Thursday, 11 December 2014

Shaping a historiography: bringing separate stories together?

A string of recent publications with ‘Australia and New Zealand’ in their titles purport to bring the two countries’ historical experiences together, but continue to address shared issues separately and do not go far beyond the making of comparisons[1]. Bob Catley, an Australian who was Professor of Politics at the University of Otago, attempted to address the age-old question of whether New Zealand and Australia have a united future, but his analysis tends to the polemic[2]. Finally, James Belich in his grand synthesis of New Zealand history, Paradise Reforged, re-emphasises British at the expense of Australian connections and argues that New Zealand departed its ‘old, Tasman world’ in 1901 for a re-colonial relationship with Britain[3].

Since the publication of W. Pember Reeves’ State Experiments in Australia and New Zealand and T. A. Coghlan’s Statistical Account of the Seven Colonies of Australasia in 1902, few historians have been bold enough to discuss both countries together as a continuing community of interests[4]. The problem is that, a century later, there remains a significant gap in vital knowledge of the sustained nature of shared experiments in the twentieth century, the extent of continuing trans-Tasman ties and interactions, and their impact on both nations’ respective identities. Historians always write for their generation, so it is unsurprising that they should want to fill this gap when scholars internationally are seeking historical explanations that focus on interactions, trans-national flows and transfers, the stuff of globalisation.

In New Zealand, the tide is gradually flowing towards a renewed interest in the importance of what are now its closest ties, with Australia. At the University of Canterbury, the New Zealand Historical Association conference in December 2001 ran a dedicated panel discussion on the teaching of Australian history in New Zealand. At the Australian Historical Association conference in July 2002, participants enthusiastically sought ways of better understanding Australia and New Zealand’s shared histories and Jill Roe, President of the AHA, used her welcoming address to call for a new CIR agreement with New Zealand: her term for Closer Intellectual Relations.

One highlight of this trend was the publication in May 2002 of the New Zealand parliamentary report on the country’s economic and trade relationship with Australia that foreshadowed the twentieth anniversary of the free trade agreement known as CER (Closer Economic Relations) in 2003[5]. This report shows a refreshing lack of romanticism in assessing the real nature of the Australia-New Zealand relationship. In summing up the contemptuous familiarity with which New Zealanders and Australians sometimes treat one another, the New Zealand select committee quoted Simon Upton, who is currently at the OECD:

The truth may be, however, that the one-liners paper over a serious awkwardness that has grown, not narrowed, over the years. Australia is a big country that has to be taken seriously. We are, well … in another league shall we say. But that shouldn’t prevent a serious engagement. In fact, from New Zealand’s point of view, it makes it even more imperative. Yet in my time as a parliamentarian, I had far more extensive contact with North American, Asian and European politicians, writers and business people than I did with Australians. It was assumed that Australia was a place you went on sporting missions or winter holidays and that all that inherited fluency would take care of itself. Well it doesn’t.

The report concluded it is time that New Zealand made a twenty-year investment to build a generation of New Zealanders ‘whose fluency with Australia extends beyond good-natured insults and cut-price weekends in Sydney’[6]. The government’s response to this report, in October 2002, puts the onus back on universities to do something about this deficit in knowledge and understanding. The government agrees that it ‘is vital that this most important of New Zealand’s external relationships is underpinned by rigorous analysis’ and declares itself ready to encourage New Zealand tertiary institutions ‘to increase their research capability and effectiveness on trans-Tasman issues in collaboration with Australian counterparts’[7]. It intends to discuss with the Australian government how that country might support these objectives. Such sentiments raise a fundamental problem with research on the trans-Tasman relationship. Australians will not take the initiative; New Zealand will have to do it. The trans-Tasman relationship is not on Australian radar screens because geopolitics dictates that Australia will always look to the United States as its logical comparator.

This brings us back to the ‘Anzac Neighbours’ research project, designed to capture this critical moment. It has been funded to carry out a three-year, multidisciplinary study of the trans-Tasman relationship on a series of fronts, during what we call the ‘long twentieth century’, from the 1880s to the end of the twentieth century. It started from the premise that, whatever singular historical paths Australia and New Zealand took, these are undercut by continuing exchanges at levels of institutional organisation and public policy and through mutual professional, intellectual and cultural influences. The ‘Australian Settlement’ was in fact a shared Antipodean settlement, centred on ethnic solidarity of the ‘white races’, oriented against aliens (especially blacks and Asians) and assuming that indigenous peoples were to die out or amalgamate with settler society. It was also a gender-based settlement, rendering women dependent on the state and with labour policies oriented towards male breadwinners. In this context, both countries were tied early into global economic strategies because they came late to European settlement and were isolated from their imperial founder, Britain. The project considers why an Australasian model of state development, including continuous, interactive flows both ways across the Tasman in public policy and cultural relations, evolved in distinctive ways during the twentieth century and why this model was abandoned in both countries towards the end of that century. There are a set of propositions that are at the heart of the relationship:

· The ‘Tasman world’ that thrived at the end of the nineteenth century did not end with federation of the Australian colonies.

· There have been significant linkages in the ‘Antipodean response’ to the restructurings of the world economy that have taken place during the crises of the 1890s, 1930s and 1980s.

· The ways in which ideas and policies have transferred across the Tasman has been historically conditioned by the ‘density’ of institutional and cultural factors on each side.

· In the construction of their separate national identities, New Zealanders and Australians influenced each other’s to a greater degree, through common stories than has been historically conceded (such stories including the Anzac legend, sporting contests, migration experiences and intermarriage).

· Gender and race dynamics have been mutually informed and influenced by historical transfers of people and ideas since the days of colonial interaction in the nineteenth century and through a common Anglo-Celtic ancestry.

This trans-Tasman project does not re-tell the well-known story of the defence relationship or differences in each country’s foreign policy, although these will be necessary background. Instead, it has focused on cultural relations since the 1880s and on issues of public policy transfer and private commercial networks. Discovering where ties were weak is just as significant for the process of explanation as discovering where and why they were strong. Size and remoteness suggest that New Zealand will be the larger beneficiary of this research, but the hope is that both Australian and New Zealand histories will be the richer for more awareness of each other and their exchange of people and ideas.

[1] T. Brabazon Tracking the Jack: a Retracing of the Antipodes, University of New South Wales Press, 2000 is a cultural studies text that sees Australia and New Zealand as a combined Antipodean space. Yet Brabazon does not deal with them as interactive spaces and notes that the trans-Tasman relationship is ‘astonishingly under-defined’ (p. 161). There is a cartoon history from a New Zealand viewpoint: I. F. Grant The Other Side of the Ditch: a Cartoon Century in the New Zealand – Australia Relationship, New Zealand Cartoon Archive, in association with Tandem Press, 2001.

[2] B. Catley Waltzing with Matilda: Should New Zealand Join Australia?, Dark Horse, 2001.

[3] J. Belich Paradise Reforged: a History of the New Zealanders from the 1880s to the Year 2000, Allen Lane, 2001, pages 46–52.

[4] W. P. Reeves State Experiments in Australia and New Zealand, 2 Vols., Grant Richards, 1902; T. A. Coghlan A Statistical Account of the Seven Colonies of Australasia, 1901–1902, 9th issue, Government of the State of New South Wales, 1902.

[5] Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee Inquiry into New Zealand’s Economic and Trade Relationship with Australia, Wellington, 2002.

[6] Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee Inquiry into New Zealand’s Economic and Trade Relationship with Australia, Wellington, 2002, page 12.

[7] Government Response to Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee, October 2002.

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