Reply to Laura Tingle, ‘The High Road: What Australia Can Learn from New Zealand’
Quarterly Essay, April 2021
Visiting Te Papa, New Zealand’s national museum in Wellington, our family stopped in front of a dramatic exhibition on the Treaty of Waitangi. “Where can we see Australia’s treaty?” one of my young sons innocently asked.
Where indeed. As Laura Tingle points out, the lack of a treaty with the original inhabitants of this land is one of the areas in which Australia lags behind our antipodean neighbour. Across the ditch, Māori have dedicated seats in parliament, the All Blacks perform the haka at the start of rugby matches, and a government minister recently delivered an entire speech in the Māori language. Meanwhile, the Morrison government might have excised “young” from “Advance Australia Fair,” but as Tingle points out, it has effectively downgraded the Welcome to Country and failed to deliver an Indigenous Voice to Parliament.
Alongside constitutional recognition, there are plenty of symbolic ways Australia could better recognise the first Australians. Inside the parliamentary chambers, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags could fly alongside the Australian flag. When parliament starts each day, the acknowledgement of country could be spoken in the Ngunnawal language. Capital cities could be given dual names. Instead of the Queen’s visage, Australian coins could feature the heads of prominent Indigenous people (the $2 coin features the image of Gwoya Jungarai, but he is on the “tails” side of the coin).
It is not only on the issue of racial inequality that Australia could learn a thing or two from Aotearoa. When it comes to economic inequality, Tingle tells the story of its rise in the 1980s and 1990s but says less about its fall in New Zealand from the 1920s to the 1970s. When Tony Atkinson and I used tax data to estimate New Zealand inequality across this period, we found that the income share going to the top 0.1 per cent fell by two-thirds. In this egalitarian era, home ownership increased, and wages rose faster on the factory floor than in the corner office.
This was not an accident. New Zealand Labour’s 1938 Social Security Act created a free health care system, introduced a universal family benefit and extended aged pensions. More public housing was built, and the eight-hour day was established, alongside other union achievements. That egalitarian tradition makes the sharp rise in inequality in the late twentieth century all the more shocking, as it tore apart a social fabric that had taken decades to weave.
Today, both Australia and New Zealand are considerably more unequal than a generation ago. Yet there is a thoughtful determination to reduce inequality in New Zealand that is absent in Australia. One valuable initiative is New Zealand’s Integrated Data Infrastructure, a large research database that links together data from government agencies and surveys to better understand deep disadvantage. New Zealand researchers have used the database to explore the relationship between social housing and incarceration, between mental health and earnings, and between maternal services and childhood risk. In contrast to the Australian government’s robobebt scheme, the database does not identify individuals: its aim is to inform structural reforms to help vulnerable people, not punish them.
Similarly, while New Zealand and Australia have similar rates of child poverty (around one in seven), New Zealand has made reducing child poverty a national focus. Not only is Prime Minister Ardern also the Minister for Child Poverty Reduction, but her government reports annually on the progress it has made on this issue. The analysis goes beyond money and includes estimates of the share of children who lack internet access (12 per cent), live in mouldy homes (8 per cent) and do not have their own bed (4 per cent). There is no reason to think these figures are better in Australia. And yet, since Bob Hawke’s ill-fated pledge that by 1990 “no Australian child will live in poverty,” the issue has received far less attention than it merits in Australia. Scott Morrison isn’t the minister for child poverty reduction, nor does he have one. Indeed, there’s little reason to think that the issue would rank among the Morrison government’s top 100 priorities.
In The Luminaries, a Booker Prize-winning novel by New Zealander Eleanor Catton, Crosbie Wells is writing back to his brother in 1854, explaining why he plans never to return to England. Naturally, he starts his letter by describing the weather in Dunedin: “The sun is bright on the hills & on the water & I can bear the briskness very well.” But then he turns to social class: “You see in New Zealand every man has left his former life behind & every man is equal in his own way. Of course the flockmasters in Otago are barons here just as they were barons in the Scottish Highlands but for men like me there is a chance to rise . . . It is not uncommon for men to tip their hats to one another in the street regardless of their station . . . The frontier I think makes brothers of us all.”
This brings to mind the 19th-century gold-digger who wrote from Australia back to England that “rank and title have no charms in the antipodes.” The egalitarian tradition was a crucial part of the founding stories for both New Zealand and Australia. On racial equality, things are more enlightened today than in colonial times, yet there is much unfinished business. On economic inequality, the 50 per cent increase in the wealth of Australia’s billionaires over the past twelve months is just the latest proof of the widening gulf between the rich and the rest. On both issues, Australians can learn much from our Kiwi friends.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.