Ed#469: Kiwis can fly

13 October 2014 Alan Attwood

Ed#469: Kiwis can fly

This is a shameful confession, but I don’t think I’ve been in New Zealand since 1990, when Auckland staged the Commonwealth Games. As a journalist for an Australian publication I often had a media pass dangling from my neck. It wasn’t uncommon for a local to spot this and then start an exchange, which usually began with: “Australia, eh?” The tone tended to be edgy, if not quite hostile. I attributed this to understandable resentment towards neighbours who’d accepted their hospitality and then mopped up most of the sporting glory: at those Games, Australia claimed 162 medals, NZ 58. This year, at Glasgow’s Games just a few months ago, the respective medal tallies were 137 to 45. But in many other more important areas (and not just rugby), NZ is now doing very well. Celebrating his recent re-election, NZ Prime Minister John Key declared: “We are the finest little nation on the planet… Our future as a country is bright, our opportunities are unlimited.” He may be right.

An Australian leader, incidentally, would never use ‘little’ as an adjective to describe their country, although ‘finest’ could be a contender. Australians overestimate their importance on the global stage; by contrast, Key seems content to award his country an Oscar in a supporting role. History has linked the two nations, which share a British heritage, a military legacy (not least as ANZACs on the Gallipoli peninsula in 1915–16) and, certainly when I lived in Sydney in the late 1970s, a great many share-houses. Last year, an estimated 640,770 NZ citizens were living in Australia – and they can’t all have been around Bondi. Several have links to The Big Issue: their personal reflections on split identities feature in our cover package.

Australia is still the senior partner in the relationship, with a population of 23.6 million compared with 4.5 million in NZ. But there is increasingly the sense that NZ and its people are – to borrow a sporting term – punching well above its weight. Not least at the track, which is especially relevant during spring racing carnivals. Another Melbourne Cup is approaching; another chance for a horse with NZ-links to clean up. Some of the greatest names in Cup history (as far back as Carbine in 1890, the mighty Phar Lap in 1930 and then the appropriately named come-from-behind winner Kiwi in 1983) have been NZ-bred horses.

In many other fields, too, NZ voices are heard. Actors? Everywhere. Sam Neill. Russell Crowe. Anna Paquin. Rebecca Gibney. Writers? Start with Janet Frame and Lloyd Jones. Musicians? Welcome the Finn brothers on stage and go from there. Comedians? Open the batting with John Clarke (a contributor to this edition, on p15) and follow with the inspired duo, Flight of the Conchords. Their TV show relentlessly poked fun at Australians. To the long-suffering Murray Hewitt at the NZ consulate in Manhattan, Australians were always rude, overbearing…and had odd accents. A running gag in the series was the ever-changing tourism posters in Murray’s office, which had slogans ranging from New Zealand – It’s Not Going Anywhere to New Zealand – Like Lord of the Rings. The latter, blockbuster movie trilogy did wonders for NZ tourism, taking to the world the country’s spectacular scenery.

It all adds up to an impression that Kiwis are presently more certain about their sense of themselves, and their place in the world, than Australians. You may not agree with PM Key’s politics, but he has provided what Australia has sorely lacked over the past six years: stable government. One national newspaper here recently ran a headline suggesting that there was much Tony Abbott could learn from his NZ counterpart. If only some of those prickly Auckland storekeepers could have seen something similar during those long-gone Games.

Alan Attwood, Editor

This article appears in Ed#469