Big policy ideas usually don’t come up in parliamentary valedictory speeches – they’re for saying goodbye and thank you. So departing Labour MP Jamie Strange was the exception last week when he made a case for New Zealand and Australia becoming one country.
The main problem, he joked, would be integrating the Australian cricket team. But he talked up the potential economic benefits, and the option does remain open under sections 6 and 121 of the Australian Constitution.
In fact, New Zealand did seriously consider joining the Australian federation in the 1890s. After all, it had been administered as part of the colony of New South Wales for about a year after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840.
And the relationship was already close. Māori traders began visiting Sydney from the 1790s. Settlers moved back and forth across the Tasman from the earliest contact.
Quite how such a union might be forged in the 21st century, however, raises some interesting questions about how similar – or dissimilar – the two countries have since become.
A simplified relationship
Political union would simplify the relationship: trade would be more efficient, social and cultural ties might be strengthened, passports wouldn’t be needed and banking would be easier.
Indeed, an Australian parliamentary committee recommended political union in 2006, but the New Zealand prime minister at the time, Helen Clark, rejected the idea. The then opposition leader, Don Brash, said it should at least be considered, but found little support.
The committee’s second preference was for a common currency to make trans-Tasman business easier.
But close relationships don’t require political union. Australia and New Zealand hold regular ministerial meetings, share various regulatory standards, and there is military and intelligence cooperation.
There are also important policy differences – such as over the AUKUS security pact and New Zealand’s nuclear-free policy. Union wouldn’t mean the two countries coming together as equals. New Zealand members of an Australian government would influence those policies, but they wouldn’t determine them.
From nation to state
Current constitutional arrangements would mean New Zealand simply became a state of the existing Commonwealth of Australia. It would elect members to the federal parliament, but it would no longer have an independent voice in international forums.
Under the Australian Constitution, the New Zealand state parliament would be responsible for schooling, hospitals and transport, among the reserve powers of the Australian states.
Foreign policy, defence, monetary policy, higher education, pharmaceutical and GP funding would be among the responsibilities transferred to Canberra. A better cricket team might not be compensation enough.
But thinking seriously about the idea would also require both countries to consider how they might forge a different commonwealth together. And that would require an assessment of underlying national values that rarely troubles political discourse in either country.
The Voice and the Treaty
Nowhere would this be more evident than in the respective debates about whether democracy should be properly inclusive of Indigenous peoples.
In Australia, opinion polls are showing the proposed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament doesn’t have the support it needs to pass a referendum later this year. The tone of that debate also shows just how differently Australia and New Zealand think about such issues.
In my book Sharing the Sovereign, I argued that while the guaranteed Māori seats in parliament (introduced in 1867) and the role of the Treaty of Waitangi are sharply contested in New Zealand, their influence is gradually increasing.
Political resistance to the ACT Party’s policy of marginalising the Treaty in public life is likely to be intense if it forms part of the government after the election in October. But even then, the idea that Māori people have a voice in government is largely accepted.
Australia’s prime minister argues that the Voice is a matter of justice because “it is common courtesy to consult people when you’re taking a decision that affects them”. The inference being that while First Nations people can have “their” say, “we” are still in charge.
As Wiradjuri scholar Stan Grant observed about the country he grew up in: “we lived in Australia, and Australia was for other people”.
Culture and public life
Based on population, New Zealand would be entitled to about one-sixth of the seats in the Australian House of Representatives. Like the other states it would elect 12 senators. There is no guaranteed Indigenous representation in either house and Australia would no doubt struggle to accept Māori representation. At best, there might be two or three Māori seats in the lower house.
In reality, the Māori presence in public life gives New Zealand a cultural certainty and security that is not so evident in Australia.
And the Treaty of Waitangi extends that place to all migrants. Samoan, Tongan, Chinese and Dutch MPs (among others) occasionally speak their languages in parliament as statements of identity and belonging.
Meanwhile, section 44(1) of the Australian Constitution says people who hold dual or multiple citizenships are not eligible for election to parliament. Although more than half the Australian population was either born overseas or has a parent born elsewhere, this multicultural demographic is not represented in its parliament.
Indeed, then-deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce was forced to leave parliament in 2017 after it was discovered he held New Zealand citizenship. He was one of many forced out in similar circumstances – a citizen of a “foreign power” only by descent but apparently therefore a threat to national security.
Cultural insecurity seems the more likely explanation. In an article on the section 44 scandal, I pointed out the absurdity by describing myself as “a citizen of Australia, Ireland and New Zealand who supports the All Blacks, drinks Guinness and looks forward to fighting for Tamworth when Dunedin invades”.
Australia and New Zealand may well be similar enough for political union to be an idea worth considering, but rejecting – if only to help us each to understand ourselves better.