for five weeks at the height of the Brexit crisis. Even amid the turmoil of those strange times in England, the historic audacity of Johnson’s advice was breathtaking. Comparable precedents raised by outraged historians went back as far as Charles I in 1629, when Britain was on the path to a civil war which ultimately didn’t end well for Charles.
The unanimous decision of the court, Lady Hale announced that day in September 2019, was that any prorogation (suspension) of the parliament would be unlawful if it had “the effect of frustrating or preventing, without reasonable justification, the ability of Parliament to carry out its constitutional functions as a legislature. This court has … concluded that the prime minister’s advice to Her Majesty [to suspend parliament] was unlawful, void and of no effect. This means that the Order in Council to which it led was also unlawful, void and of no effect and should be quashed.”
After all the millions of words, all the dissembling and misrepresentation of the acrid debate on Brexit, the precise legal language of the Supreme Court judges cut through with a clarity and certainty that had been missing for months. Among the Brits, Scots, Australians and Kiwis assembled in the piazza that day, cheers went up from time to time as Lady Hale coolly went about demolishing the advice Johnson had given to the Queen. It wasn’t necessarily a cheer for the idea that Brexit may be thwarted. It was a cheer for governments being brought to account when they tried to pull a swifty, not just on people, but on the system.
The Brexit debate had been fought out amid a sea of bitterness, outrage and outrageous lies, and would have huge ramifications for Britain’s future place in the world. But for those of us from the Antipodes, there was a piquant sense of history coming full circle: Britain’s determined fight in the late 1960s and early 1970s to join what was then the Common Market had taken place in living memory. And had carried huge ramifications for us.
All around, the Umbrian countryside was a testament to what many Europeans had hoped the Common Market would help protect after the ravages of two world wars. Yet this was not the Italy where every inch of land seems to tell a tale of thousands of years of tending and cultivation. There were fields here that clearly hadn’t been turned over for some time. Up on the hills, rows of grapevines had been overwhelmed by weeds and blackberries. The trees in the forest were encroaching on open fields and were themselves being choked by lantana. This part of Italy felt as though it was dying, no matter how many tourists poured in to enjoy its history. People had moved away. The small-scale agriculture of the past had become unviable.
Walking through this landscape, I recalled a visit to Brussels one freezing winter in the early 1980s, and the long corridors of the overheated Berlaymont building of the European Commission, with its smell of long-stale cigarette smoke. In those days, the relationship between Australia and Europe was one of frosty politeness rather than warmth. The United Kingdom joining what is now known as the European Union a decade earlier meant that Australia and New Zealand no longer got the special access for their goods – their wool, meat and dairy products – into the British markets on which their economies had largely been built. It was a bit like China deciding tomorrow to trade only with, say, Southeast Asia. Except on top of the economic consequences, we were losing our sense of cultural acknowledgment, of a “specialness” in our relationship with the country from which most of us who had arrived in the previous couple of centuries had come.
In Australia in the 1970s and early ’80s, hapless ministers would feature in nightly news bulletins, beating their way to London and Brussels, pledging to get better deals for our lamb and beef, our wool and dairy products. Things were even worse in New Zealand, given the dominance of agriculture in its economy. There was a profound slump. Both countries took it very personally. Having fought its wars, then fed Britain through the bleak post-war years, we had been unceremoniously dumped. To add to the pain, the Europeans were giving massive subsidies to their farmers, which made it hard for us to compete in other world markets. European “wine lakes” and “butter mountains” of overproduction, under what was known as the Common Agricultural Policy, earnt our contempt.
Ah, but what Australians needed to understand, a European Commission bureaucrat told me as he inhaled his Gauloise in the Berlaymont on that cold winter visit, was that the EU wasn’t just subsidising crops to be more competitive in world markets. The Common Agricultural Policy was about preserving the European rural way of life. Free trade, he said, would kill the agricultural economies around small villages and towns that represented the soul of European societies, like the one I would be sitting in forty years later as the Brits tore themselves apart doing a volte-face. Australians and Kiwis had fought and died to protect, or rescue, those small villages and towns of Europe in World War I and II, but there was as little concern in continental Europe as there was in England, it seemed, for what it might mean for countries far away.
With the UK’s Brexit decision, an apparently pointless full circle seemed to have been completed. But its trajectory was fundamental in transforming two countries at the other end of the world that suddenly found themselves out in the cold. In the wake of that original British decision, Australia and New Zealand were confronted by the need to remake themselves, or perhaps even to make themselves on their own terms for the first time – although other pressures were also building as the post-war economic order started to unravel amid inflation and new fashions in economic thought.
In the course of my research, it has been impossible not to be constantly perplexed by the strange way our two countries regard each other: all that rhetoric about ties forged in blood, and sporting competition, yet a jolly mistrust, disdain and, well, lack of interest. Until recently.
People may now remember shocks other than Britain’s decision to join the EU as greater catalysts for change. But Britain played such an important part in the development of the way our two countries saw themselves in the world and – significantly – saw each other, that for my purposes it is a turning point with an import much closer to home than any other economic or geopolitical event of that period.
We have had so many hotly contested debates in Australia about change. New Zealand has confronted a lot of the same decisions, from economics to indigenous affairs, from foreign policy to welfare reform, from dealing with climate change to projecting ourselves on the world stage. The striking thing in any comparison of our respective policy and political responses is the way they start in very similar places and finish in completely different ones, having followed different paths of argument, despite much similar history and many similar institutions. Shining a light on why that is so – who and what have been influential in these decisions, and what the outcomes have been – helps reveal some of the less obvious influences shaping where Australia is now.
The fact that we have had such an obvious policy laboratory and testing ground for our own debates right on our doorstop yet know so little about New Zealand’s path through this time reflects the insularity of many of the national discussions on both sides of the Tasman.
In his 2001 history of New Zealanders, Paradise Reforged, eminent New Zealand historian James Belich noted an “awe-inspiring” mutual neglect:
This misrepresents a shared past and also deprives historians of a rare opportunity to use each other’s history as a control group, or reference point … In doing so, we not only pass up rich comparative opportunities, but also reinvent our own national histories. New Zealand and Australia, after 1901, required separateness and difference in the present, so they invented it in the past. For the nineteenth century, to an important extent, a wholly separate history of New Zealand and a separate whole history of Australia are gigantic myths, which helped make themselves true in the twentieth century.
No underlying idea has compelled the discussion forward in Australia in the past forty years so much as the idea of opening ourselves to the world. That idea inevitably raised the question of the strategic importance of our region. Yet we talk so often not in the Canberra bubble, but in the Australian bubble: as if the challenges we face are not being confronted by others. We talk of greater ties with our region, yet overlook the neighbour who is closest to us historically. It has taken a dynamic young female prime minister in Wellington to pique our recent interest in New Zealand at a time of disillusionment with our own politics. And in 2020, a catastrophic global pandemic gave us every reason not just to look at, and compare, how New Zealand was dealing with an existential crisis affecting us all, but to see our two countries in the light of a new exceptionalism.
Suddenly, the tyranny of distance which had always worked against us, and the relative success of our governments in dealing with a crisis, created a sense that we may share a potential global advantage: the Australia–New Zealand Bubble..
This is an extract from Laura Tingle's Quarterly Essay, The High Road: What Australia Can Learn from New Zealand. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY