Shaping a historiography: separate national stories

Australia and New Zealand ignore each other when telling their national stories. A research project at the University of Canterbury is seeking to address this problem by exploring the Australia-New Zealand relationship on multiple levels, political, intellectual, cultural, social and economic from the 1880s to 2000. Entitled ‘Anzac Neighbours: 100 years of multiple ties between New Zealand and Australia’, this project by three University of Canterbury colleagues, two historians and a political scientist has received a grant from the Royal Society of New Zealand’s Marsden Fund to hunt for an answer as to why the two Southern Hemisphere countries share various pasts but neglect their common history and to disclose the continuing ties and flows between them. There remains a remarkable similarity in their flags. They share the same stubborn commitment to the Union Jack and the same reference to their common place under the Southern Cross.

Together, Australia and New Zealand once wore the name ‘Australasia’, and the ‘Anzac Neighbours’ team seek to confirm the continued existence of this region even though the collective label has fallen into disuse. In part, this project was the result of the Blackwell History of the World volume, A History of Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific, where Donald Denoon and Philippa Mein Smith found that they were, indeed, writing about a coherent region, even though it no longer had a name[1]. Their history argues that the naming of places is a political act. Australasia emerged as a political and cultural entity with European settlement and regional relations survive despite its submergence; if anything, Australasia has resurfaced as an idea as globalisation has gathered force.

In a keynote address at the Australian Historical Association Conference in 2002, Donald Denoon argued that the Australasian dimension of their joint pasts is a ‘repressed memory’ that historians have airbrushed out of both Australian and New Zealand historiographies[2]. The term ‘Australasia’ was first used in the eighteenth century, even before Captain James Cook by de Brosses in 1756 and entered the English language as referring to the lands south of Asia. By the late nineteenth century, its purview had shrunk to the sphere of British influence in the South Pacific, and Australia and New Zealand were commonly referred to as ‘the seven colonies of Australasia’. Historians since have erased this name and the connections associated with it from both Australian and New Zealand history, as if they wanted to forget that New Zealand and the Australian colonies were part of ‘Australasia’ before 1901. Yet this community of interests was ‘real’, as James Belich has recognised, even if it was a bit vague or fuzzy around the edges[3]. By ‘fuzzy’ he means that contemporaries were unclear over whether the place and community called Australasia included ‘all the colonies in the southern seas’, the British ones as well as New Zealand and the Australian continent[4].

The problem is that neither country’s historians have given due credit to the influence of the other. For a hundred years, historians on both sides of the Tasman Sea have produced national histories that ignored their shared pasts and neglected the historical parallels. From W. K. Hancock in 1930 through to the ten-volume ‘slice’ history written for Australia’s bicentenary in 1988, the Australian national story has excluded any mention of a common history with New Zealand[5]. This can be explained by a general historiographical shift from imperial to national history in the second half of the twentieth century[6].

The one exception is the debates in 1901 about whether New Zealand should join the Australian Commonwealth and even the history of these has been treated separately on each side. It is only in the latest Australian literature that John Hirst, for instance, relates Keith Sinclair’s cultural interpretation from the 1980s that ‘most New Zealanders did not want to become Australians’ to the Australian national story, to support the case that sentiment dominated over business in the creation of Australia[7]. In the process, The Sentimental Nation opened up debate about cultural connections. Pacific history tackled a more regionalist agenda in the early work of C. Hartley Grattan, but this reflected an interested American’s perspective that saw the Pacific as a region including the large rim countries and treated Australia and New Zealand as its south western quadrant[8].

The kind of Pacific history that evolved out of the Australian National University tradition under New Zealander J. W. Davidson after the Second World War concentrated on the oceanic islands and their contact histories. It left persistent boundaries between Pacific, Australian and New Zealand history, despite the direct explanatory relevance of New Zealand to an understanding of relations between indigenous peoples and new immigrant settlers and of Australia to the experience of Papua New Guinea. There have been some attempts to make Australasian comparisons, such as Kerry Howe’s 1977 Race Relations in Australia and New Zealand: a Comparative Survey, Simon Ville’s Rural Entrepreneurs about the stock and station agent industry and other thematic studies that share an interest in colonialism[9].

Shaun Goldfinch is the author of a political science monograph that compares the refashioning of the two countries’ economic policies[10]. His thesis complements that in the Blackwell history, that identities in the region are created and transformed locally, though often shaped by ideas generated elsewhere: Goldfinch highlights institutional density as an influence. Environmentalists, too, have no difficulty in seeing Australasia as a region; for instance, Tim Flannery in his ‘future eaters’ thesis, and Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel[11]. It is historians who prefer the boundaries of the sovereign nation–state, producing separate Australian and New Zealand books or separate chapters for books that supposedly discuss the two settler societies together. As A. G. Hopkins reflected at the end of the twentieth century, ‘the tradition of arranging history so that it fits within national borders surely needs to be revised’, with the passing of the age of empires[12].

This may seem odd to the rest of the world that is accustomed to considering Australia and New Zealand together, but polite, mutual ignorance is the norm in local historical and opinion-making circles. The well-regarded End of Certainty: the Story of the 1980s, by Australian journalist Paul Kelly, talks of ‘the Australian Settlement’ that endured for eight decades after Federation[13]. Its five planks – White Australia, arbitration, protection, ‘state paternalism’ and ‘imperial benevolence’ – are represented as unique and distinctively Australian. From the ‘foundation idea’ of White Australia to its ‘bedrock ideology’ of protection, arbitration is assumed to be an Australian institution based upon an Australian idea, the ‘fair go’ principle[14]. John Rickard also claims arbitration as a distinctive Australian institution, expressive of the national psyche[15]. In 2002, the concluding volume from the Australian National University’s ‘Reshaping Australian Institutions’ Project reiterated that Australia was unusual for its system of tariff protection that underpinned the ‘Australian Settlement’[16]. Yet the New Zealand historian Erik Olssen and others have demonstrated that these ‘experiments’ are as fundamental to New Zealand as to Australian history[17]. The social scientist Francis Castles describes industrial conciliation and arbitration as ‘this most peculiar of Australian institutions’, yet he argued in notable earlier work that the core concepts of the ‘wage earners’ welfare state’ and the politics of ‘domestic defence’ also applied to New Zealand[18].

At the July 2002 conference in Brisbane of the Australian Historical Association, the umbrella organisation for historians in Australia, an occasional whiff of disdain floated in the air as Kiwi papers were welcomed and Australian scholars expressed polite wonder at the richness and diversity of New Zealand historical scholarship. It was as though New Zealand continued to be marginal to the core business of Australian history. Again in September, a major international conference of the Association for Canadian Studies in Australia and New Zealand (ACSANZ) met in Canberra on the subject of possible converging futures, without a mention of New Zealand in either the conference’s title or its agenda[19].

The continuing ignorance of New Zealand fictional literature in Australia compared to that from India or Canada is a phenomenon that regularly draws bemused comments from reviewers. New Zealanders are just as guilty. They have absorbed the myth that New Zealand’s ‘Better Britons’ are superior to the Australian Britons. New Zealanders lacked the taint of convictism, they were moulded by a vigorous, cooler climate, and they enjoyed relations with a superior type of ‘native’[20]. New Zealand scholars have underwritten this tale of separate histories. The country’s nationalist historian Keith Sinclair chose to focus primarily on the nineteenth century when writing for his edited collection Tasman Relations. He stridently demonstrated New Zealand’s ‘destiny apart’, especially in respect to the country’s allegedly better race relations[21]. Closer to our time, the New Zealand Journal of History chose to shape its millennium edition of 2000 around New Zealand in the Pacific as the theme for the twenty-first century. Remarkably, Australia was omitted entirely[22].

[1] D. Denoon and P. Mein Smith, with M. Wyndham A History of Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific, Blackwell, 2000.

[2] D. Denoon ‘Alternative Australias’, Keynote session, AHA conference, Brisbane, 3rd July 2002; see also his Eldershaw Lecture, ‘Re-membering Australasia’, Hobart, Tasmania, 12th May 2002.

[3] J. Belich Paradise Reforged: a History of the New Zealanders from the 1880s to the Year 2000, Allen Lane, 2001, pages 46–7.

[4] New Zealand Federation Commission Appendices to the Journal of the House of Representatives, Report, Appendix 4, 1901, pages 558 and 682.

[5] W. K. Hancock Australia, Ernest Benn, 1930; A. D. Gilbert et al. (eds.) Australians: a Historical Library, 10 volumes, Fairfax, Syme and Weldon Associates, 1987.

[6] See, for example, S. Macintyre ‘Australia and the Empire’, pages 163–81 and J. Belich ‘Colonization and history in New Zealand’, pages 182–93, in Oxford History of the British Empire, volume 5: Historiography, ed. R.W. Winks, Oxford University Press, 1999.

[7] J. Hirst The Sentimental Nation: the Making of the Australian Commonwealth, Oxford University Press, 2000; K. Sinclair ‘Why New Zealanders are not Australians: New Zealand and the Australian Federal Movement, 1881–1901’, in Tasman Relations: New Zealand and Australia, 1788–1988, ed. K. Sinclair, Auckland University Press, 1987, pages 90–103.

[8] C. H. Grattan The Southwest Pacific Since 1900: a Modern History; Australia, New Zealand, the Islands, Antarctica, University of Michigan Press, 1963.

[9] Monographs include: K. R. Howe Race Relations in Australia and New Zealand: a Comparative Survey 1770s–1970s, Methuen, 1977; H. R. Jackson Churches and People in Australia and New Zealand 1860–1930, Allen & Unwin, 1987; W. D. Borrie The European Peopling of Australasia: a Demographic History, 1788–1988, Australian National University, 1994; and, S. P. Ville The Rural Entrepreneurs: a History of the Stock and Station Agent Industry in Australia and New Zealand, Cambridge University Press, 2000. Edited collections of importance are: F. Castles, R. Gerritsen and J. Vowles (eds.) The Great Experiment: Labour Parties and Public Policy Transformation in Australia and New Zealand, Allen & Unwin, 1996; K. Neumann, N. Thomas and H. Ericksen (eds.) Quicksands: Foundational Histories in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand, University of New South Wales Press, 1999; and, B. Attwood and F. Magowan (eds.) Telling Stories: Indigenous History and Memory in Australia and New Zealand, Wellington and Sydney, Bridget Williams, 2001.

[10] S. Goldfinch Remaking New Zealand and Australian Economic Policy: Ideas, Institutions and Policy Communities, Victoria University Press, 2000.

[11] T. F. Flannery The Future Eaters: an Ecological History of the Australasian Lands and People, Chatswood, Reed, 1994; J. M. Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel: a Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years, Jonathan Cape, 1997.

[12] A. G. Hopkins ‘Viewpoint: back to the future: from national history to imperial history’, Past and Present, volume 164, (1999), page 243.

[13] P. Kelly The End of Certainty: the Story of the 1980s, Allen & Unwin, 1994, page 1.

[14] P. Kelly The End of Certainty: the Story of the 1980s, Allen & Unwin, 1994; see also B. Birrell Federation: the Secret Story, Duffy and Snellgrove, 2001.

[15] J. Rickard Australia: a Cultural History, 2nd edition, Longman, 1996, chapter 6.

[16] G. Brennan and F. G. Castles (eds.) Australia Reshaped: 200 Years of Institutional Transformation, Cambridge University Press, 2002, page 11.

[17] E. Olssen Building the New World: Work, Politics and Society in Caversham 1880s–1920s, Auckland University Press, 1995; J. Holt Compulsory Arbitration in New Zealand: the First Forty Years, Auckland University Press, 1986.

[18] F. G. Castles The Working Class and Welfare, Allen & Unwin, 1985; and his Australian Public Policy and Economic Vulnerability, Allen & Unwin, 1988.

[19] Association for Canadian Studies in Australia and New Zealand Converging Futures: Canada and Australia in a New Millennium? National Convention Centre, Canberra, 12th-15th September 2002.

[20] P. Mein Smith ‘New Zealand Federation Commissioners in Australia: one past, two historiographies’, Australian Historical Studies, volume 34, (2003), pages 305-325; see also J. Belich Paradise Reforged: a History of the New Zealanders from the 1880s to the Year 2000, Allen Lane, 2001.

[21] K. Sinclair (ed.) Tasman Relations: New Zealand and Australia, 1788–1988, Auckland University Press, 1987; and his ‘Why are race relations in New Zealand better than in South Africa, South Australia or South Dakota?’, New Zealand Journal of History, volume 5, (1971), pages 121–7

[22] New Zealand Journal of History, volume 34, (2000): see editorial introduction.

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