Could Australia and New Zealand Become One Nation?

The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. Sign up to get it by email. This week’s issue is written by Natasha Frost, a reporter in Melbourne.

Becoming a republic, legalizing same-sex marriage, changing the Constitution to establish an Aboriginal advisory body: To make these changes to Australian life requires — or has required — at least one nationwide vote.

Yet there is a far more dramatic step that could — but almost certainly will not — occur without any polling whatsoever: turning New Zealand into Australia’s seventh state.

The idea was recently mooted in the valedictory speech of Jamie Strange, a departing Labour member of Parliament in New Zealand.

“Every time I visit Australia, I often ponder the thought, ‘Will we ever become one country, Australia and New Zealand?’” he said last week, adding: “My personal view — and it’s only a personal view — is that New Zealanders shouldn’t rule that out.”

(Among the benefits Mr. Strange listed was bringing the supermarket chain Aldi to New Zealand’s shores. Integrating the country’s cricket teams, he mused, might be a bridge too far.)

Speaking to the Australian news media this week, Barnaby Joyce, a former Australian deputy prime minister (and clandestine New Zealand citizen), acknowledged that such a change was unlikely to ever take place.

But, he said, “we might as well put it out there,” adding: “The defense policy, monetary policy — we might even win a rugby game!”

In Section 6 of the Australian Constitution, drafted in 1900, New Zealand was listed as a potential Australian state. (Federation — when Australia’s six states united to form the Commonwealth of Australia — took place on Jan. 1, 1901.)

Some years earlier, Australia had invited New Zealand to join the federation. For a variety of reasons, New Zealand declined.

John Hall, a former premier of New Zealand, cited distance as a deciding factor during a conference on federation in Melbourne, Australia, in 1890.

“Nature has made 1,200 impediments to the inclusion of New Zealand in any such federation in the 1,200 miles of stormy ocean which lie between us and our brethren in Australia,” he said, adding: “Democratic government must be a government not only for the people, and by the people, but, if it is to be efficient and give content, it must be in sight and within hearing of the people.”

Australians, for their part, thought New Zealand might change its mind. Speaking at the same conference, William McMillan, an Australian politician, expressed such a hope.

“I believe that,” he said, “when public opinion has sufficiently penetrated New Zealand, even New Zealand, separated from this continent by 1,200 miles of water, will come into the Federation of the Australasian Colonies.”

Geography was not the only consideration for New Zealand. Reporting earlier this year for an article about changes to citizenship rights for New Zealanders living in Australia, I spoke with Paul Hamer, a researcher at Victoria University of Wellington, about the two countries’ historical relationship and their different approaches to race and migration.

“Australia wanted New Zealand to federate in 1901. It wanted to set up a racially discriminatory state — ‘White Australia,’” he said. “New Zealand was hesitant because of its Maori population,” and eventually chose to go it alone.

Those different approaches have reverberated across the decades. As my colleague Yan Zhuang wrote in last week’s newsletter, Australians will have their say about Aboriginal representation in government in an Oct. 14 referendum. In New Zealand, a general election will take place on the same day — and Indigenous voters will, as they have since 1867, have the opportunity to vote in seven electorates that are reserved for Maori representatives.

There are plenty of other reasons such a merger doesn’t make sense, including wildly different attitudes to nuclear power, migration and the economy.

So, all things considered, neither the All Blacks nor the Socceroos will need to worry about the intricacies of how to merge their rugby union and soccer teams with those of their rivals.

But that doesn’t mean that some, in both countries, won’t continue to ruminate on what might have been — and whether New Zealand should, as some economists suggest, simply import Australia’s tax code wholesale.

And in the meantime, Australia might consider formally adopting a suggestion from the Australian comedian Celeste Barber, who in 2020 called on then-Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to rename Australia “West New Zealand.”

Here are the week’s stories.

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