The problem with spurious comparisons.

Reading the 2025 Taskforce recommendations as another exercise in comparative fantasising, I got to wondering yet again about why the NZ obsession with Australia, and why the constant comparisons with it. Part of my wonderment stems from the fact that those such as myself who have been trained in comparative political methodology simply do not see a valid basis for a comparison between OZ and NZ other than a shared language and ties to the UK. But Nigeria, Jamaica, Hong Kong and India can also claim those two similarities and no one thinks to compare them with OZ or NZ–or even with each other. So what is it with NZ’s constant penis envy about the continent to its West?

OZ is a mineral rich continent with 5 times the population size and well over ten times the landmass of NZ. It was settled by convicts who led generations of colonialists on a murderous campaign of indigenous cultural extermination. It has an atrocious record on race relations and endemic corruption in government, unions and business. It has a substantial manufacturing  base that now outweighs primary good experts as the mainstay of the economy. It is far more diverse in its post WW2 immigration (which has contributed to some of its race problems), far more conservative politics, an aggressive foreign security policy, allows nuclear weapons to be stored on its soil, and near catastrophic environmental problems caused by draught, over-mining, over-grazing and the cultivation of water-intensive crops. Australians disproportionately excel in a range of sports from swimming to surfing to soccer, with a little cricket, rugby and league thrown in for good measure. It is a federal republic with a bicameral national legislature. It is an aspiring middle power that seeks to be the regional hegemon serving as the US deputy sheriff in the SW Pacific. It has kept a a large welfare infrastructure intact as a cushion against the dislocations of market-oriented macroeconomic reform. It has Russell Crowe and AC/DC.

NZ is an archipelago nation more than 800 kilometers from its nearest neighbor. It has abundant water, forest and pasture. It was settled by preachers and sailors, some of whom entered into the indigenous food chain before a negotiated settlement was reached with the original inhabitants. Its climate is temperate and its politics, until recently, largely tolerant. It is a unitary government with a single legislative chamber. It has a fairly good history of race relations (comparatively, if not absolutely), much less urbanization as a percentage of the total demographic, and its export-oriented economy continues to be rooted in primary good production. It has less first generation immigrants as a percentage of the population, an “independent” foreign policy, the non-nuclear posture and an admirable record of involvement in UN arms control and peacekeeping efforts. NZ has the All Blacks, the Silver Ferns, the All Whites, the Black Caps, the Black Socks, the Tall Blacks, the Black Ferns, Black Sticks and for all I know Blackbeard as well (oh, and more than a few exceptional triathletes and endurance racers). More people per capita in NZ have university degrees than their Ozzie counterparts. It has been a laboratory rat for neoliberal experimentation since the mid 1980s under a variety of governments. It had Russell Crowe and Crowded House.

The question is, given these obvious and glaring differences, why do NZ politicians, policy-makers and the public alike fixate on OZ? To be honest, the better contemporary comparisons for NZ are countries with similar population sizes, land masses and location in the global chain of production rather than colonial ties, primary language or past ethno-religious makeup. By that contemporary criteria, Uruguay, Costa Rica and other Central American republics, small European states like Belgium, Luxemburg, Switzerland, Estonia, Latvia and the Northern Tier states (among others), and even Sub-Saharan African countries like Botswana, could all serve as a better basis for comparison than OZ (and all of those mentioned are capitalist democracies). And, using that criteria, it is possible than NZ would have a better feeling about itself rather than the perennial sense of inferiority when it comes to Australia.

One way to compare NZ and OZ is to use one of the comparative  methods I alluded to earlier. A “most similar” method seeks to isolate independent variables that are similar, then explain differences in dependent variables by highlighting the causal implications of intervening variables. Conversely, “most different” comparisons select independent variables based on differences, then proceed down the chain of causality to explain similarities in the dependent variables. It would seem that when it comes to OZ, a most different criteria is the better choice, although it is clear that the most similar comparisons based on language and Anglo-Saxon colonial legacies have been the historical norm.

Less it not be obvious I am being a bit facetious/tongue-in-cheek here, mostly in an effort to stir some argument about why Kiwis continue the non-sensical habit of comparing themselves as a society and nation to a far different place that just happens to lie 2000 kilometers to the West. Why not just concentrate on getting the most out of THIS society given its very unique national attributes? Why attempt to emulate the policies of larger nations that do not share those attributes or the specific constraints of a small, heterogeneous, trade-dependent island democracy? After all, most experts agree that it is not the size of the brush that matters, but the talent of the artist wielding it. On that count, as well as the stupidity of the 2025 Taskforce comparisons with Australia, Don Brash is no Van Gogh, and NZ has no need to measure itself against Australia now or in 15 years. What it does need, and all too often does not get, is talent in government. And that is not a matter of size.

7 thoughts on “The problem with spurious comparisons.

  1. If wage parity was a goal to be desired above all others, simply becoming a state of Australia (there is still provision for us in their constitution) is the only realistic way of going about it.

    I would suggest that our historic need to be appreciated – (a colonial need to prove ourselves to the empire and then the international audience), is what is at play here (at a positive level this need for reassurance does incline us to constructive contribution in diplomacy). In accord with this many go OE to prove themselves individually – and as the world becomes a global economy this will only increase.

    In the negative context, when we are not so successfully measured against others, we feel some need to beat ourselves up about it and look for quick fixes (possibly quite self-destructive options) to cover up our shame at our circumstance.

    We once lived off the sheeps back as a colonial farm, now agriculture is a smaller share of the global economy and we have a smaller share of its wealth than before. There is little we can do about that, but adopt some maturity and live with our reality.

  2. Why compare ourselves with Australia?

    1. History. (Aus was a base for whitey’s development of NZ for a while.)

    2. Proximity. (Aus is a Big Smoke – relatively speaking – that isn’t scarily far away or scarily different culturally for people who are a bit adventurous but not a lot.)

    3. Short Man syndrome. (As our country is small, isolated and unimportant, we tend to seize on anything that makes us look more important than we are and play it up. Naturally, we compare ourselves to bigger, more successful countries.)

    They sure aren’t good reasons, but we is what we is.

  3. Eddie: If you can spare an extra slug, I shall join you. I do not read the geezer so never saw the op ed. Either he is having occasional flashes of insight or I am just getting slower.

  4. They are using it as a stick. The subtext is that NZ is broken and “something must be done”. I can only presume that Act foresaw exactly this and intend it to be grist for their mill in due course.

  5. Reason for comparison – Importance of Relative performance of near neighbours.

    Similar to intra-national comparisons (Auckland vs Hamilton vs Tauranga vs Wellington vs Chch vs Dunedin).

    The relative performance of NZ compared to a near neighbour (Australia being our nearest meaningful neighbour) matters a lot. There are many differences in the type and scale of economies (similar to Auckland v Hamilton) but the relative performance matters in world of labour and capital mobility. The relative better performance of Australia means that any person making an investment decision (capital expenditure or job choice) is going to consider where they are going to be relatively better off.

    As a result Australia matters as the comparator. This not to ignore the value of other countries – relative to Nigeria we are doing ok, but relative to Australia -not so good.

    Now the next question is what to do about that. We have our own comparative and absolute advantages, culture, geography and climate that need to be considered. The policy prescription needs to be set for New Zealands circumstances.

    Ultimately this is about increasing productivity – and most of that is a story of capital productivity although labour productivity also matters (smarter people being craftsmen as opposed to labourers).

  6. I would suggest the reason is this: The Australians are looking for any excuse to suggest that New Zealand should become a state of the Australian Commonwealth. So New Zealanders feel constantly under pressure to prove that they don’t need the Australians.

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