OPINION: The Republic of Australia and New Zealand

By Rodney Crisp

Amalgamation of our two countries is now approaching the final stages.  The remaining barriers to a complete union are predominately societal: two currencies, two national social security regimes, two national parliamentary systems and administrations.  Even our social security organisations have been obliged to make reciprocal arrangements to follow our increasingly integrated populations.  Another important barrier was removed recently with the agreement to dismantle immigration and customs controls between our two countries, opening up a vast new domestic zone that spans the Tasman Sea.   

We now represent, ipso facto, a single community with shared values and aspirations while continuing to maintain the appearance of two independent countries.  This is a luxury which will become more cumbersome and obstructive as the years go by and increasingly more difficult to justify.

It seems it is now essentially a question of the preservation of identity.  We, Australians and New Zealanders alike, are proud of our individual identities.  However, we must admit there are very few differences among those of us who are of European or Asiatic descent.  The most obvious differences are to be found among our indigenous peoples, the Maoris and the Aborigines.  The Maoris represent about 14.6 per cent of the population of New Zealand (4.3 million) and the Aborigines about 2.4 per cent of that of Australia (22 million).  However, roughly 73,000 people of Maori descent live in Australia and 500 Australian Aborigines live in New Zealand.   

It is difficult to imagine how the unification of our two countries could modify the ancestral identity of either of these two indigenous peoples.  Both would continue to enjoy the same freedom to live their lives and perpetuate their cultures, exactly as they do today, in full respect of their rights and obligations.  That, of course, does not mean that best practices would automatically apply on both sides of the Tasman on amalgamation.  It would only be a question of time before they did, except as regards the specific dispositions of the Treaty of Waitangi.  This Treaty, concluded by the British Crown and the Maori chiefs in 1840, by which the Maoris ceded the sovereignty of New Zealand to the United Kingdom in exchange for protection and guaranteed possession of their lands, considered to be the founding document of the independent State of New Zealand, would be deemed to continue without interruption in the event of amalgamation.  However, it only applies to New Zealand.  

If there were to be any loss of identity it would not be due to amalgamation but to the spontaneous integration of our two peoples which is already largely under way.  We could retain the names of our two countries and join them together: Australia and New Zealand.  We could all have Australia and New Zealand passports with our photos in them.  We could combine our national flags and emblems.  We just need to put ten stars on one flag instead of six on one and four on another.  We could even retain our two national anthems if we wished.

The right to mint money is an important symbol of the independence of nations.  New Zealand being originally part of New South Wales we both had the same currency until 1910 when Australia began issuing its first silver coins following federation.  New Zealand issued its first coins in 1933.  Since then, our two currencies have virtually grown up together.  Both countries use the same currency valuation mechanism, the TWI (Trade Weighted Index), a basket of currencies of our respective countries major trading partners.  It would be quite simple to combine the two baskets and calculate the exchange rates for conversion to a new, common currency which we could call the Anzac Dollar (ANZ $).

Full monetary integration would be facilitated by amalgamation.  The global size of the new nation would provide greater resistance to economic shocks and give us more clout in financial markets.  The larger economic space would facilitate the internal redistribution of resources in the event of catastrophes such as foot and mouth disease or swine flu, providing increased security at lower cost. 

Historical precedents to the current amalgamation process in Australia and New Zealand are rare.  Trinidad and Tobago is one.  These two British island colonies, 32 km apart, amalgamated in 1898, just when New Zealand decided not to join the Australian federation.  Trinidad (4 827 km2) and Tobago (303 km2) each had its own indigenous Amerindian population prior to European occupation.  Amalgamation allowed the inhabitants of both islands to maintain their identity and reinforce their independence.  The country became a republic in 1976 and is a member of the Commonwealth.

It is interesting to recall that New Zealand was officially part of the Colony of New South Wales for over half a century from 1788 to 1841.  The Hon Sir John Hall, together with Captain Russell, represented New Zealand at the first conference on Australian Federation held in Melbourne.   Having later decided against membership, Sir John was quoted as saying that the 1 200 miles of sea that separated New Zealand from Australia were “1 200 reasons” not to join the new nation.   In fact, that was only one of the reasons why New Zealand decided against membership.  There were about half a dozen in all, back in the 1890’s, none of which would apply today.  Even the “1 200 miles” is now only a two hours flight, the same as Brisbane to Canberra. 

Of the 53 Commonwealth members, 31 are now republics.  Republics have been allowed to be members of the Commonwealth since 1949.  In Australia, an opinion poll published by UMR Research, in May this year, found stable support levels for a republic over the previous 12 months with 51 per cent of Australians in favour of it and 30 per cent against it.  Similar support has been recorded in New Zealand. 

Whether our countries become republics or not, for them to be independent, they need to be capable of assuming their own security.  Neither Australia nor New Zealand has that capability and will not have it in the foreseeable future.  That is why we both signed the ANZUS treaty with the United States following the Second World War.  Regrettably, since then, New Zealand fell out with the United States when it refused to allow an American nuclear submarine enter its territorial waters because of its anti-nuclear policy.  The US retaliated by suspending its obligations to New Zealand under the ANZUS treaty.  That leaves New Zealand highly vulnerable in the event of hostilities and largely dependent on Australia for its security.  Happily, Australia still has the benefit of the protection of its American ally otherwise we would both be in dire straits to say the least.             

Much depends on the results of the future consultations, unless, of course, as in the 1890’s, New Zealand’s political leaders consider issues such as amalgamation and a republic too important to leave to the people to determine and impose their own decisions in the same paternalistic manner as their ancestors.  Whatever happens, Australians and New Zealanders have a vested interest in each other’s decisions and a right, if not an obligation, to participate in the debate on both sides of the Tasman.  Our fates are inextricably entwined.

Rodney Crisp, Paris

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