Bernard Lagan: The Ireland of Australia

by Bernard Lagan / 14 February, 2013
Is it not time to talk about the costs of Kiwi migration to Australia?
Cartoon by Arnie Levin
“He appears to have eaten some homework.” / cartoon by Arnie Levin / The New Yorker Collection /

I once lived in Canberra, the bush capital out in woody sheep country. Many equate the city with politicians only. It arouses derision, even loathing, yet it is a city of worthy public institutions.

It has a lush national art gallery, a reflective war memorial and an edgy museum owing much to Wellington’s Te Papa. Colin McCahon’s surly Victory Over Death 2 hangs prominently in the National Gallery – a wry gift made by Robert Muldoon in 1978 as he set out to break down borders with Australia by forging the Closer Economic Relations agreement (CER). The War Memorial reminds Australians their first foreign war was on New Zealand soil against the Maori.

Another New Zealand vestige is Manuka – a leafy inner suburb. Canberra Ave, an oddity since the city’s other avenues are named after Australia’s state capitals, leads there. Canberra Ave was intended to be fleeting, in anticipation that New Zealand would eventually join Australia. It could then be renamed Wellington Ave. Manuka remains an optimist’s stake in the turf.

  • Captain William Russell, Minister of Defence and Colonial Secretary, was New Zealand’s man at the 1890 Federation Conference in Melbourne. In what today might be celebrated as a gloriously off-message newspaper interview, he blurted out his thoughts on Australians and why New Zealand should not become their seventh state. He warned that Australia had an emerging fiery nationalism and an indifference to its neighbour. A New Zealand that became part of it would not improbably end up “the Ireland of Australia”. Oh that a plain-talking Russell might have been in Queenstown last week as John Key and Julia Gillard had their annual get-together, marked CER’s 30th anniversary and retreated into the tiresome bonhomie transtasman leaders seem to feel they must display

  • How might Russell have reflected on the weekend? Might he have been tempted to report that, as he feared, New Zealand has become Australia’s Ireland? Or that Australia’s indifference has been equalled by that of New Zealand’s rulers towards the emptying of their country? The flow of Kiwis coming to live and work in Australia in the past year has set records. No other country exports its educated at such a rate and only one developed nation – Ireland – rivals New Zealand for the loss of its people.

  • Australia already denies a range of benefits and study assistance to many New Zealanders and their children. An underclass of New Zealand origins – predominantly Polynesian – is developing in southeast Queensland. And the drums are beating within Australia for the door to close further. Australia’s most influential demographer, Monash University’s Bob Birrell, said in a report last December: “Finally it is time to do something … Australia is serving as a safety valve for New Zealand’s economic woes.” The pressure will only increase as Australia’s mining boom subsides. Meanwhile, New Zealand’s population prematurely ages as its 20-to-40-year-olds leave. Is it not time to talk about the costs to both nations of the Kiwi diaspora? New Zealand surely risks confirmation as the Ireland of Australia, foretold by Russell. To go there meekly and without protest was as far from the captain’s mind as finding Wellington Ave in Canberra remains for most New Zealanders.

Bernard Lagan is an Australian-based New Zealand journalist who writes for
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