NZ #16: An Australian’s History of New Zealand

By: | Post date: January 11, 2010 | Comments: 1 Comment
Posted in categories: Countries

As I gaze across the grey waters of Lake Wakatipu, and the soggy car park in between, I think I wouldn’t mind right now being in the 43°C weather of Melbourne. I’m wrong: I’d be cursing my lack of effective air conditioning; but I’m bummed out anyway at Nature’s air conditioning here, of three days straight of rain.

Ten days ago I’d finished off Michael King’s Penguin History of New Zealand. The book has saved me from interacting with any locals to learn more about this place: I can do armchair tourism, with an in situ armchair. That may be dysfunctional—as dysfunctional as being bored in Queenstown, Adrenaline Capital Of The World. But then, if I was functional, I wouldn’t be blogging while on holidays in the first place.

So what did I learn from my reading?

New Zealand in King’s account has had contradictions in its history, contradictions that I don’t know what to make of. It was a colony better to its indigenous people than the others; but that still made for paternalism and dismissal. It disengaged from the ANZUS alliance after the Rainbow Warrior bombing; but before that its troops had been the foremost in the British Empire’s wars. It was a laboratory of progressivism, introducing universal male suffrage, women’s suffrage, and the machinery of the welfare state when they were still a gleam in the eye of European social-democrats. But it was also a drab monoculture, which punished people for being different. Gays were closeted and prosecuted decades longer than elsewhere; the meagre Chinese population was still large enough to provoke White New Zealand activism; and Wellington was not a safe place to speak Norwegian.

Seriously, Norwegian. King tells the tale of a New Zealand poet as a child in the ’20s, hanging on the straps with his father in a Wellington tram, and chatting in their native Norwegian. A stalwart of New Zealand monoculture goes up to the father, and punches him to the floor, yelling “Speak English, damn you!”

Norwegian, of all things. But then, Australia was hardly better in the ’20s.

New Zealand is not that place any more. The controversy that greeted the new, slit-the-throat haka of the All Blacks was greeted by a local sports columnist’s chortle: anything that got the Poms that riled up had to be a good thing. The Kiwis have found their anti-Pom moxie, they can pronounce statements that are positively Australianesque in their contempt of the mother country.

But it took Australia a long time to move away from the mother country, and it took New Zealand even longer. Australia at least had the leaven of convicts and the Irish, and some strands of republicanism articulated in the 1890s. It was a long national sleep after that, and through to Menzies’ last cry of loyalism; but there were still spots of autonomy: the hatred engendered by the Bodyline tests in cricket; the national myth of egalitarianism and comradeship (things that were never British virtues); the realisation during World War II that Britain was not going to defend the Pacific, and Australian troops had more pressing terrain to defend than North Africa.

Not so in New Zealand. Its laboratory of progressivism bought in to egalitarianism, and the attempt to reproduce English class structure in Canterbury did not prosper. And unlike Australia, sectarianism did not take hold here, even if the Anglican church had primacy (so much so, the Maori for Anglican is Mihinare: Missionary). New Zealand elected Catholics to be Premiers far earlier than elsewhere.

But notwithstanding, the New Zealand experiment was articulated as an aspiration towards Better Britons. And in King’s account, I didn’t see any competing aspiration to be other-than-Britons, nor a defining date for putting together a new polity, like Australia had. The Australian Commonwealth can hoist its flag to 1901, when Federation was enacted—though in truth, Australia was not much less British afterwards than before. But in New Zealand, premiers changed into prime ministers imperceptibly in 1902: there was no landmark date as in Canada and Australia, to declare this was now a new country.

The negotiations leading up to 1901 did make their own declaration, however: New Zealand ultimately declined to join the Australian federation. Whatever New Zealand was to be, it would not be run out of Melbourne.

The United Kingdom gave New Zealand the legal grounds to be its own country with the 1931 Statute of Westminster, which granted its dominions (its white colonies) autonomy in foreign and domestic affairs, and made their parliaments the equal of London’s. Australians don’t commemorate 1931, and the last tie to British jurisprudence was severed only in 1986. Australia accepted the Statute, but only in 1942, when it was turning to the US for its defence. New Zealand refused to ratify the Statute until 1947. (Newfoundland became Canadian rather than be independent, in 1949.) And while the Japanese were bombing Darwin, and sending submarines to Sydney, New Zealand kept its troops in the European theatre.

From my vantage point, in a post–British Empire world, I cannot comprehend that. At all. The closest I can come is to picture New Zealand as a bright and diligent student, more prudent and more with it than its elder, loutish brother—but refusing to move out of home, even after Mum had already arranged alternate accommodation.

What figure of mid-century advertising kitsch does Australian nostalgia define itself as? Chesty Bond, the ludicrously Aryan 1930s undergarment model?

Maybe not, but it was an archetype with a certain traction. Kiwiana kitsch is never far away from the Four Square Supermarket cartoon. Perky, short, and very very 1950s.

He gets reinvented in bookstore iconography as a Maori, as a bungee jumper, as a guitarist, as any of the current manifestations of New Zealand identity. He’s beloved by the iconographers of this country, despite looking nothing like Chesty Bond. In fact, he looks kinda dorky. Kinda like that bright and diligent student not moving out of home.

It speaks very well of a people when they choose Mr Four Square, instead of Chesty Bond, as the vehicle for their identities: dorks are far more interesting than larrikins. It speaks even better for that people, when they actively reinvent their vehicle, to convey how their identities have diversified. It says their identities have diversified, and that they recognise it, and that they still have an anchor or virtuous dorkiness. Chesty Bond is not so malleable.

New Zealand is not the ’50s Four Square Supermarket kind of country any more, of course, and its mascot has moved out of home: he’s not such a dork, any more. New Zealand’s nostalgia for Kiwiana still has a much more British tinge than the equivalent Australian assertions of identity, and they’re nowhere near as strident or mythologised as Australia’s nationalism has become. But New Zealand is its own country: it doesn’t feel like England, and it doesn’t feel like Australia.

I still haven’t worked out what makes it different, much more than when I was sniffing the air in Cuba St two weeks ago. I think part of the difficulty is that ultimately it’s nowhere near as different from home as the UK or the US is. (Part of it too of course is my general obtuseness, and failing to actually talk to enough people.) The most I’ve worked out it, it’s gentler and more subdued, it’s quirkier and more ironic, it’s more at home in the Pacific, and it’s allowed the People of the Land a greater role in forming its identity.

And as Younger Sibling countries everywhere, it defines itself against the Big Lug Next Door. I’ve been staying in tourist traps in tourist season, and introducing myself as being from Across The Ditch apologetically, the few times I have interacted with the locals. So I haven’t given myself the chance to sample those definitions first-hand. I may have a few more resources now, though, to try those definitions out with the New Zealanders I know back home.

One Comment

  • John Cowan says:

    Next stop, Nepal. Or if too difficult, Wyoming.

    Bodyline tests: I can see why baseball (where intimidation of batters is standard practice, but actually hitting one is punished by allowing a walk (single-base movement)) never caught on outside North America.

    Catholic premiers: No more surprising, really, than Disraeli as P.M.: Catholics weren't a bloc in NZ as they might have been in Australia, any more than Jews were or are in England.

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