Whenever I visit Australia, it is the differences between that country and New Zealand that I notice first – the vegetation dominated by a single genus of trees – the eucalypts, houses mostly made of brick, the incredible bird life. (While I was walking along a city street in Canberra, a flock of six big white sulphur-crested cockatoos flew overhead, looked down at me and laughed among themselves – where else in the world could you have a similar experience?)
This time, on a bus ride across the plains between Sydney and Canberra, I also noticed the thin topsoil. The lightest scratch in the topsoil reveals barren clay below. In steep terrain like river gullies, the eucalyptus trees seemed to be growing directly from crevices in the rocks. The number of stock per hectare on these plains was low, even in this relatively well-watered part of the country.
I was reminded of a great book I read some years ago, a comparison of the ecology of Australia, New Zealand and the third near neighbour, New Caledonia. It was called ‘The Future Eaters,’ by Tim Flannery. Flannery explained that throughout its separate existence, geology and climate had combined to deprive most of the Australian continent of the two sources of good soils: glaciation and vulcanism. New Zealand, on the other hand, has had both volcanoes and glaciers to create and replenish its soils.
The reason for my visit, however, concerns not the differences but the similarities between the two countries. I am studying a period in their common history in which the two countries were all but joined together. Right up to the First World War, the national state seems to have had only a fairly weak existence in both countries. Australia was still a collection of separate scattered colonies – the formation of a single federated state only formally took place in 1901. New Zealand up to that point was, economically and politically, little more than an additional state of Australia.
This had consequences for the labour movement in both countries that are difficult to imagine today. There was effectively a single Australasian labour market throughout this key formative period. A labour militant who faced blacklisting and other forms of persecution in New South Wales, for example, could just as easily migrate to New Zealand as to Victoria or Queensland, and many did – the leading personalities of the labour movement in New Zealand in the early twentieth century are overwhelmingly Australian-born. Any serious strike organisation in either country in that period included solidarity tours on the other side of the Tasman sea.
To a lesser degree, the West Coast of North America was also part of this same labour market. The greater distance to North America meant that the levels of migration to and fro were not quite so great, but from the time of the Californian gold rush of the 1840s (and the later, consequent gold rushes in Victoria and New Zealand) the passage between Australia, New Zealand and California was a well-trodden path. The West Coast of the United States was similarly remote from the centres of capitalist state power, and many of the biggest advances in working class organisation in the United States at that time took place in that region. Thus the most important connection with US labour was the exchange of ideas.
The single Australasian labour market came to an end in 1914. Participation in the world war provided both the economic and political basis for a major strengthening of the capitalist state in both countries, not just in the expansion of military forces, but also in the form of censorship, passports and other restrictions on travel and communications. The imperialist nationalism which the rulers had tried in vain to create in an earlier period now got some traction. Even though strong ties of trans-Tasman working class solidarity remained, the labour movement started to go its separate way in each country.
But before that happened, the working class movement had undergone a decisive transformation.