Years ago, I watched a rugby league test on TV in a remote tourist spot in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia. The match was between the Kiwis and the Wallabies and I suspect I was the only New Zealander among the 20 or so people in the TV lounge.
When the Kiwis scored, I couldn’t help letting out a triumphant whoop. It was probably not a smart thing to do.
Feeling a roomful of eyes boring into me, I explained, almost apologetically, that there was an enemy in their midst. Whereupon a fat, red-faced Aussie male in a rugby league shirt snarled: “You Kiwis are like bloody poofters. There’s always one of you in the room.”
It was said without a trace of humour. I was so taken aback that I couldn’t think of a suitable riposte, although a few occurred to me later. (Isn’t that always the way?)
That he felt no constraint about using a term such as “bloody poofters”, thereby confirming himself as a social Neanderthal, was telling in itself. An uncouth Aussie is infinitely more uncouth than the most uncouth New Zealander. It’s possibly the only sphere in which they consistently out-perform us.
Long before that night, I had realised that Australians and New Zealanders were fundamentally different in their culture and outlook. Working in Melbourne in the early 1970s I often wondered, when I drank with my workmates in the pub, whether we even spoke the same language.
My colleagues were friendly enough – the women a lot more so than the men – but there was always a sense of distance between us. I was left in no doubt that I was an outsider.
I got better on better with the Poms in the Melbourne Herald newsroom, probably because they were outsiders too. What’s more, they seemed more civilised.
But that night in the Arkaroola Resort and Wilderness Sanctuary (a beautiful place, by the way) was what you might call a light-bulb moment. It was only then that it dawned on me that a lot of Australians actually don’t like us.
This isn’t true of all Australians, of course. Many regard us with genuine affection.
But if you examine the history of the relationship between the two countries, you can’t help but be extremely sceptical about the mythology that surrounds it.
The attitude of most Australian politicians toward New Zealand isn’t far removed from that of the slob in the TV lounge. They tolerate us as long as they have to, and they make friendly noises when it suits them. They’re always ready to invoke the sentimental Anzac bond.
But if New Zealand gets in their way, they don’t hesitate to squash us. At best, they’re indifferent to us; at worst, they treat us with contempt.
This has been demonstrated once again by the controversy over New Zealanders awaiting deportation in Australian detention centres. Our mates in Canberra couldn’t have sent a clearer signal about the value they place on the trans-Tasman relationship.
Predictably, there was the usual nauseating Australian hypocrisy. Interviewed on Morning Report, a Queensland senator who championed the hard line on deportation said: “We love our cousins across the ditch, but …”
With Australia, there’s always a big “but”.
We shouldn’t be surprised, because we’ve seen this time and time again. Remember Laurie Brereton, the minister in Paul Keating’s government who unilaterally cancelled an aviation agreement with New Zealand and imperiously advised his counterpart in Wellington by fax? Par for the course.
More recently, John Howard gave Helen Clark what one political reporter called the Mafia option – in other words, made her an offer she couldn’t refuse – when the Australians changed the rules relating to New Zealanders living there.
Clark is no pushover, but her negotiating strength was zero. Howard knew that and took full advantage of it, as is the Australian way. They’re the biggest boys in the playground and they know it.
Don’t expect anything to change because of new Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s professed admiration for John Key. The Key government’s meekly submissive posture on the deportation issue has signalled to Canberra that it will be business as usual.
One thing has changed, however, and quite strikingly. The angry public and media reaction to the detention camp outrage suggests New Zealanders have belatedly woken up to the fact that for decades, Australia has been playing us for suckers.
Karl du Fresne blogs at karldufresne.blogspot.co.nz. First published in the Dominion Post.