Time Travels

Why Australia and New Zealand are not the same country

Sure, our flags are similar, but…

“So, how’s life in Australia?”, a friend of mine once asked me. We were messaging on Facebook. I’d been in New Zealand for two years. It wasn’t a secret. My Facebook profile was literally plastered with photos of New Zealand, geo-located and all.

I paused, trying to let is slide, not sure whether it was some sort of inside joke I wasn’t aware of.

Then she said something about kangaroos and snakes. And spiders. She wanted to know if what she’d heard about Australia was accurate: How can you survive, emotionally, surrounded by venomous spiders?

She wasn’t joking. She either thought I was in Australia, or that New Zealand was another Australian state, like the fifth beatle in the Beatles.

“I’m in New Zealand,” I said, matter-of-factly. “New Zealand, Australia: two separate countries.”

“Oh, really? I thought you were in Australia…”

To be fair, I had spent some time in Australia a few years prior. Milking cows and chugging cheap beer straight from the bottle, like any educated Aussie would do. But I’m digressing.

“Nope, New Zealand mate (I didn’t say mate), different country. No crocs, no spiders, no snakes. Unfortunately, no kangaroos either.”

It reminded me of a conversation I once had with a lovely shopkeeper in Italy. We chatted about New Zealand for a good 10 minutes before I realised she was actually thinking of Norway the whole time. In her defence, that’s also understandable. New Zealand is a country that’s so remote and sparsely populated that it gets systematically forgotten on world maps. Don’t believe me? Just watch.

Oh, and there was also that time when Russian TV mistook us for Japanese:

Plus, until 1835, New Zealand was indeed governed by New South Wales (an Australian colony). And like any scorned loved, Australia wasn’t keen to let New Zealand go her own way. So, at the end of the nineteenth century, all six Australian colonies overwhelmingly agreed to create a federated nation and invited New Zealand to join. “Thanks, but no thanks,” said New Zealand.

Now, bear with me: I’ll tell you all about how New Zealand friend-zoned Australia.

How New Zealand friend-zoned Australia

It took New Zealand little more than a century to loosen its ties with its larger neighbour. And if you’ve ever seen Flight of the Conchords, you’ll know just how pleased they are with this decision.

It all started in 1788, when Arthur Phillip, a white-wigged Royal Navy officer, became the first Governor of the Australian settlement of New South Wales, and claimed New Zealand as part of the colony.

I assume that was a ‘no’.

Long story short, some Māori chiefs weren’t having it and signed the Declaration of Independence in 1835. End of the story? No, not yet.

In 1890, the Australasian colonies began forming a federation, which would later become the Commonwealth of Australia. New Zealand bought time: “We might join at a later date,” they said. Australia wanted New Zealand so much that they granted Māori the right to vote in 1902 (for the record, Australian Aboriginal people did not get to vote until 1962).

Still, New Zealand didn’t budge.

Sure, Australia and New Zealand served together in two world wars as the ANZACs. They even sent one team to the Olympic games in 1908 and 1912. But New Zealand was adamant: they didn’t like old flames. And so, independent it remained, happily ever after.

Why New Zealand didn’t feel a spark

There are many theories as to why the trans-Tasman marriage wasn’t meant to be. Here’s a super-short and over-simplified rundown.

  • Personal ego: At the time, New Zealand Prime Minister Richard Seddon preferred to be the leader of a country rather than the leader of a state.
  • Race relations: New Zealanders thought Māori were ‘better class’ than Aboriginal people. Also, they considered themselves to be better at ‘race relations’ than the Australians.
  • Expansion plans: New Zealand’s rulers were planning to start their own South Pacific Empire, and didn’t want Australia to get in the way.
  • Economy: Australia’s economy was becoming less and less relevant to New Zealand, which preferred to trade with Britain instead.
  • Cultural snobbery: Last but not least, New Zealanders felt (and arguably still feel) culturally superior to Australians, and didn’t want to get associated with Australia’s convict past.

That’s it, folks: the condensed story of how New Zealand came to be its own country. So you know what to say to that distant friend who’s a bit confused.