Although different in their physical environment, climate and scale, New Zealand and Australia are closely integrated regionally, economically, politically and culturally. The two countries have drawn closer and become more entwined since 1980.
Australia and New Zealand had quite separate indigenous histories, settled at different times by very different peoples – Australia from Indonesia or New Guinea around 50,000 years ago, New Zealand from islands in the tropical Pacific around 1250–1300 AD.
They first came together in the European imagination when a French scholar, Charles de Brosses, described the imagined southern continent as ‘Australasie’ (from the Latin for ‘south of Asia’) in 1756, and British explorer James Cook, searching for that continent, mapped New Zealand and the east coast of New South Wales in 1769–70.
‘Australasia’ had fuzzy boundaries. In the first half of the 19th century maps depicted Australasia as comprising Australia and the adjacent islands, including both New Zealand and New Guinea. In some definitions the group even reached into the Pacific, including Fiji. Australian dictionaries still define Australasia as ‘the Australian continent and neighbouring islands.’1 When New Zealanders used the term it meant no more than Australia and New Zealand. It was never popular. In the mid-1920s there was a major campaign led by chambers of commerce and the High Commissioner in London to abolish it as demeaning to New Zealand. However, many organisations continued to use the term.
Australia and New Zealand were both colonised by Britain. New South Wales was the mother colony for New Zealand as well as for eastern Australia. Māori were involved from the start in shaping trans-Tasman relations. Ngāpuhi chiefs invited the first missionaries from Australia in 1814 and chose the first New Zealand flag in 1834 so that they could ply the waters and trade with New South Wales.
Constitutionally New Zealand began as an extension of the colony of New South Wales, which was its status when the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840. New Zealand became a separate colony in 1841.
Many early New Zealand settlers came from Australia – some ex-convicts, some pastoral squatters bringing skills in sheep farming, and in the 1860s many gold miners, who moved from the goldfields of Victoria to Otago and the West Coast. Melbourne, not Sydney, was the port of departure. In the last decades of the 19th century labourers and shearers moved back and forth across the Tasman following work.
During those years New Zealand was known as one of the seven colonies of Australasia. Yet the idea of Australasia failed to unite the colonies. Instead the concept of Australia – ‘a nation for a continent’ – triumphed with the establishment of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901.
New Zealand and Australian federation
Australian federation created an asymmetry of size and power between a suddenly large Australia and small New Zealand. At the time, New Zealand was doing better economically than the Australian colonies and both were restructuring relations with Britain. Federation was more a matter of sentiment than a business deal. New Zealand chose not to become Australia’s seventh state for similar reasons. New Zealanders shared the feelings that drove Australians to federate: they aspired to identity, status and a grander future. Racial attitudes coloured this sentiment. The ‘crimson thread of kinship’ – the British blood tie – ran through all seven colonies. But that was not enough to persuade New Zealanders to join Australia. People feared federation might put New Zealand’s social reforms at risk. Richard Seddon preferred to be premier of an independent country rather than of an Australian state that ranked third after New South Wales and Victoria.
New Zealanders believed they were a better type. Some saw Australia’s tropical north as a threat to their community’s racial – and social – purity. New Zealanders endorsed the White Australia policy but wondered how Australia could be white when it included Queensland with its population of indentured labourers from Melanesia.
Australian federation consolidated national identity on both sides of the Tasman, strengthening views that New Zealand should not sacrifice its independence.