Revealed: The real reason New Zealand didn't become part of Australia

Kiwis value their independence, but 118 years ago, the decision could have been made to throw away that independence in favour of becoming a state of Australia.

Imagine that - No All Blacks, nuclear-free legislation nor a claim to the first person who climbed Mount Everest.

The Aussies certainly used to claim us as their own. Up until 1835, the colony of New South Wales actually governed us, until a group of Māori chiefs signed a Declaration of Independence (He Wakaputanga o te Rangatiratanga o Nu Tireni).

Our separate identity was further enhanced with the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, and although there was a protracted and bloody armed struggle between some Māori iwi and British Imperial forces after that, Australia's colonial masters still eyed New Zealand as a potential prize.

At the end of the 19th century, all six Australian colonies voted unanimously to form a federated nation and asked New Zealand if we'd like to join. So why didn't we?

The 'King Dick' theory

Doctor Felicity Barnes, a senior lecturer in New Zealand History at the University of Auckland, told Newshub that the relative importance of the many reasons has been debated for decades.

"Some have argued that the New Zealand Prime Minister of the time, Richard 'King Dick' Seddon, preferred being the leader of a nation to being the leader of a state, and so failed to lend his not inconsiderable weight to the cause. 

"Perhaps King Dick did fear losing his crown."

New Zealand prime minister Richard "King Dick" Seddon was instrumental in snubbing Australia's offer of Federation.
New Zealand prime minister Richard "King Dick" Seddon was instrumental in snubbing Australia's offer of Federation. Photo credit: Getty

Dr Barnes says New Zealand prime ministers had shown little enthusiasm for joining Australia since it was first suggested and Seddon's ego alone was not the only explanation.

"There was some concern at losing influence, at becoming just one of seven states - bigger than Tasmania, but certainly less important than New South Wales or Victoria.

"However, federation fears were not just based on insignificance, they also reflected a robust sense of New Zealand's own destiny. One historian has referred to it as a 'second declaration of independence'."

The fear Māori would be treated the same as Australia's indigenous peoples

While New Zealand continued its bloody road to independence in the mid-1800s, blood was also flowing in the Australian colonies, where 90 percent of the entire indigenous population was killed by either violence or disease.

In Tasmania, the indigenous people were hunted almost to extinction, with some historians describing the killings as genocide.

Indigenous Australians in chains - most weren't allowed to vote until 1962.
Indigenous Australians in chains - most weren't allowed to vote until 1962. Photo credit: Battye Library

Hundreds of settlers from Australia also fought against some Māori tribes during the New Zealand Wars - and in particular, during the invasion of the Waikato in 1863.

"There were quite a significant number of Australians recruited to serve as military settlers, so they would serve for three years and then receive grants of land themselves," historian and New Zealand Wars scholar Vincent O'Malley told Newshub.

"They are involved in some of the real contentious incidents in the Waikato War, such as the attack on the main centre of commerce for Māori in the Waikato, which was filled with women, children and the elderly."

Dr Barnes believes New Zealanders considered themselves better at 'race relations' than their trans-Tasman counterparts. 

The Māori rugby team on tour in Britain - separate Māori units also fought in both World Wars.
The Māori rugby team on tour in Britain - separate Māori units also fought in both World Wars. Photo credit: Getty

"But being better is not the same as being good," she says. "They also considered Māori to be a better 'class' of 'native' than indigenous Australians. 

"Nor was racial thinking limited to self-congratulatory attitudes towards Māori. New Zealanders worried federation with Australia would bring the 'yellow peril' closer to their own doorstep."

Traditional views that New Zealanders were somehow less racist than Australians were shown up in the letters and diaries of Kiwi soldiers, who trained in Egypt, before the failed invasion of Gallipoli in World War I. They often described the Egyptian locals as "niggers" or "blacks".

New Zealand's rulers wanted a Kiwi-run South Pacific empire

Dr Barnes says that, by the end of the 19th Century, New Zealand's rulers had plans for their own South Pacific empire.

"Federation with Australia might be more hindrance than help."

New Zealand became the first member of the British Empire to take over a German colony in World War I, when German Samoa surrendered to a Kiwi invasion force in 1914.

Kiwi soldiers occupy German Samoa in 1914 - New Zealand craved its own South Pacific empire.
Kiwi soldiers occupy German Samoa in 1914 - New Zealand craved its own South Pacific empire. Photo credit: NZHistory

After the war, New Zealand was gifted German Samoa, which it occupied, until the island nation gained independence in 1962.

Arguably, the only remaining piece of New Zealand's South Pacific empire is the Cook Islands.

The economics didn't add up

"Economically, too, Australia was becoming less important," Dr Barnes says.

"Exports had declined dramatically over the final decades of the 19th century, as Britain became New Zealand's major market. So, any fears of being shut out by new tariffs were muted."

"Some farmers, particularly those who raised oats that were exported to Australia as animal feed, were concerned, but by 1899, Britain was a much more important market for New Zealand farmers."

Was the tyranny of distance also a key factor?

Dr Barnes says Britain's growing importance also casts some doubts on one of the most often-cited factors against federation with Australia - the 1200 miles (1930kms) between the two nations.

"The 1200 miles between Australia and New Zealand were famously seen as '1200 impediments' to federation," she says.

Queen's Wharf in Auckland at the turn of the century - Australia was a week away by boat.
Queen's Wharf in Auckland at the turn of the century - Australia was a week away by boat. Photo credit: Getty

"Yet some of those politicians, who argued that distance made federation unworkable, supported a far grander scheme - imperial federation.  

"In that case, 1200 miles were no barrier. This points to an underlying cultural shift, away from what has been described as an older 'Tasman' world to a rejuvenated relationship with Britain.  

"Failure to federate was less an expression of new-found independence than a potent symbol of this new entanglement with empire."

The final reason - cultural snobbery

Dr Barnes believes Australia's convict past was considered a stain on the settlement - and that caused a bit of cultural snobbery, where New Zealanders felt superior to Australians.

"New Zealanders preferred not to consider that there might have been any trans-Tasman contamination over time."

Kiwi settlers from rural England and Scotland - they considered themselves far superior to Australia's "convict stained" population.
Kiwi settlers from rural England and Scotland - they considered themselves far superior to Australia's "convict stained" population. Photo credit: Getty

In essence, Kiwis thought themselves as being of superior racial stock to their Australian neighbours.

One could argue that they still do today.

Could New Zealand still become a state of Australia?

Dr Barnes says the possibility of New Zealand joining the federation later was allowed for in the original document, written in 1900.

Section 6 of the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act states: "The States shall mean such of the colonies of New South Wales, New Zealand, Queensland, Tasmania, Victoria, Western Australia and South Australia, including the northern territory of South Australia, as for the time being are parts of the Commonwealth, and such colonies or territories as may be admitted into or established by the Commonwealth as States; and each of such parts of the Commonwealth shall be called a State."

As you can see, New Zealand was considered a state in the new Commonwealth of Australia, even without the New Zealand government's agreement.

A cartoon from 1900 depicting "King Dick's" snub of joining the Australian Federation.
A cartoon from 1900 depicting "King Dick's" snub of joining the Australian Federation. Photo credit: NZHistory

Dr Barnes says that federation with Australia never really captured the public or political imagination. 

"Federation was not actively opposed, but it was not actively supported either," she says. "By 1900, the New Zealand Times characterised the 'public mind' as 'languid on the subject...The man in the street is not talking about Federation'.''

Today, most Kiwis aren't talking about it either. 

Newshub.

 

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