What Australia can learn from New Zealand: Laura Tingle

From Saturday Morning, 8:35 am on 5 December 2020

Deregulation, Covid-19 or developing a relationship with China, is Australia able to learn from New Zealand?

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Australian PM Scott Morrison.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Photo: Penny Bradfield/Auspic

Laura Tingle is a senior political journalist with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the author of Chasing the Future: Recession, Recovery and the New Politics in Australia.

An acclaimed essayist, she's just written a new longform article called The High Road: What Australia Can Learn From New Zealand.

In it she considers the current state of the trans-Tasman relationship and compares and contrasts the two countries' attitudes towards government, the economy, our colonial past, and the current pandemic.

She said in the past most Australians did not think they could learn much from New Zealand.

Over the past 40 or so years Australians have questioned why New Zealand is able to do certain things, she said.

"Without a doubt I think Jacinda Ardern has been the latest reason why we think 'wait a minute New Zealand's doing things differently and it's doing things in an interesting way and it seems to be working'."

Tingle said what Australia can learn from New Zealand is not always good, for example what happened in the 1980s.

"I think the radical free market deregulation that happened in New Zealand has obviously come at a huge cost socially in New Zealand and it hasn't necessarily achieved great benefits."

Laura Tingle

ABC journalist Laura Tingle Photo: supplied / Guardian Australia

She said an Australian analyst at the time said New Zealand's market deregulation would see New Zealand's living standards and its economic prosperity overtake those in Australia by the turn of the century - but that clearly did not happen.

Tingle said New Zealand comes up as an example during debates about free market deregulation in Australia.

"The people pushing for deregulation, for freer markets, for lower taxes have said 'look New Zealand has done this, why can't we?'

"So I've always been interested to go back and look and say what actually did happen in New Zealand, because it has provided this real sort of impetus if you like for the debate in Australia about these things, which has continued on unabated even though we did not deregulate or free up our markets as much as New Zealand did in those times."

Tingle said during the early period of Rogernomics in New Zealand there was the TINA or 'there is no alternative' argument regarding deregulation.

She said there was an onslaught of people and organisations all arguing the same case and reinforcing each other including Roger Douglas, the Treasury, the Reserve Bank of New Zealand and the New Zealand Business Roundtable.

"It was very difficult in that sort of environment to have any sort of modifying influence where as in Australia, while the government ended up heading in the same direction, it hadn't really intended to as Roger Douglas had."

Tingle said there were a range of modifying influences on these policies in Australia such as the Senate, the state system and the trade unions.

She said Bob Hawke had come in on a platform of a reconciliation and consensus government in Australia which meant that the unions and the welfare lobby were also in on the discussion.

"There was much more a sense that these positions were negotiated and agreed on, including by business in Australia, than was the case in New Zealand."

Tingle said in the lead-up to Britain joining the common market in 1973 both New Zealand and Australia looked toward Britain rather than each other.

"We were much more concerned about what Britain thought about us than we were concerned or interested in what the other country was doing, even though we were so close and we were so similar."

She said that is even though there are a lot of meetings between Australian and New Zealand ministers and the two countries have a close economic relationship.

Covid-19: Ardern acted, Morrison 'ummed and ahed'

Tingle said in the case of Covid-19 it was good that Australia had a range of different voices in the form of state premiers pushing for different policies.

Tingle said the public perception of the power of state governments in terms of setting policy and politics was in decline when Covid-19 hit.

"What happened with Covid was the realities of who runs our health system, who runs our police forces and runs our school systems has come back into the public mind and that's the states."

She said Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison had to set up a structure where both the state and federal government were cooperating and coordinating their positions on Covid-19.

At the beginning of the pandemic when New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern indicated that something needed to be done straight away and that everything was going to be closed down, her Australian counterpart Scott Morrison was still wavering due to the policy's economic impact, Tingle said.

But Tingle said that state premiers weighed in.

"It was really the state premiers, particularly those of New South Wales and Victoria, Gladys Berejiklian and Dan Andrews, who came in and said 'no we've got to close these things down now otherwise our systems won't cope' - so for that reason it was positive that we had all these other voices in the national conversation, pushing for different policies."

Are Australians 'dismissive of Kiwis'?

There is not a perception amongst the Australian community that Australia does not want to extend a hand of friendship to New Zealand, Tingle said.

"I know there are, what seem to me, really mean-spirited and unpleasant and nasty policy changes that have taken place, you know whether it's about sending people back to New Zealand, whether it's the crackdown on social security and government services to people from New Zealand which, if it makes you feel any better, we seem to be mean spirited to quite a lot of people in Australia, including a lot of our own."

Tingle said it as an attitude she does not understand given that it makes Australia seem "incredibly pompous and superior and dismissive of Kiwis", but she does not think that is the case.

There are about 650,000 New Zealanders living in Australia.

Tingle said New Zealand has had a much more volatile and vulnerable economy than Australia.

She said that led to New Zealand's 'brain drain' causing New Zealanders to cross the Tasman in search of higher wages and better living standards.

Tingle said that has been to New Zealand's detriment due to the drops in population which have cut its economic growth and Australia's benefit.

NZ and Australia's relationship with China

Tingle said New Zealand has been more "nimble footed" in its approach to China and has had a very different relationship with China than Australia.

She said Australia has a close relationship with the US which has affected its relationship with China.

"New Zealand is now confronting the same sorts of issues that Australia is about what we now do about China strategically and how we approach the country, but I think it's been much more nimble footed and clever about the way it's approached China."

She said New Zealand has belatedly realised it has to take a more strategic view of what happens China.

Tingle said a number of Australian analysts have highlighted that Jacinda Ardern managed to subtly change New Zealand's position on China without "raising the wrath of China".

And you can purchase a copy of Laura Tingles' full essay here.