In years not long past, New Zealand swung between economic and social policies that sometimes delivered — but usually didn’t.
The “Think Big” schemes of the conservative National government of Sir Robert Mudoon (“Piggy” to his enemies) didn’t deliver anything lasting except big debts. If Australia hadn’t provided a safety valve for New Zealand’s discontented job-seekers, things could have been even worse.
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key.
But now the wheel has swung full circle. According to the international bank, HSBC, New Zealand will be the “rock star” economy of 2014. Just recently, it was announced that New Zealand’s annual economic growth was 3.5 per cent, way better than the Reserve Bank of Australia’s estimate of just over 2 per cent for Australia’s GDP growth.
New Zealand tends to get a bad press in Australia. If the country is no longer regarded as Australia’s “little brother”, then perhaps it might be called Australia’s cousin, “several times removed”.
It is similar to the relationship between the United States and Canada. New Zealand and Canada both tend to be regarded as boring. It is true that New Zealand doesn’t have the mineral resources or wide-open spaces of Australia. With a population and area approximating that of the Australian state of Victoria, New Zealand lacks the bulk of its larger neighbour.
In some ways, New Zealand is far better off. According to New Zealand Roy Morgan Poll, unemployment and under-employment are at their lowest level in five years, and are continuing to fall.
Kiwis take pride in the fact that their country is a very egalitarian society. According to the New Zealand Herald, the Social Progress Imperative — a think-tank headed by Harvard Professor Michael Porter — found that New Zealand is the most socially advanced country in the world.
Why did New Zealand not federate with Australia? Sir John Hall, a New Zealand delegate to the 1890 conference that began the federation process, said there were “1,200 good arguments ”, those being the 1,200 miles of the Tasman Sea that separated New Zealand from Australia.
Ethnicity is a factor often ignored when assessing the differences between the two countries. The English made up the majority of settlers in both countries. Australia had the largest proportion of people of Irish descent outside of Ireland. New Zealand had relatively few Irish settlers, but it did have a large Scottish migration. In towns in the South Island, such as Invercargill, locals talk with a distinct Scottish accent and say things such as, “Will you have a wee cup of tea?”
Those origins are largely a matter of emphasis. Where the two countries differ sharply is in their respective indigenous populations. Before contact with Europeans, Australia’s Aborigines had a stone-age culture that had been unchanged for 50,000 years. As historian Geoffrey Blainey put it, Aboriginal society was “the triumph of the nomads”. The reason Australia was declared terra nullius wasn’t because it was empty; it was because it had no stable population with which to form a treaty. Nomads, by definition, are always moving, and their dwellings and settlements are impermanent.
The Maoris, on the other hand, were Polynesians who had settled in the Land of the Long White Cloud sometime between 1250 and 1300AD. The Maoris grew crops and lived in settlements, or forts, called pa. The settlements were permanent, although they could be abandoned for various reasons. The pa were fortified, because inter-tribal warfare was endemic.
The Maoris didn’t think of themselves as “Maoris” any more than we think of ourselves as “human beings”. If the Martians invaded, we all wouldn’t suddenly cease being Russians, Americans or Australians. So it was with the Maoris. Their allegiance was to their iwi, or tribe. Each iwi would have a marae or ceremonial meeting-house where they would conduct tribal business and ceremonies.
The Maoris initiated contact with the British because they wanted to trade. The Maoris did not have metal, so they wanted metal tools. They also wanted vegetable seeds, because the tropical vegetables they brought with them from Polynesia were not suited to New Zealand’s temperate climate. They were soon selling potatoes in large quantities to sealers and other mariners.
But what they wanted most were muskets. Hongi Hika, a great tribal chief, returned from a trip to England with 500 muskets. He soon controlled most of the North Island, as few other tribes had muskets.
Besides encouraging trade, Hongi Hika also protected the first missionaries and encouraged Christianity.
The British sought to regularise the disordered situation in New Zealand by signing the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 with the North Island chiefs. The “land wars”, known as the Maori Wars, began after the signing.
The Maoris constitute about 15 per cent of the country’s population, the largest ethnic group after the
pakehas (New Zealanders of European descent).
Had indigenous Australians offered organised resistance, our history may have been different.
Jeffry Babb is a Melbourne-based writer. He recently visited New Zealand.