NEW ZEALAND’S RELATIONSHIP with Australia is under considerable strain. Though they have yet to state their position openly, Australia’s leaders are clearly less than enthusiastic about the tradition of “automatic entry” for New Zealand’s economic migrants. It is certainly difficult to read the Australian Government’s denial of non-emergency health care, higher education and social welfare benefits to Kiwi citizens as anything other than a pretty strong signal of Australia’s rising impatience with the ANZAC myth of eternal “mateship”.
Indeed, if the programmes currently featuring on Sky TV’s “History Channel” are anything to go by, there is a concerted effort underway to attach the “mateship” label to Australia’s relationship with the United States. Under the rubric of “One Hundred Years of Mateship” Australian documentary-makers are advancing the far-from-convincing argument that the Commonwealth of Australia – one of the British Empire’s most important economic and strategic “dominions across the seas” – and the United States of America have been bosom buddies from the moment they clapped eyes on each other across the battlefields of the Western Front in 1918.
It is rare in the English-speaking nations of the twenty-first century to witness such a blatant attempt to re-write history. Up until the Second World War, elite Australia’s attachment to British imperialism was as fervent as it was unquestioning. The Aussie working-class, much of it Irish and Catholic, may have had little cause to love the English and the Scots-Irish Orangemen from Ulster, but its dangerously radical opinions were vigorously rejected by the “respectable” settlers of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. For these sons and daughters of the Empire, “Mother England” was the source of all economic, military and cultural power. The USA and its teeming millions were impertinent upstarts – not “mates”.
That all changed, of course, when a squadron of Japanese navy bombers, almost nonchalantly, sank the two great British battleships, HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, off the Malaysian coast on 10 December 1941 – just three days after Japan’s surprise attack on the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbour. The fall of “impregnable” Singapore, which followed soon after on 15 February 1942, brought home to Australians just how far away Mother England really was and forced them to shift their strategic gaze eastward to the United States. Every Australian understood that if the Japanese were going to be defeated, it would not be by the British, who had proved to be a busted-flush, but by the Americans. For most Aussies, therefore, the Yanks weren’t their “mates” – they were Australia’s bloody saviours!
Post-World War II, however, the case for US-Australian “mateship” grows progressively stronger. The two countries have fought alongside each other in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. The view from Canberra is unequivocally that of a steadfast ally upon whom Washington can rely without the slightest hesitation or doubt. The Liberal Party Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard, confirmed this subaltern status by describing his country as America’s “deputy-sheriff”.
Howard’s Liberal successor, Malcolm Turnbull, has developed this relationship to the point where Australia now sees itself as a geostrategic bridge between the Pacific and Indian oceans. The Australian landmass is thus being presented to Washington as not only an unassailable thoroughfare for American power, but also as a barrier against the further extension of Chinese influence into either ocean.
It is this, Washington’s new “Indo-Pacific” strategy, that is, almost certainly, driving Foxtel’s “100 Years of Mateship” propaganda exercise on the History Channel. Australia’s foundation and development as a collection of British colonies is being barefacedly elided in favour of the Orwellian contention that: “Australia and the United States are mates. Australia and the United States have been mates for 100 years. Australia and the United States will always be mates.”
Which just leaves us, Australia’s former “mate”, New Zealand, positioned strategically alongside the lucky country’s eastern seaboard like an unsinkable offshore aircraft carrier which has, unaccountably, pushed all its fighter aircraft into the sea. An unreliable aircraft carrier, whose unreliable crew was for nearly 20 years bloody rude to Australia’s best mates – the Americans. A crew which insists on taking shore leave in Brisbane and Sydney and Melbourne where it spreads its downright subversive views about the rights of indigenous people and nuclear disarmament and practical feminism and need to do something big and meaningful about climate change among Australia’s dangerously persuadable citizens.
Right-wing Australia would like nothing more than to close its borders to these damned annoying Kiwis. Unfortunately, that would involve tearing up the Australian-New Zealand Closer Economic Relationship and toppling New Zealand into a full-scale economic and social crisis.
Now, there are some Aussies who’d like to say “tough luck, Kiwi” and walk away. Fortunately for New Zealand, however, there are wiser heads in the discussion who warn that a New Zealand in the grip of an existential crisis might feel it had no choice but to extend the hand of “mateship” to its largest trading partner. That if Australia goes on mistreating Kiwis, then it just might wake up one morning to discover that unsinkable aircraft carrier across the Tasman Sea bristling with Chinese bombers.