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by  John Wilson

Since the early 1800s Aussies have crossed the Tasman Sea and made their mark. Whalers, prime ministers, gold miners, trade unionists, farmers, business people – they have contributed in almost every sphere to the development of their neighbour and ally.

Neighbouring nations

After visiting New Zealand in 1895, the American writer Mark Twain observed that ‘all people think that New Zealand is close to Australia … and that you cross to it on a bridge’. 1 But as Twain pointed out, the gap between is very wide – it is over 2,000 km from Auckland to Sydney. However, this has not prevented constant movement between the two countries – often referred to as ‘crossing the ditch’.

There are few restrictions on citizens of either country crossing the Tasman Sea. This long-standing freedom of movement was enshrined in a trans-Tasman travel agreement in 1973. People generally migrated in search of better jobs or pay. Historian Rollo Arnold described this as a ‘perennial interchange’, which quickened when depression in one country coincided with prosperity in the other.

1,200 reasons not to join Australia

When New Zealand decided not to join the Australian colonies in their proposed new federation, the notable New Zealand politician, Sir John Hall, declared in Melbourne that ‘Nature has made 1,200 impediments to the inclusion of New Zealand in any such federation in the 1,200 miles of stormy ocean which lies between us and our brethren in Australia.’ 2

Many professionals have pursued careers in both countries since trans-Tasman travel became commonplace. Workers and managers in the mining, sawmilling, meat-freezing and dairying industries regularly crossed the Tasman. New Zealand artists and entrepreneurs headed for Australia’s cities, while Australian farmers moved to New Zealand.

Emerging identities

Both countries were settled primarily by the British, and both adopted British institutions. With these strong similarities, by the late 19th century the two peoples were grouped under the label ‘Australasians’. Later they frequently referred to each other as ‘cousins’.

Migration between the two countries was often of no more significance in shaping New Zealand society than movement between the North and South islands. Nevertheless, by 1900 the countries were distinct. Australia’s beginnings had been more turbulent and its divisions of class and religion were sharper. No convicts had been transported to New Zealand, and New Zealanders believed they were of a ‘better selected’ stock. New Zealand was more heavily Scottish and Australia more Irish.

When the new Australian Federation was established, New Zealand chose not to join as the seventh state. After 1 January 1901 there were two countries, not seven Australasian colonies. But during the First World War, the two nations forged a new connection through the shared experience of the Gallipoli landing.

Not on speaking terms

Most people think that Australia and New Zealand have a common popular culture. But in 1947, the New Zealand poet A. R. D. Fairburn said that ‘looking at the state of cultural relations between Australia and New Zealand I can’t help thinking of two ship-wrecked Englishmen who lived together for years on a desert island without speaking because they hadn’t been introduced.’ 3

After the Second World War Australia opened its doors to southern and eastern Europeans, and to Asians. New Zealand continued to draw its immigrants mainly from the United Kingdom. Earlier differences became more pronounced. Australians were thought to be more brash and ‘American’, New Zealanders more reserved and ‘British’.

Australia’s influence on New Zealand

Because of the continual mixing of the two peoples, Australia’s impact on New Zealand cannot be measured simply by the number of resident Australians. Australian experiences, attitudes and values have also been imported by New Zealanders who returned after long periods of residence in Australia.

‘Australian-born’ also meant little when Australians came to New Zealand as children. One of New Zealand’s Australian-born prime ministers, Joseph Ward, actually spent most of his formative years in New Zealand.

  1. Mark Twain. More tramps abroad. London: Chatto & Windus, 1907, p. 166. › Back
  2. Quoted in Murray McCaskill, ‘The Tasman connection: aspects of Australian–New Zealand relations.’ Australian Geographical Studies 20 (April 1982): 10–11. › Back
  3. Quoted in Keith Sinclair, ed. Tasman relations: New Zealand and Australia, 1788–1988. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1987, p. 66. › Back

Early arrivals

New Zealand: Australia’s new frontier

Systematic European settlement of Australia began in 1788, half a century earlier than in New Zealand. Many of New Zealand’s earliest Europeans brought important skills and knowledge acquired in Australia.

Initially, most economic activity in New Zealand was controlled from Sydney. Sydneysiders manned early sealing and sawmilling camps and shore whaling stations, but relatively few were Australian. One of the first to settle in New Zealand was Jacky Marmon, son of an Irish convict, in 1823. Another 1820s arrival, the sealer Thomas Chaseland, had an English father and Aboriginal mother.

Named after Australians

Sealers and whalers from Australia were among New Zealand’s earliest European visitors. Some left their names on the New Zealand coast.

Chaslands Mistake is named after the legendary whaler Thomas Chaseland whose mother was an Aborigine. His ‘mistake’ was to delay slaughtering a herd of seals he came upon one evening: by morning they had disappeared.

Other early place names which commemorate Australians are Port Underwood, Lords River, Port Levy and an old name for Lyttelton Harbour, Port Cooper.


Escaped or freed convicts came to New Zealand from Australia in sufficient numbers to ‘render somewhat false the commonly held New Zealand conceit about purer origins’. 1 The Sydney Herald estimated in 1837 that there were between 200 and 300 former convicts in New Zealand. Deserting sailors and ruffians also arrived, eager to escape the law. As late as 1849, the labouring population in Lyttelton was said to include escaped prisoners and convicts.

Two of the first women to arrive from Australia were Charlotte Badger and Catharine Hagerty, English ex-convicts who lived at the Bay of Islands for a number of months in 1806. They had reached New Zealand after mutineers seized a vessel they were on on the Tasmanian coast. Thomas Birch, an English labourer transported to Sydney in 1819, settled in New Zealand in 1827 after being freed.


New Zealand’s first Christian mission was established by Samuel Marsden, a Sydney chaplain. But the mission settlers Marsden sent to New Zealand were recruited in England.

‘A better class of settler’

Organised settlement of New Zealand began in 1840. The New Zealand Company, driven by the colonial vision of Edward Gibbon Wakefield, wished to exclude Australian convicts and pastoral squatters alike and brought its settlers from the United Kingdom.

Nevertheless, in the 1840s and 1850s settlers for Wellington were recruited in Australia, and Otago and Canterbury gained Australian migrants as their farming industries expanded. Auckland, freer of Wakefield’s prejudices, drew more Australians than other regions did. In the early 1850s the city was ‘a mere section of the town of Sydney transplanted’. 2 But overall most arrivals from Australia had originally come from Britain. A relatively small number were Australian-born.

    • Keith Sinclair, ed., Tasman relations: New Zealand and Australia, 1788–1988. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1987, p. 54. › Back
    • Keith Sinclair. A history of New Zealand. Auckland: Penguin, 1959, p. 98. › Back

Sheep farmers, gold miners, soldiers

Sheep farmers

New Zealand’s wool industry began when men and stock arrived from Australia in the early 1840s. More came in the 1850s, when drought in Australia coincided with buoyant wool prices and the discovery of native pasture in Canterbury. These ‘shagroons’ – who owned huge flocks of sheep, which they put out to pasture on leased land – quickly merged into Canterbury’s community of large-scale sheep farmers.

Along with the sheep farmers came station hands, among them a handful of Aborigines. With nicknames such as ‘Black Billy’ or ‘Black Jack’, they earned renown as stockmen.

Gold miners

It was an Australian, Gabriel Read, whose 1861 discovery sparked the Otago gold rush. During the next six years, over 50,000 came from Australia seeking gold. Many had merely passed through Australia, but by 1867 there were over 11,000 Australians living in New Zealand.

Miners from Australia’s main goldfields in Victoria flocked to Otago. The discovery of gold on the West Coast sparked another wave – Hokitika was described as a suburb of Melbourne. Many miners left once the rushes subsided, but some remained in the stable goldmining communities of Otago and the West Coast.

Australian experience guided the organisation of New Zealand goldfields. Vincent Pyke had spent more than a decade in Australia before crossing to Otago in 1862. As a commissioner, he prepared regulations to control gold mining in New Zealand.

Some who came from the Australian goldfields became prominent New Zealanders, among them two premiers: Julius Vogel, born in London, had spent nine years in Australia; Lancashire-born Richard Seddon was in Victoria from 1863 to 1866. The Australian gold miners were strongly independent and democratic. They had a long-term effect on New Zealand’s political culture.


In the 1860s the New Zealand wars brought nearly 2,500 Australian troops to the North Island. Encouraged by the offer of free land, they were recruited to fight in the Waikato. Most were single men, but about 1,000 dependants also came.

Australian architects

The Bank of New Zealand’s first substantial premises in both Auckland and Christchurch were designed by a Melbourne architect, Leonard Terry. Another of Christchurch’s earliest stone buildings, the Durham Street Methodist Church, was designed by the Melbourne firm, Crouch and Wilson. Three important early New Zealand architects, William Mason, R. A. Lawson and W. B. Armson, all spent time in Australia before moving on to New Zealand.

Arrivals 1890–1910

Exodus to Australia

In the late 1880s times were hard in New Zealand, while Australia prospered. An exodus from New Zealand was the result: nearly 25,000 people left for Australia between 1886 and 1891.

… and to New Zealand

In the 1890s, as depression overtook Victoria and New South Wales, New Zealand’s economy became more buoyant. The flow of people to Australia slowed and reversed during Australia’s great drought, which was at its worst in the early 1900s.

Between 1901 and 1906 New Zealand’s Australian-born population increased from 26,991 to 47,256. By 1911 they numbered 50,693, a level not reached again for 60 years. Most who arrived in the early 20th century remained.

New Zealand gained around 60,000 people from Australia between 1891 and 1914. This included some returning New Zealanders, and British migrants moving on to New Zealand.

Rural Australians

The rural Australians who came in these years were ‘men of the very best type; hardy, self-reliant, sinewy men, really seeking work’. 1 Many went to the farming frontiers of the central North Island.

When drought struck in Queensland there was, for the first time, significant migration from that state to New Zealand.


In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, shearers from New Zealand and Australia followed an annual cycle that began in Queensland and ended in Southland. Australian shearers tended to come and go, rather than settle. But Charles Stephen Boreham, who first came in 1884, eventually stayed and became prominent in the trade union movement.

Australian radicals

The Maoriland Worker was a left-wing publication of the early 20th century. It may have had a New Zealand name, but was founded by an Australian shearer, Mick Laracy. He was succeeded as editor by two more Australians, R. S. Ross and Harry Holland. All three are names of significance in New Zealand’s labour history.

Miners and militants

In the early 20th century depression hit the Australian coal industry. Australian miners migrated to the West Coast coalfields, and also to quartz gold mining areas such as Waihī and Īnangahua counties.

These miners had a profound impact. They included socialists who helped to revive militant unionism in New Zealand, and to form the ‘Red’ Federation of Labour in 1908.

Among the Australian-born radicals who came to New Zealand were Michael Joseph Savage, Robert Semple, William Parry, Patrick Webb and Mark Fagan. All five were later members of the 1935 Labour cabinet, and Savage became prime minister. Another Australian who for many years led the Labour Party, Harry Holland, arrived in 1912.

These reformers saw what had happened in Australia as an object lesson. They hoped New Zealand could avoid, for example, allowing run holders to wield excessive power, or capitalists to exploit workers.

Cultural influences

A woman mountaineer

Mountain-starved Australian climbers have been crossing the Tasman Sea for more than a century, to make ascents in New Zealand’s Southern Alps. At a time when women climbers were frowned on by many, a young woman from Sydney, Freda du Faur (1882–1935), made notable ascents in the Southern Alps and became an inspiration to others. A main divide peak, Du Faur Peak, is named after her; next to it is Cadogan Peak, named after Muriel Cadogan, her companion of many years.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries there was ‘an Australasian cultural world based in Sydney and Melbourne, with Queensland and New Zealand as its provinces’. 2 By reading publications such as the Bulletin, the Australasian and the Sydney Mail, New Zealanders stayed abreast of Australian affairs. They also enjoyed books by such Australian authors as Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson (who spent a year in New Zealand). Stage shows toured from Sydney or Melbourne. Later, popular radio shows, movies and comic books passed on Australian values and attitudes to New Zealand audiences.

  1. Quoted in Murray McCaskill, ‘The Tasman connection: aspects of Australian–New Zealand relations.’ Australian Geographical Studies 20 (April 1982): 12. › Back
  2. Jock Phillips. ‘Musings in Maoriland – or was there a Bulletin school in New Zealand.’ Historical Studies 20, no. 81 (October 1983): 522. › Back

Into the present

For several decades from 1906, when the Australian drought broke, relatively few Australians moved to New Zealand. Their numbers in New Zealand fell from a peak of 50,693 in 1911 to 36,789 in 1945. They remained around this level until 1961.

As the New Zealand economy diversified, the number of Australian residents rose again, reaching over 60,000 in 1976. Yet they represented less than 2% of New Zealand’s population.

Mates together

It has been said that one of the most powerful connections between Australians and New Zealanders was fighting alongside each other in the First World War, in the ANZAC Corps (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps). The New Zealand politician John A. Lee wrote of this experience: ‘Out here an Australian is just an Ossie, and a good pal. A New Zealander is to most Ossies a pig islander. Both spend most of their drinking time telling one another what fine fellows they are’. 1

1975 onwards: Australians and Kiwis migrate

After 1975 affordable air travel made it easier for Australians who had been living in New Zealand to return home, and made possible a massive exodus from New Zealand to Australia. By 1996 there were 291,400 New Zealanders living in Australia.

Some of these Kiwis eventually returned, bringing trans-Tasman cultural influences with them. Some also brought Australian spouses and children. These mixed families soon merged with New Zealand’s wider community.

Among the Australians who moved to New Zealand were business managers on transfer. Increasingly, New Zealand banks and insurance firms became branch offices of Australian companies. Resentment surfaced at Australians occupying posts to which New Zealanders aspired. In particular when Australians were recruited as coaches for the New Zealand cricket and rugby league teams, eyebrows rose – the two countries are fierce sporting rivals.

Sporting friends and rivals

In 1907–9 and 1914 (after New Zealand had declined to join the Australian Federation) Anthony Wilding of Christchurch and Norman Brookes of Melbourne won the Davis Cup for ‘Australasia’. The countries shared an Olympic team until 1919.

Today, Australia and New Zealand are fiercely competitive on the sporting field. The low point in the relationship was reached in 1981. At the Melbourne Cricket Ground, an Australian bowled the last ball of a match underarm to a New Zealand batsman, to rule out any possibility of a New Zealand victory. New Zealanders sniffed at Australian ‘sportsmanship’.

Although most Australians lived in Auckland, returning New Zealanders tended to take their Australian spouses and children back to the regions they had come from.

This century

A small but steady stream of Australians continued to flow in during the 1990s, and in 2013 there were more than 62,000 living in New Zealand. The children of returning Kiwis and their Australian spouses were a significant part of this group. However, Australians still formed only 1.5% of the population.

Australian identity in New Zealand

Australians blended easily into the local society, distinguished mainly by their accents. Their active participation in New Zealand life reduced the need for Australian cultural organisations. In Wellington an informal ‘Sundowners Club’ helped new arrivals make minor cultural adjustments. Both Aussies and Kiwis began to play Australian football in New Zealand. And the Australian Interest Group, formed in 1994 within the New Zealand Society of Genealogists, traced the Australian (including convict) ancestry of New Zealanders.

    • Quoted in Erik Olssen, The Red Feds. Auckland: Oxford University Press, p. 39. › Back

Facts and figures

Country of birth

The New Zealand census figures listed here show the number of residents born in Australia.

  • 1858 census: 1,510
  • 1901 census: 26,991
  • 1951 census: 35,828
  • 1976 census: 61,151
  • 2001 census: 56,142
  • 2006 census: 62,634
  • 2013 census: 62,712

Ethnic identity

In the 2006 and 2013 censuses, people were asked to indicate the ethnic group or groups with which they identified. The numbers include those who indicated more than one group.

  • Australian: 26,355 (2006); 22,467 (2013)

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: John Wilson, 'Australians', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 June 2024)

Story by John Wilson, published 8 February 2005, updated 10 March 2015