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.
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.