Jacinda Ardern’s leadership is not the first reason Australians have had to look across the Tasman and wonder whether there’s another way of doing politics, writes Laura Tingle.

In late March 2020, a young woman announced she was closing down her country.
“If community transmission takes off in New Zealand, the number of cases will double every five days,” New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, told a press conference on March 23. “If that happens unchecked, our health system will be inundated and tens of thousands of New Zealanders will die.”
On March 19, both Australia and New Zealand announced they would close their borders. What triggered Ardern’s move to go even further on March 23 was just two cases of COVID-19 in New Zealand due to community transmission, on top of 100 cases among travellers.
Jacinda Ardern warns tens of thousands will die if they don’t act
Not only did Ardern close the borders, she shut down the domestic economy too, in some of the strictest lockdowns attempted anywhere. What was more, Ardern wasn’t just planning to keep the virus at bay, she was planning to eliminate it.
She gave New Zealanders two days to get ready. At the press conference where she made these grim announcements, she was asked if she was scared.
“I am not afraid, because we have a plan,” she said. “We’ve listened to the science. We are moving early, and I just ask New Zealanders now to come with us on what will be an extraordinary period of time for everyone.”
From Australia, we watched in shock, scepticism or admiration. Our political leaders were wrestling with the same issues, but prevaricating by Ardern’s standards. Yes, we had moved early to close our borders to China, our largest trading partner but closing the borders completely? And shutting down the economy?
Our path was more gradual and the messages more mixed, to say the least. In Australia we were trying to have the best of both worlds: to limit the impact of the virus, but also to limit its economic impact by minimising the shutdown.
New Zealand’s response to the coronavirus is just the latest reason Australians have sometimes looked wistfully, or at least with interest, across the Tasman.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern imposed one of the strictest COVID lockdowns anywhere in the world.(AP: Nick Perry)
Much of the recent looking has been driven by a fascination with Ardern, particularly admiration for her empathetic leadership in the wake of the Christchurch massacre, the White Island volcano eruption and the pandemic.
Her stunning win in the October 2020 election gives our politicians a particular reason to look at how politics has been done in New Zealand in recent times.
But Ardern is not the first reason we have had to look across the Tasman and wonder whether there is another way of doing things. And her uncompromising positions do feel like part of a pattern.
Repeatedly jumping out of its comfort zone
Little New Zealand perhaps the only place in the world that has suffered isolation and the tyranny of distance more than Australia has repeatedly jumped out of its comfort zone and changed direction harder, faster and for longer than Australia has done in the past half-century.
Long before Australians noticed Ardern, its leaders were deregulating the economy more radically, cutting tax rates further, standing their ground for a more independent foreign policy against the United States and against the French over their nuclear testing in the Pacific.
The way New Zealanders run their politics is different too.
Jacinda Ardern, aged 40, led her Labour party to a stunning win in the election in October.(AAP: David Rowland)
The country has shifted from one extreme in the way it is governed to another in the past 40 years: from what was sometimes described as an “elected dictatorship” to the enforced, negotiated consensus politics of mixed-member proportional representation.
From the most protected economy in the world, it has become one of the most exposed.
And politicians talk differently, and the political debates are conducted differently: by today’s Australian standards with much more civility, for a start, and without the backdrop of the culture wars that are the stock-in-trade of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire.
A relationship defined by defence
At Federation in 1901, there was a strong expectation that New Zealand would become one of the states of Australia.
For New Zealand, the benefits weren’t clear. There were important differences in self-perception, which constitutional lawyer Nicholas Aroney notes included “a recurrent assertion that New Zealanders constituted a superior ‘British type’, unblemished by … convict origins”.
And it has to be remembered that the principal relationship both places valued was not with each other, but with Britain.
When the Glebe Island Bridge was renamed the Anzac Bridge in 1998, it was marked by the statue of a lone Australian digger no New Zealanders.(702 ABC Sydney: John Donegan)
That particularly played out when it came to matters of warfare. There is no foundation myth more heavily entrenched, perhaps even overused in the Australian psyche, than that of Anzac and Gallipoli. It says a lot about us that we tend to see it as an Australian experience.
When the Glebe Island Bridge in Sydney was officially renamed the Anzac Bridge on Remembrance Day 1998, it was marked by the statue of a lone Australian digger. Someone had forgotten the New Zealanders. And it would be another eight years before a statue of a Kiwi soldier was added. (The two soldiers look away from each other.)
It says a lot that we still seem to define our relationship with New Zealand by these historic experiences of defence, not by a political, economic or cultural shared history or a relationship that once saw us almost become one country, or indeed the modern reality that we have the closest economic relationship of any two countries on earth.
The strongest link
That strongest link is the one we seem to talk about least the economic link. Most Australians know or talk little of it, except when some particular policy initiative by New Zealand becomes fodder for Australia’s political debate.
But despite New Zealand’s decision not to join the Federation in 1901, the country is our closest economic partner, and we are the Kiwis’ most significant such partner.
New Zealand sought a reset with China after the relationship became tense in 2018.
China may have come to dominate the exports of both countries in the past couple of decades, but close to 15 per cent of New Zealand’s population according to a New Zealand cabinet paper from early 2020, around 650,000 New Zealand citizens live in Australia, while around 70,000 Australians live in New Zealand.
Since 1983, tariffs have been removed between the two countries, and food and professional qualifications standards unified. The New Zealand banking system is dominated by Australia’s big four banks, and Australia is a massive investor in New Zealand.
New Zealand ministers take part in Australian federal and state councils to discuss how services are delivered in both countries. It’s something the European Union could only dream of, really.
Indigenous recognition
Federation and Gallipoli tell us much about our shared history and myths. But they don’t necessarily tell us about our separate histories, and the legacies these have left, particularly that of the treatment of Indigenous people.
In the past 50 years, both Australia and New Zealand have been confronted with these legacies and the need to address them, more so than at any time in the past. But with very different results.
Between terra nullius and the Treaty of Waitangi, it is hard to think of more opposite circumstances in which two places were settled, or in which the position of Indigenous people would be considered.
Indigenous people in both countries came off badly, in both their circumstances and their legal standing.
Some experts say New Zealand has been able to establish a mostly comfortable biculturalism that Australia could consider in its Indigenous policy-making.(AP: Mark Baker)
Yet there is an extraordinary relevance in how the Treaty of Waitangi has developed in the last half-century to the debate we are now having in Australia about Indigenous recognition and a Voice to Parliament. And to a debate we have generally not been having about truth-telling and reconciliation.
What New Zealand gives us is a slightly different prism through which to observe the positive value these things can bring to a country without undoing it.
As native title in at least some parts of Australia has been plodding along its complex and legalistic path over the past 25 years, there has been a concomitant process in New Zealand.
Ever since the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840, it has been the subject of hot dispute, starting with different translations of what exactly both sides meant by it. Maori argued it was supposed to be a partnership, a sharing.
The colonists who arrived in increasing numbers and then their government did not see it that way. The treaty was repeatedly breached.
But in 1975, just as change was starting to sweep through the country in the wake of Britain’s decision to join the European Common Market, New Zealand established the Waitangi Tribunal to consider modern-day breaches of the treaty.
At first, this was more an idea in theory rather than a practical body, but it quickly developed into a push for recognition of contemporary events with historical roots.
The tribunal has gradually evolved to being a lot more than a basic land titles court. It has also become the path to truth and reconciliation for the country: it documents grievances, stories and histories. One New Zealand writer noted how, as hearings on claims progressed, the tribunal’s reports “began to sketch a historical backdrop which had largely been hidden from the eyes of ordinary New Zealanders”.
Christchurch Boys’ High School students do the haka
But there has been more. The tribunal helped establish the standing of the Maori language, as both a cultural treasure and an official language. The New Zealand National Geographic Board gives dual names to places.
While the Parliament declined in 2019 to a legal name change, it is commonplace in New Zealand, including in government and in pieces of legislation, to refer to the country by its Maori name: Aotearoa.
Maori culture is increasingly seen as New Zealand’s culture.
Consider how the haka has been adopted by pakeha (white New Zealanders) in New Zealand; its power when performed spontaneously by schoolchildren in the wake of the 2019 Christchurch massacre; and that the New Zealand Prime Minister wears a Maori ceremonial cloak on occasions of great national moment.
It was not that this process was without considerable political contention, nor was it perfect. But there was a sense that New Zealanders came to see treaty settlements as something that just had to be done.
The power of truth-telling
For an Australian observer, there is much that leaps out of the history of Maori issues over the past 50 years, particularly the way the tribunal process has developed and, along the way, changed the cultural and political nature of New Zealand.
Three things seem particularly clear. The first is the power of structures that give Indigenous people a say: structures that don’t have to be all that threatening to the rest of the community.
The second thing that emerges is that with recognition of wrongs there also came recognition of the value of culture. The debate didn’t just become about a past wiped out, but about keeping alive a culture into the present.
Finally, there is the power of truth-telling, of issues resolved, for a country.
Elizabeth Kerekere, a recently-elected Greens MP for New Zealand, has Mori heritage.(Supplied)
When you think of these lessons from New Zealand, you realise that what is at stake are the key elements of the Uluru Statement from the Heart but with the benefit of seeing them from a different perspective, one where everything you have heard is impossible has already happened, and proved completely possible.
There are still plenty of flaws in New Zealand’s dealings with its Indigenous people.
But what has happened there the fact that it has been possible to establish, as Australian legal academic Shireen Morris says, a mostly comfortable biculturalism, must give us scope to consider to what extent our own sense of maimed nationhood lurks not far beneath the surface.
There has long been a debate that surges in negative waves and then subsides again as we explore our capacity for difference. We celebrate multiculturalism in Australia. Why is it so much harder for us to embrace this extraordinary, ancient culture, let alone acknowledge the hard legal realities that our courts have recognised in our history?
Why is it that we can’t seem even to imagine a sense of partnership with Indigenous people in settling history and dealing with our modern problems?
Similar histories, different directions
We have had so many hotly contested debates in Australia about change. New Zealand has confronted a lot of the same decisions, from economics to Indigenous affairs, from foreign policy to welfare reform, from dealing with climate change to projecting ourselves on the world stage.
The striking thing in any comparison of our respective policy and political responses is the way they start in very similar places and finish in completely different ones, having followed different paths of argument, despite much similar history and many similar institutions.
Shining a light on why that is so who and what have been influential in these decisions, and what the outcomes have been helps reveal some of the less obvious influences shaping where Australia is now.
We may share a potential global advantage: the Australia-New Zealand Bubble.(AAP: Dean Lewins)
The fact that we have had such an obvious policy laboratory and testing ground for our own debates right on our doorstop yet know so little about New Zealand’s path through this time reflects the insularity of many of the national discussions on both sides of the Tasman.
No underlying idea has compelled the discussion forward in Australia in the past 40 years so much as the idea of opening ourselves to the world. That idea inevitably raised the question of the strategic importance of our region.
Yet we talk so often not in the Canberra bubble, but in the Australian bubble: as if the challenges we face are not being confronted by others.
We talk of greater ties with our region, yet overlook the neighbour who is closest to us historically. It has taken a dynamic, young female Prime Minister in Wellington to pique our recent interest in New Zealand at a time of disillusionment with our own politics.
And in 2020, a catastrophic global pandemic gave us every reason not just to look at, and compare, how New Zealand was dealing with an existential crisis affecting us all, but to see our two countries in the light of a new exceptionalism.
Suddenly, the tyranny of distance which had always worked against us, and the relative success of our governments in dealing with a crisis, created a sense that we may share a potential global advantage: the Australia-New Zealand Bubble.
This is an edited extract from Laura Tingle’s Quarterly Essay 80, The High Road: What Australia Can Learn From New Zealand, published Monday. Laura Tingle is 7.30’s chief political correspondent.