Inside Story

Current affairs & culture from Australia and beyond

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Tasman bubble

30 November 2020

Books | The links have been quietly developing for decades, but there’s still much more Australia can learn from its nearest eastern neighbour

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Bipartisan support: NZ prime minister Jacinda Ardern speaking to journalists after this year’s Waitangi Day ceremony at Te Whare Rūnanga, which commemorates the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi on 6 February 1840. David Rowland/AAP Image

Bipartisan support: NZ prime minister Jacinda Ardern speaking to journalists after this year’s Waitangi Day ceremony at Te Whare Rūnanga, which commemorates the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi on 6 February 1840. David Rowland/AAP Image

The High Road: What Australia Can Learn From New Zealand
By Laura Tingle | Quarterly Essay | $24.99 | 154 pages


New Zealand has always deserved a long, hard look. The fact that much of the world is giving it one at present owes a good deal to its “dynamic young female prime minister,” Jacinda Ardern. Laura Tingle, chief political correspondent for ABC TV’s 7.30, thinks Australians should have looked all along. Sharing geography and much history, it is remarkable that we did not.

This is a story that has been waiting to be written. I devoured it quickly, though when I found myself trying to imagine pitching it as a research project, say, to an academic funding agency, I worried it might come up short. International? Australians tend to think New Zealand is not-quite-overseas. Innovative? The country seems close and familiar. Impact? What’s the “key takeaway” here? Australians need to look, closer and longer, at something they think they know already. This is a quiet conclusion from a wise observer about an exceptional place.

Mercifully, Tingle steers away from clichés of the trans-Tasman genre. There are no lame Aussie jokes about accents, agriculture or the All Blacks. No one punches above their weight. New Zealand is neither a leftist nirvana — the best remaining global venue to see out the apocalypse — nor an overrated global bit player led by a PM more popular with overseas feature writers than her own people, as some on the right claim.

The United States is sometimes described as God’s gift to researchers. Fifty states, all taking different approaches to social and economic problems and pushing out a rich flow of data about what works and doesn’t work in subtly different circumstances. Tingle says New Zealand could have played that role for Australia, “an experiment, a point of comparison… occurring across the Tasman all these years, if we just chose to look.” The essay becomes “a political and policy nerd’s Cook’s Tour,” an effort to understand why the two countries so often “start in very similar places and finish in completely different ones.”

Situated in the Pacific and colonised by the British? Tick New Zealand, tick Australia. Indigenous peoples appallingly mistreated and still suffering significant disadvantage? Tick, tick. The colonisers entered into a treaty with those Indigenous people? Tick, cross. Indigenous language and cultural rituals genuinely integrated into symbols and practices of politics and nationhood? Tick, cross. A sense of economic security “upended” by Britain’s entry into the European Common Market in the 1970s, requiring “whole new ways to make a living”? Tick, tick. A left-leaning government in the 1980s overturning the historical dependence on industry protection and state capitalism, opening markets to the world, and re-orienting business towards exports? Tick, tick.

This narrative continues into 2020, when the two countries responded to the Covid-19 pandemic in intriguingly similar and different ways. It’s an absorbing tale of comparative history. New Zealanders tend to know it better than Australians, partly because around 15 per cent of them live here.


I first visited New Zealand in 1980 to run in its annual track and field athletics series. It was no backwater. This was John Walker’s last summer as reigning Montreal Olympic 1500 metre champion. A crowd of 25,000 turned up to the meet at his home track in Auckland to see him, along with New Zealand’s other Olympic medallists, Rod Dixon and Dick Quax, and the internationals who came to race them. Sixteen thousand fans were at the Christchurch stadium, where Walker had arrived on the world stage six years earlier, running faster than the old world record in an epic final at the Commonwealth Games, but falling just short of the gold medal won by front-running Tanzanian Filbert Bayi.

One of the mid-week meets was held on the magnificent old grass track at Cooks Gardens in Whanganui. Here, an earlier New Zealand superstar, triple Olympic gold medallist Peter Snell, had broken Australian Herb Elliott’s world record for the mile in 1962. Snell’s coach, Arthur Lydiard, was later crowned “All Time Best Running Coach” by the US Runners World. Auckland’s Waitākere Ranges, where Lydiard’s athletes built the strength and endurance that set up their northern hemisphere racing seasons, were cathedrals of the sport for the obsessive types who participated in it.

But it was New Zealand. Much later, Jacinda Ardern joked to American night-time host Stephen Colbert, “It’s New Zealand, we all know each other.” A former colleague of mine who worked there once told me, “It’s New Zealand, you ring cabinet ministers and they ring you back.” That summer in 1980, I was warming up in Wellington for a race I was lucky to get a start in, when John Walker jogged up to my shoulder. He was the biggest track star on the planet but he spoke to me, if only to say what every Aucklander says when they arrive in Wellington: “Fuckin’ windy, isn’t it?”

I travelled there again in the early 1990s, one of many visiting overseas wonks curious about the extraordinary policy revolution that had taken place under the governments of Labour prime minister David Lange and finance minister Roger Douglas. After operating state monopolies in broadcasting and telecommunications for decades like so many European countries, New Zealand had leapfrogged the gradual steps that Australia and others were contemplating by opening their broadcasting and telecommunications markets and privatising Telecom New Zealand almost overnight.

Most interestingly, a new broadcast funding agency was created that soon rebranded itself New Zealand on Air. It was what mainstream economic policy purists dreamed of, a public agency with a bucket of money to pursue the policy objectives that governments everywhere set for broadcasting, and generally tried to achieve through an opaque mix of state ownership, laws, regulation, taxation and spending. Along with the restructured TVNZ, New Zealand on Air was already having a big impact on New Zealand’s screens and industry, supporting the first local nightly soap opera, Shortland Street, and stimulating independent production like Channel 4 had done in Britain a decade earlier.


The “deregulatory machismo” that Tingle describes was apparent in New Zealand’s decision not just to open its markets and use purist policy models, but also to make “commitments” in international trade agreements that it would never do anything else. Of particular significance were quotas requiring minimum amounts of local programming to be shown on television. Australia had these, New Zealand did not. When signing up to the agreements that became the responsibility of the World Trade Organization in the 1990s, Australia made sure it could retain and adapt such measures in the future. New Zealand signed them away forever.

Australia’s own deregulatory machismos — who revered their Kiwi counterparts — overhauled broadcasting legislation in 1992, requiring the new Australian Broadcasting Authority to “perform its functions in a manner consistent with Australia’s obligations under any… agreement between Australia and a foreign country.” As the minister’s second reading speech made clear (though the legislation did not), that included Australia’s trade agreement with New Zealand, and especially a document with the catchy title of the Trade in Services Protocol to the Australia–New Zealand Closer Economic Relations Trade Agreement, or ANZCERTA, which entered into force in 1989.

In that document, Australia had not preserved its local-program-quota-making capacity vis-à-vis New Zealand. When the new regulator determined its first “Australian Content Standard,” New Zealanders argued it should treat New Zealand programs as favourably as Australian ones. Because it did not, and no political solution was forthcoming, a group crossed the Tasman to commence a legal action in Australia’s Federal Court. The new standard, they said, was inconsistent with the regulator’s legislative obligation to act in accordance with Australia’s international agreements, including ANZCERTA.

The New Zealand group called themselves Project Blue Sky. Australian production industry unions and guilds formed a body called Project True Blue to resist them. The Australians saw it as breathtaking opportunism. Go home and do the hard yards to convince New Zealand politicians to give you quotas of your own! The New Zealanders emphasised a wider goal, the creation of what we might now call a trans-Tasman bubble, a shared space for audiovisual production where the two countries made and watched each other’s TV shows.

The Federal Court agreed with the New Zealanders. On appeal, the High Court agreed with them both. The regulator had to remake its program standard. Ever since, Australian commercial broadcasters have been able to count New Zealand shows towards their local content quotas.

They have made extensive use of this in the expensive drama genres, though much less across their whole schedules. According to ACMA figures, Nine Network stations earned more than half of their Australian adult drama points in 2019 from New Zealand series like Westside, Straight Forward and The Brokenwood Mysteries. Seven earned just under a fifth and Ten just under a tenth. But less than 0.1 per cent of total transmission hours on the primary channels Seven, Nine and Ten were occupied by New Zealand programs in 2019, and no more than 2 per cent on the networks’ other channels. The Seven Network, for example, screens New Zealand fishing shows like Big Angry Fish and Fishy Business on 7mate.

As all this regulatory brawling was happening, a young filmmaker born in Wellington but living in Australia was making movies. Jane Campion directed Two Friends for the ABC, shot Sweetie in Sydney, and directed a three-episode bio-drama about New Zealand writer Janet Frame that had its world premiere in a single session at the Sydney Film Festival. She then won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and an Academy Award for The Piano, shot in New Zealand. More recently, the first series of Campion’s co-produced, co-directed and co-written miniseries Top of the Lake was set on the South Island, the second in Sydney.

This kind of Tasman-hopping career and sensibility, once unusual, has become commonplace. It used to be surprising when a government screen agency in either country appointed a citizen from the other as its chief executive. Over the past two decades it has become almost mandatory. Campion’s work was among the first to reveal the increasingly porous nature of the personal, social and cultural borders between the two countries. The Covid-19 pandemic has continued this now well-established historical dualism, exploiting the geographic reality of physical borders to serve short-term epidemiological ends, while raising the possibility of a Tasman travel bubble to stimulate longer-term economic revival in two countries that depend heavily on tourism.


The High Road traverses the many “sliding doors” moments in the trans-Tasman relationship, beginning with New Zealand’s decision to remain a nation in an empire rather than a state of the new Australian Commonwealth at the beginning of the twentieth century. Both nations sent military forces to the first world war, fighting alongside each other as “Anzacs” at Gallipoli and then building discrete national legends from the common catastrophe.

For decades, they sheltered with the same great and powerful friend, first Britain, then the United States under the postwar ANZUS alliance. Foreign policy stances have diverged in recent decades, especially since the French sinking of the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior in Auckland harbour in 1985. “We never heard a peep out of those people who we were allegedly in a Western alliance with,” David Lange said a decade later. Now, relationships with China are providing fresh terrain for divergence between two countries that aspire to independent multilateralism but have radically different resource endowments and industrial strengths.

Perhaps the most fruitful areas of policy comparison at present, and where Tingle’s title nods, are electoral systems and the treatment of Indigenous people. The “mixed member proportional” system, or MMP, introduced in New Zealand in the 1990s, is widely credited with pushing the country’s political parties nearer to the ideological centre, turning down the heat of political discourse because of the need to operate in coalitions — at least until Ardern’s Labour Party became the first administration to win a majority in its own right at this year’s election. Yet MMP is also criticised for tempering the capacity and desire for large-scale change, precisely the thing that became part of unicameral New Zealand’s global brand in the late 1980s.

For Indigenous people, Tingle finds “an extraordinary relevance in how the Treaty of Waitangi has developed in the last half-century to the debate we are now having in Australia about Indigenous recognition and a Voice to parliament. And to a debate we are not having about truth-telling and reconciliation.” While New Zealand has been building bipartisan support for real changes based on the legal framework of the Treaty of Waitangi, Australia has been retreating from the possibilities presented by the Mabo and Wik High Court decisions in the 1990s. Offered the gracious language, opportunity and machinery of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, Australia, so far, has “comprehensively stuffed it.”

This is not a plea to adopt someone else’s template, and one that doesn’t work perfectly even in its place of origin. To give one example, again from the media field, a fine recent essay by Zita Joyce explores the tension between the Treaty of Waitangi and the system of property rights in radiofrequency spectrum pioneered by New Zealand in the 1980s. She finds that “the relative scale of gains [for Māori] has significantly declined” over the now thirty-year history of Waitangi claims in the area, although they “remain the only substantial Indigenous challenge to a settler state’s right to assert control over spectrum” anywhere in the world.

The High Road may overstate the case about how little attention Australians have paid to New Zealand experience. Tingle herself acknowledges that “what has gone on across the Tasman has had a continuing deep influence on the conservative economic agenda in Australia.” In each of the fields mentioned here — electoral systems, relationships between Indigenous people and settler-colonial political systems, film and media policy — Australian specialists have paid a good deal of attention to New Zealand. Cooperation has been a reality for years in many other areas, too. The result has been administrative efficiency with horrendous acronyms: ANZIC (the industry classification used by our statistical agencies), FSANZ (a food standards agency), AS/NZS (industry standards published jointly by Standards Australia and Standards New Zealand, which sometimes break down, leaving us both with “de-jointed standards”).

But outside these many communities of specialist expertise, across the wider landscape of political discussion and historical understanding, Tingle’s argument seems absolutely persuasive. Ardern and the pandemic may have altered that landscape, at least for the time being. A Quarterly Essay is its own evidence of that. The bubble, this time, might be more than a temporary fillip to kickstart accommodation bookings in Cairns and the Coromandel. They are the neighbours, for goodness sake. We really should get to know them better. • 

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