Isn’t it time we gave up bitching about the neighbours?
by Gordon Campbell
Amidst the celebrations about our fine efforts at the London Olympics in London, there was at least one downside. The Olympics gave another chance for this country to indulge in one of its more juvenile past-times – namely, the intense rivalry said to exist between New Zealand and an Australia that for most of its waking life, is barely aware of our existence. Briefly, at the start of the Games, New Zealand was winning more medals than Australia, whose swimmers famously failed to fire. Much local glee and schadenfreude ensued. As the Games wore on, something more akin to normality (ie Aussie supremacy) was restored, although some people still tried to argue that even Australia’s belated success was due to motivation supplied by New Zealand.
One can safely assume the rivalry with Australia will continue to be part of our cultural identity, however one-sided a concern it may be. Most of the time, New Zealand’s obsession with Australia looks a lot like the irritating behaviour of a kid brother when their older, more mature sibling begins to take an interest in the opposite sex – or in this case, the world beyond Australasia. The kid brother tries to get in the way, indulges in ‘hey look at me’ behaviours, giggles whenever big brother makes a fool of himself, and generally behaves like a little brat. That seems to be the role that New Zealand has chosen to play vis a vis Australia. It is kind of embarrassing.
Does this Transtasman rivalry affect us all that much? More than you’d think and in ways we barely sense, apparently. A couple of years ago, a team of linguists found that in the presence of a list of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ facts about Australia, our intonation changed depending on whether we were sports fans, or not. Given positive facts about Australia, the non-sports fans began to use inflections more like those of Australians. Yet faced with the same positive information about Australia, New Zealand sports fans defensively started talking more like Kiwis. Given ‘bad’ facts about Australia, the reverse tended to occur – non-sports fans began to use Kiwi inflections, while the sports fans relaxed and eased up on the home-grown pronunciations.
Aussie Baiting, a Case Study
On August 13, 2012 under the headline “Queenstown Police Slam Aussie Drunks” the NZ Herald ran a story reprinted from the Otago Daily Times, that had called it “Drunk Australians Testing Police Patience.” It began like this:
Queenstown police’s patience for drunken young Australian men behaving badly in the resort is wearing thin. Police dealt with seven on Friday and Saturday, including one man who had to be rescued after he undressed and jumped into the Kawarau River while on a commercial jet boat ride.
Over the past six weeks, Queenstown police have dealt with dozens of intoxicated Australians, mostly men. They have been charged with offences ranging from assault and breaking and entering and fighting in public.
And the same story, same day, ran on another news outlet with a similar headline (“Patience For Drunken Aussies Wearing Thin”) but with this added information that somehow eluded both the NZ Herald and the ODT:
Sergeant Mark Gill [said] that considering the amount of tourists that came through Queenstown at this time of the year, the situation sounds worse than it actually is. “It definitely is the busiest time of the year, and we get tourists from all over the world here, but by far and away the most we get are Australian.”
Ministry of Economic Development figures indicate more than 1.1 million Aussies travelled through Queenstown Airport in 2010. Gill [said] these sorts of problems will always occur, but “as a rule” Australians were generally no worse than anyone else.
Right. So among the 1.1 million Australian visitors to Queenstown, a few of them have a bit of trouble at times with their liquor intake. Goodness gracious. Surely, that would never happen if you dropped 1.1 million mostly young, mostly male New Zealanders on holiday into a self-described party town. But…if the ratio of drunk Australians to sober ones really is no worse than among people from anywhere else, there’s no story. Except that they’re Aussies, they’re here, and a few of them get really annoying at times.
Is there another way of relating to Australia, beyond this kneejerk fixation with sporting rivalry? Well…there are artists, writers and musicians in Australia that we know next to nothing about. In fact, many (most?) New Zealanders hardly know anything at all about Australia beyond the kangaroos, Kylie Minogue and Quade Cooper. That’s a pity, given that we’re now well down the track to becoming a branch office of the Australian economy. On 2009 figures 529,000 New Zealanders live over there, and they’ve invested $52 billion over here, which means they’re the biggest single foreign investor in this country. (By contrast, China has invested $1.8 billion here.) They’re our biggest export market, and provide nearly 20% of our total imports.
Call it treason, but does it matter much if we beat them at rugby and sometimes at netball and (very occasionally) at cricket if… day in, day out, they control our banks and our media and provide the bulk of the region’s defence forces and regional economic stability and serve as a migration magnet for our over-achievers and under-achievers alike? Regardless of Australia’s dominance, the place remains pretty much terra incognita. Our media for instance, has given us barely an inkling of the implications of Tony Abbott succeeding Julia Gillard as the leader of the economy on which we most depend. Given how much of New Zealand the Aussies already own, we probably should be voting in their elections.
Face it. It would be dead boring, stuck here at the end of the world, without them. Some Aussie traits – their assertiveness, optimism, and sense of humour – are qualities we’d like to demonstrate more often. What the rivalry with Australia underlines is just how nebulous this ‘national identity’ bizzo really is. Evidently, there is a version of Kiwi nationalism that puts great store in beating the Australians at sport. There is also a strand of Kiwi nationalism that takes immense pride in the Lord of the Rings films. In yet another guise, Kiwi nationalism can involve treating the haka as the default setting for almost every celebration or occasion of national sorrow. Thankfully, it remains possible to be a New Zealander while taking a pass on all of the above, and more.
The political historian Benedict Anderson once pointed out in a book called Imagined Communities that nationalism is a limited, totally artificial construct – but one so potent that people can be willing to die for this imagined sense of community with people they will never meet. There’s no accounting for it. For some, the mere sight of a Kiwi team on the sports field triggers what Anderson – in all seriousness – once called ‘a deep sense of horizontal comradeship. ‘
For others…not so much of the horizontal mateship, thanks. But feel free to keep on dissing Australians if you feel like it, whenever. Most of the time they don’t give a toss, either way.