December 3, 2009
Nine reasons why New Zealand is not Australia
Enough is enough. I’m sick of it, do you hear? Every time I turn on the radio or open a newspaper I’m confronted by some idiot politician or half-wit commentator making some stupid comparison between New Zealand and Australia, invariably at New Zealand’s expense. Generally this is followed up with the immortal threat about everyone leaving here to go there. Well, I’ve done that and come back, and I think it’s a bloody stupid comparison. If you want somewhere to compare New Zealand to, try New Caledonia. Or Jamaica. Or even Ireland. Any post-colonial island nation would make a better comparison than Australia, and they aren’t even our closest neighbour (and we certainly aren’t theirs). Here are nine whole significant reasons why Australia is not New Zealand. Anyone who wants to compare the two countries needs to come up with good reasons why most of these aren’t important.
Australia is rich. Not the kind of rich that you get by fiddling with the fine details of your tax system, but the kind of rich you get by being up to your eyeballs in mineral wealth. If you extracted all the iron, aluminium, uranium, and gemstones from Australian soils and dumped them on top of New Zealand, we’d sink down into our subduction zone never to be seen again. And that’s not to mention fossil fuels. I don’t think any ports in New Zealand have freighters lined up out to sea ready to take on cargo, but that’s what happens off Newcastle every day of the week.
Unlike all the numpties who witter on about this, I’ve lived in Australia and filled out tax returns there. Australian tax rates are as high as New Zealand’s (I think the highest rate is higher, not that I ever paid that) but you can’t just take that at face value because their system is way more complicated. There’s the tax-free threshold, that effectively slides all the tax brackets upwards. Ordinary wage-earners can claim all sort of slightly dishonest stuff back on their yearly tax return, including the fee of the accountant who helped them fiddle their return the year before (yes, it’s formalised Jobs For The Boys: imagine the stink if someone suggested that in NZ). Being a registered business in Oz is relatively simple and requires no overheads if you’re not actively trading: I’m still registered, even though it’s four years since I last wrote an invoice.
But it doesn’t stop there. Australian life is full of fees that are effectively taxes, even though they go by different names. Under 25 years of age and live in NSW? It’ll cost you about $800 just to register a car. Doing a return trip to Sydney airport from the north of the city will cost you the better part of $20 in tolls (unless you want to go the back way, which will cost you about 3 hours of your life). Australian banks charge even worse fees than New Zealand banks. Flying out of Sydney Airport costs $70 in departure taxes, and $7 per head to use the train station (update for clarity: $7/head is the “gate charge” for the airport station, because it was recently built; the actual train ticket is on top of that). Parks in NSW charge per day for entry (and not just a gold coin donation, either). All of which skims over the largest and most frightening Australian cost-that-isn’t-a-tax:
New Zealand’s ACC scheme is really very good. No, seriously, it’s really very good. You can argue the details of funding and eligibility all you like, but the real magic of a system like ACC is that it protects individuals and businesses from liability. If you have an accident and injure yourself on business premises in Australia, that business is liable for your medical costs. Even if it wasn’t their fault. Even if you say yourself that if wasn’t their fault: your medical expenses are going to come out of somebody’s hide, so get busy suing the entity with a legal liability. A friend of a friend broke her back riding a horse with a small firm, and was forced to sue them to cover her (considerable) medical expenses. They were bankrupted by the case, and the business no longer exists. When I was labouring on a building site in Sydney, my boss charged me out a $35 and hour, and every hour paid $6 of that to his insurance company to indemnify himself against me getting injured (the scheme is called Workcover and is a shining example of why privatising ACC won’t work). That $800 car registration is composed in large part of third-party injury insurance: potential medical expenses for people in other cars (it doesn’t even cover the driver of the registered car!).
The reason all this ends up being so expensive is that it’s not actually injury insurance, it’s liability insurance: protection from being sued. Guess what the second most litigious state in the world is, after California? Nope, you’re wrong: it’s New South Wales. Where no public scheme for treating injury or damages exists, then morally and financially people have to have a legal right to sue. It’s a terrifying system, it costs a fortune and woe betide anyone stuck on the wrong side of it (see the horse-riding business above).
Want bureaucracy? I fell over myself laughing when the ACT party propaganda I got in the mail before the last election said that reducing bureaucracy had been successful in Australia (then I burned the leaflet, buried the ashes at a crossroads, and disinfected my eyeballs, just in case). Here are the levels of governance that most Australians live under: shire (local) council, city/regional council, state government, federal house of representatives, senate. Each of those layers is a real governing body with real power to affect lives. And that’s not counting extra overlapping layers like transport authorities and police (state and federal for each).
In fact calling Australia a nation is almost only true by a technicality. It’s a genuine federation with a high degree of power and autonomy for each state (with the exception of Territories, which are controlled and funded from Canberra: the Northern Territory stays that way because it would go broke as a State). Each state loves its paperwork, and the structure of government means that federal laws and regulations supplement state laws rather than replacing them. Does your brain hurt yet? Bear in mind that while laws are laws, regulations require someone to notice and care in order to enforce them. So while (for instance) Australia has Federal emmissions regulations for cars, 90% of cars on Australian roads would probably fail the tests that were in force when they were new.
If the same degree of autonomy applied in New Zealand, Auckland would have gone ahead and built the original vision of the Harbour Bridge, complete with enough lanes for the next 50 years and provision for walking. That’s exactly what happened with the Sydney Harbour Bridge, a hugely ambitious project where they continued building right through the Depression, defaulting on loans from England and running the state on cash when the Federal government came with lawyers to freeze their bank accounts (it’s a fascinating story, I’ll see if I can find the relevant documentary on Youtube). Find it hard to imagine that happening in New Zealand? Me too.
New Zealand was one of the last places on Earth to be settled by humans. Australia has a local culture that stretches back over 40 000 years. Even if you only consider European history, the contrasts between New Zealand and Australia are marked, and quite fascinating. The convict story is well know, of course. What’s not well known outside Australia is how badly prepared those convict settlers were. They nearly died. To be precise, they nearly starved to death: they were so woefully prepared that they tried to plant their crops in April, the southern hemisphere autumn. There’s a whole lot of extra stuff behind this, to do with England’s class war of the time and prison hulks bursting at the seams on the Thames. New Zealand was settled from England slightly later, and they tried to set up a little middle-class English paradise in the South Seas, at least in part via the skullduggery of the Wakefield Company and other profiteers who were, shall we say, economical with the truth.
For all that the Australian federation included (and still includes, actually) provision for New Zealand to join, they were very different places in those days. At roughly the time when the race-based land wars were in full swing in New Zealand, Australia had clashes like the old-fashioned class-war of the Eureka Stockade: both struggles against the English state and aristocracy, if we’re honest, but so different in their context and repercussions. And let’s not forget to compare and contrast the Treaty of Waitangi with the terra nullius bullshit they tried to pull in Oz (I’ll come back to that shortly).
Australia is slow to adopt new things. I’ve mentioned the backwards feeling of Australian rural towns in previous blogging, but the country as a whole doesn’t really embrace change. New Zealand does. Almost every shop in New Zealand has EFTPOS (and it operates in real time), and that happened within about 5 years of it becoming available. New Zealand had (IIRC) the fastest uptake of Internet connections of any country in the world; the very first Internet link came into the country in 1992, and by 2002 well over half the country had access to an internet connection. This is social, too. New Zealand’s Bill of Rights is comprehensive, and came into force in 1990. Australia still doesn’t have a Bill of Rights, nor plans to introduce one as far as I know, in 2009. Religious lunacy has generally been given short shrift in New Zealand public life, but it’s more tolerated in Oz; both Jonathan the Coward and Kevinoseven are publicly Christian in a way that no New Zealand leader has been in recent years.
There’s no pleasant way to say this. Australia is a rascist country. That’s a fact. I lived in Sydney for nearly five years, and in that time there were two race riots: Redfern and Cronulla. If you follow the news, you probably heard about Cronulla, but you may not have heard much about Redfern. That’s because the rioters in Redfern were brown. Worse, they were indigenous Australians: Aboriginal. They way Australia has treated its native people is truly appalling. Ambiguous legal status until 1967. Subjected to a military occupation “for their own good”, on their own land, in 2007. Lots of people have heard about the Stolen Generation. Fewer people know how the stolen children were selected; they took the kids who looked whiter. Not out of some weirdo idea that those kids would be smarter or should be looked after, no no. They took those kids because they thought they might actually be white, because there was a culture of raping Aboriginal women for entertainment. Within living memory some people in Australia had permits to shoot Aboriginal people. Some did it for fun, without a permit. That’s not to mention the White Australia policy. I’m not making any of this stuff up. It makes me incredibly angry, and it’s one of the reasons I no longer live in Australia.
Wait, I’m not finished yet. Australia isn’t just against you if you’ve got brown skin. The government wasn’t keen on people who talked funny, either. The much-vaunted multiculturalism was a policy of assimilation, not integration. As in “you will be assimilated, resistancee is futile”. Johnny is a Greek but his kids will be Aussies: as it turns out, that’s because Johnny’s kids will get the shit kicked out of them at school if they don’t act like little ocker Aussies PDQ. If you’re ever in Adelaide, go to the migration museum. It’s fascinating and terrifying at the same time (Australia refused entry to Jewish refugees after WW2: oh, the irony, it burns).
This is country that re-elected a Prime Minister on a platform of keeping the brown people out, as recently as 2001. Look up the Tampa affair if you don’t believe me.
Australia is a desert country. New Zealand is a garden, by contrast. Most of Australia’s land area just isn’t arable, except by extremely extensive stocking (those famous outback farms the size of Belgium, supporting as many cattle as about 2% of Belgium). Droughts in Australia last for years, not months, and they don’t necessarily follow a predictable seasonable cycle. Furthermore, a lot of the land in Australia that should technically be arable is tropical, and history has shown many unlucky punters the hard way that the tropics just don’t support conventional agriculture. You can grow sugarcane or mangos or bananas in the monsoonal tropics, but try and relocate your enterprise from Victoria to the Northern Territory and you’ll find out just how many insects and fungal diseases live in the tropics, and just how voracious they are with no cold season to slow them down. Australia’s tropics are particularly exciting places: a saltwater crocodile in your rice paddy would add an extra dimension of challenge to planting and harvesting.
People who live in temperate countries (like all the commentators comparing New Zealand to Australia) don’t appreciate what really hot places are like. I didn’t live in tropical Australia, but I had the misfortune to try and deal with Queenslanders a few times… don’t expect to get anything out of Queensland over summer. All the denizens are collapsed near a beach, sucking languidly on XXXX(**) and waiting until April to sort out that order.
And then there’s the bushfires.
Leaving the best until last. Australians wages are higher than New Zealand’s, it’s true. Until recently I would have said that cost of living was higher too, but with the amount of rent I’m paying in Auckland I’m no longer sure about that. Anyway: we hear a lot about closing the wage gap with Australia. No problem guys, do you have a time machine? No? Well you can borrow mine for the purposes of illustrating the point. Swirly FX and Doctor Who music…
Once upon a time, actually for years and years, wages in NZ and Oz level pegged. Not only was the average wage basically the same, but they rose neck-and-neck. There may have been pockets here and there where you could earn a lot more (in the mines, for instance) but basically in 1990 you could hop the ditch in either direction and not expect too much of a pay cut. In 1991 New Zealand got the Employment Contracts Act, and wage growth stopped dead. For ten long years, average real wages in NZ barely moved at all, while Oz went into a huge economic boom and wages continued to grow as fast as they ever had. “Closing the wage gap with Australia” means reeling in that ten-year difference, with interest, at a time when the Australian economy is still going great guns, while New Zealand continues to begrudge every penny that doesn’t contribute to the bottom line of our favourite monopolist… Do I sound unconvinced? I am. Not that Australian politicians are much better, but they don’t need to be. They just need to stay on the horse’s back. If NZ really wants to close the wage gap, we need to catch a horse, and a faster horse at that.
(**)A liquid almost, but not entirely, completely unlike beer.
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