New Zealand’s relationship with Australia is examined in depth in Bruce Munro’s Otago Daily Times feature, Ditching the big brother thing. In this Munro uses the analogy of big and little brothers, suggesting that ‘We are the aggrieved little brother - discriminating and belittling at every opportunity, constantly comparing to see if we measure up, secretly envious and resentful of the other's perceived strengths and achievements’. I’m quoted in the article trying to explain this unusual relationship. In this blog post, I expand on my arguments about NZ’s ‘little brother’ relationship with Australia. [Read more below]
New Zealand's political and social relationship with Australia does indeed have many of the characteristics of a big brother-little brother syndrome. And more often than not, New Zealand comes across as a rather troubled sibling. We collectively often betray a national sense of inadequacy and inferiority with both displays of bravado and machismo towards our superior big brother, as well as when we highlight the country's inferior economic standing compared to Australia.
So where does this rather schizophrenic way of relating to Australia come from? First, the rather immature put-downs of ‘Aussies’ – such as with Rob Muldoon's IQ quip – are indeed a common occurrence at all levels of New Zealand society, and indicate an underlying sense of social-national inadequacy on the part of New Zealanders. Such a sense of social-national inferiority has a long history and can be seen as largely a result of the failure in New Zealand to create an assertive and well-defined sense of national identity. Whereas in Australia, a strong sense of collective identity and place in the world has been present for a long time, New Zealanders struggle to define 'who we are' and what 'our' role is in this era of globalisation. Historically New Zealand defined itself in relation to the 'mother county' Britain. But especially since the 70s with Britain's entry into the European Common Market, New Zealand's leaders have struggled to define the country's place in the world. Whereas Australia is a significant global economic player and has aggressively taken on the opportunities presented by globalisation, New Zealand's political leadership often seem lost and lacking in any bold ideas or sense of where they are taking the country. John Key certainly personifies this visionless politics. So when Key and others compare New Zealand to Australia, either in terms of cheeky put downs of our big brother or as a call to lift the country's performance, this really amounts to just empty politics and platitudes.
Second, this country has a very strong sense of ‘little New Zealand nationalism’ – which is a sort of culture whereby we take nationalistic pride in being so small and allegedly ‘punching above our weight’ internationally. We revel in being the plucky tiny country in so many ‘David and Goliath contests. And of course the counter to this is to see our much larger neighbour as a bully. And to make much of this narrative work, we have to invent all manner of prejudices about Australia and Australians. Of course, all of this simply boils down to a petty nationalism – which is, of course, everywhere in the world. But what makes our petty nationalistic rivalry so strange is the fact that mostly, our two nations are incredibly similar. Our shared experiences and similar cultures could make for a closeness, but instead it mostly fosters a petty rivalry.
Interestingly, New Zealanders who have spent significant time in Australia generally have a very positive view of the country. And it’s worth noting that those who embrace the Australian spirit seem to do far better across the ditch than in New Zealand’s arguably more stifling and conformist social environment. Therefore, New Zealand's relationship with their big brother also takes on the characteristics of a rather conservative and cautious younger sibling, just recently detached from its mother’s apron strings, struggling to come to terms with their rather boisterous, independent and successful big brother.