Hands up if you agree that Anzac encapsulates ‘the unique qualities that gave birth to our national identity: courage, mateship, sacrifice, generosity, freedom and a fair go for all’.
I can see almost all hands are up. That is in the spirit of Anzac: the quote is from Australia’s Veterans Affairs Department saying what a gold logo it designed for approved firms’ use signifies.
Leave aside the sanctioning of firms commercialising a sanctified historical epoch. (Woolworths got whacked for doing it without approval.)
And leave aside that Australians often leave the Anzac ‘nz’ silent. A letter to a paper some years back complained that schools were teaching that New Zealand was part of a sacred Australian icon.
The two colonies were thrust together in the disastrous Gallipoli adventure. That gave them shared experiences at war which many assume are paralleled in other spheres.
But unpick this comfortable Anzac catechism.
On the western front in Europe from 1916 Australia insisted on command of its troops. New Zealand left its men under brutal British discipline.
And since then the two countries have gone different ways more often than the same way in trade, international affairs and military posture.
New Zealand stayed mainly in Europe in the Second World War. Australia pulled back to fight the Japanese. Australia conscripted troops for Vietnam in the 1960s; New Zealand contributed the smallest contingent it could and still be able to sell beef to the United States. Australia invaded Iraq in 2003. New Zealand didn’t.
That both went into Timor Leste in 1999 is an exception, not the rule—though New Zealand is joining Australia in Iraq now.
In doing the 2000 deal with Singapore, New Zealand modified its emphasis on multilateral trade solutions much earlier than Australia. New Zealand’s anti-nuclear stance and ejection from the Australia New Zealand United States treaty—the ‘nz’ is truly silent there—was a factor in getting a deal with China.
And in trans-Tasman single economic market matters Australian officials and politicians change policy when it gets high in domestic rankings and only seldom in response to New Zealand pitches—sometimes even when change would be positive for Australia, as analysts have shown for mutual recognition of dividend imputation.
Australia’s superiority complex has been dented recently as New Zealand has had more stable politics, safer fiscal management, stronger-based GDP growth and lower unemployment—plus a startling reversal of trans-Tasman migration flows.
As our dollar edged close to matching Australia’s, a spate of articles in the Australian media presented New Zealand in a near-glowing light. A meeting of business CEOs of both countries next month in Wellington has attracted unusually high interest on the Australian side.
Of course, the two countries share a lot, as ex-British colonies with a common labour market and much shared slang. But we are not the near-identical twins some Anzac rhetoric invokes.
Now unpick another dimension of the comfortable catechism: that Gallipoli and the first world war ‘gave birth to our national identity’.
New Zealand (and Australia) went into the war automatically with the mother country of the empire they were integral parts of.
New Zealanders had already long differentiated themselves in their determination not to replicate Britain’s stratified society run by a privileged elite. This ‘contract’, as historian John E Martin calls it, was built into the pitch for migrants from very early in colonial times.
But the imperial elite ruled the war—an elite painted in Anne de Courcy’s ‘Margot at War’ book about British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith’s wife as continuing its insouciant fine dining, soirees and affairs while the lower classes were butchered at the front.
And it was Britain’s Sir Winston Churchill who conjured up the Gallipoli campaign. Commentators debate whether it was an example of Churchill’s wild-eyed ways or bungled military execution or both. (Turkey’s government now tells its tour guides to call it a victory of the true faith.)
Yet we stayed in empire afterward. Prime Minister Sir Sidney Holland said in 1950: ‘I have always been proud to be British … our dear old empire.’
In 1950 we were different British, legally independent but not a fully separate nation. That came decades later.
For the soldiers, war on Gallipoli and on the western front did involve courage and mateship and sacrifice (willing or not). It required endurance and resilience, coping with bad food, cramped, insanitary conditions and boredom—those were veterans’ primary recollections in interviews I did as a young journalist brought up on glory stories.
And they had to survive deafening noise, gas and ubiquitous violent death of mates. Many of those the war did not kill or physically maim it scarred in subtler ways.
Anzac stands for ordinary folk doing extraordinary things under duress. That is the true commemoration this weekend.
This piece was first published in the Otago Daily Times and appears here with kind permission.