For many of us, New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark is the leader we wish we had. Ms Clark’s preparedness to oppose the war in Iraq, her capacity to make Australia look mean-spirited when her government agreed to take in asylum seekers who had landed in Australia on leaky boats, and her adventurous remaking of her country as a world-class creative centre, gets a big tick from many on this side of the Tasman.
So it was no surprise that Ms Clark was prepared last week to pour some cold water on the idea of a further deepening of the ties between Australia and New Zealand. Ms Clark’s comment on New Zealand radio last Monday that "Our countries have quite different histories and I think if anything the cultures of the two countries are moving further apart," is self-evident.
Australia’s convict past and historical xenophobia about "Asian hordes" sweeping across the vast brown land and enslaving the Australian people are two obvious points of difference between New Zealand and our country. Both these characteristics are, unfortunately, alive and well today.
The Howard government’s policy of detaining asylum seekers on its mainland and on the impoverished Pacific island of Nauru plays directly to the imagined fear of invasion from the "north". This fear, tapped into successfully by Pauline Hanson, and harnessed by Mr Howard to ensure he won the 2001 Australian general election, overrides those other Australian characteristics of compassion and mateship.
By contrast, Ms Clark’s government has been prepared to resettle Afghan, Iraqi and Iranian asylum seekers and help them rebuild their shattered lives in New Zealand. Images of New Zealanders’ generosity towards these asylum seekers are regularly featured in the Australian media and give rise to the comment from many that if New Zealand can treat desperate people with dignity why can’t Australians?
And when the debate raged in Australia over the Howard government’s enthusiastic willingness to snub the United Nations and join the US and UK in invading Iraq, Ms Clark provided some sanity and reason and as we now know, prescience. Her statement to an Australian trade union conference, “Should there be war in Iraq, my government fears for the widespread resentment that would provoke in the Middle East against Western nations in general, for the likely stimulus terrorist organisations would gain from that resentment, and for the high human costs a war would have,” was as right when she made it on 18 February last year as it is today.
When Ms Clark said on 2 April last year that if not participating in the Iraq conflict meant New Zealand would not get the red carpet treatment of a free trade deal like Australia, she was principled. As Ms Clark noted, “The bottom line is that this government doesn't trade the lives of young New Zealanders for a war it doesn't believe in, in order to secure some material advantage.”
But not only is Australia’s "joined at the hip" approach on the Iraq war worrying for many of us, so is its preparedness to turn away from a vigourous pursuit of Asia in the past decade. Under Paul Keating, Australia steered itself towards greater integration with the region in which it is located. But John Howard, uncomfortable with this strategy, has ensured that it is the historic links with the US and UK that are the prime focus of Australian cultural and economic policy.
In fact, Mr Howard was beastly careless about the damage caused in the early years of his prime ministership by the anti-Asian rhetoric of Pauline Hanson. By contrast, on 26 November last year, Ms Clark castigated what she termed New Zealand "anti-immigration politicians" for the damage they were doing to perceptions about New Zealand in the fast-growing Asian region.
The New Zealand that many Australians view today is one that is buzzing with creativity and excitement. The resounding success of the film industry, and the arts sectors generally, has led to leading US academic and expert on creative industries Richard Florida, to claim that when he visited Wellington last year, “I met dozens of Americans from places like Berkeley and MIT working alongside talented filmmakers from Europe and Asia, the Americans asserting that they were ready to relinquish their citizenship. Many had begun the process of establishing residency in New Zealand.”
Of course, New Zealand is not a paradise. It, like Australia, has a myriad of social and economic challenges. But over the past decade New Zealand has moved away from an Australia that has become frightened and insecure. Dare it be suggested that some in Australia wouldn’t mind today’s New Zealand becoming more influential on this continent.