To use the Antipodean vernacular, New Zealand and Australia are great mates. Occupying the same quiet corner of the globe, the neighbours share a similar history; cultures which venerate the egalitarian; accents so alike they are routinely mistaken for each other.
But during recent crises in New Zealand, the relationship has assumed a distinct edge, with Australians criticised as meddling, unwelcome interlopers.
Last week, during the protracted and ultimately fruitless six-day effort to rescue 29 men trapped in the Pike River coal mine, New Zealand media and politicians made a rare show of unity to castigate visiting Australian journalists.
The Aussie’s impolitic tone during a national disaster – one asked why a “local country cop”, actually the district commander, was leading the rescue operation – was labelled “disgraceful” by politicians, resulting in the headline: “‘Boorish’ Australian journalist infuriates”. The explanation that the Australians were observing the robust norms of their domestic media did little to placate locals, whose threats prompted visiting journalists to seek a protective security detail.
The episode echoed criticisms made during the September stand-off over Sir Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films, when threats of industrial action by an actors’ union raised the prospect that the productions would be moved offshore.
When it became apparent that the union was an offshoot of an Australian body, and that the Australian film industry was jockeying to produce the films, a now familiar complaint rang out: that uninvited Australian parties, self-interested and insensitive to local conditions, were tampering in New Zealand affairs to their own ends. The Australian actors’ union head was hectored in the streets.
The anti-Australian outbursts arose during moments of national stress, but stemmed from tensions likely to resurface with increased frequency, as the neighbours converge economically while diverging culturally.
As a maturing New Zealand is distinguishing itself from its big brother, with even the Kiwi accent becoming less Australian, the caricature of New Zealand as a neglected outpost of a greater Australasian economy is becoming increasingly accurate. New Zealand’s banks, media, and insurance companies are Australian-owned, while its per capita GDP of US$29,000 (€22,000) compares unfavourably to Australia’s US$42,000 (€32,000).
As a result, the “Lucky Country” looms large in the public imagination of New Zealanders, although the reverse does not apply. Evidence of this is the fact that, while the Australian High Commission told Monocle it had noticed the tensions, the Australian public is seemingly oblivious.
Not that such spats would ever seriously jeopardise the relationship. No one was surprised that, as mine rescue efforts stalled, Australia was first to send help. Energy Minister Gerry Brownlee was careful to distinguish the offending reporter from his countrymen. “Australia has been so good to us,” he said, “and they get some utter tosspot like that over here.” It was a particularly Australian turn of phrase. As the High Commission’s unconcerned spokeswoman observed, “There’s very little that divides us.”