Bigger Country — Smaller Nation? By Geoff Lealand

My contribution here ought to be a companion piece to Sue Turnbull’s ‘Big Country – Small Nation?’ (posted November 3, 2015),  for New Zealand’s closest and most significant neighbour is Australia.  We  share geographical proximity but also historical experiences and long-established political, cultural and economic ties. map1 nz aussieThe Closer Economic Relationship (CER) free trade agreement  of  1983 accelerated the free flow of pretty much everything across the Tasman Sea. But such flows have remained in Australia’s favour, leading to a situation whereby Australian interests control the largest portion of New Zealand economic life (banks, supermarket chains, airlines, financial corporations).

There is occasional talk of a more formal relationship, with suggestions that New Zealand becoming the seventh state of Australia. But such talk doesn’t gain much traction for there seem little desire from  politicians and from both publics, to pursue this. Most Australians are probably indifferent to such a prospect and don’t appear to have any deep affection for their Kiwi neighbours. Indeed, controversy is stirring about the treatment of New Zealanders in Australia who have committed criminal acts and now face internment and extradition back to New Zealand, even though they often have tenuous links here. As one wit pointed out, Australia has shifted from being a net importer of convicts, to a net exporter.

New Zealanders cherish such jokes and Australians retort with sheep-shagger jokes. We celebrate our  sporting victories,  (thus the t-shirt slogan “I support the All Blacks …and any team that plays against Australia”) and linguistic differences , and feel also little smug about New Zealand’s much better record on race relations and foreign policy. One symptom of the continuing awkward relationship between the two countries is a persistent disinterest in each other’s film, television and popular music.

all blacks

I have previously explored this disjunction in respect of film in my introduction  ‘Two Nations United?’ in the New Zealand contribution to Goldsmith, Ryan and Lealand  Directory of World Cinema: Australia & New Zealand 2 (Intellect, 2015), noting that there has been ‘a long history of benign neglect or studied disinterest in both countries’ cinema’. This also applies to television production, in that once again, programme flows are uneven, with Australian drama and reality TV formats very prominent in New Zealand television schedules, and  New Zealand programmes rather scarce on Australian screens. But because New Zealand audiences have become accustomed to relatively high levels of Australian programmes, they have begun to form an attachment to some particular genres, such makeover  reality shows such as The Block and Masterchef and long-form dramas of middle class life, such  as Packed to the Rafters and 800 Words (a rare and recent example of a NZ-Australian co-production, created by New Zealand writers James Griffin and Maxine Fleming).

The rather cheeky Blue Sky initiative of the 1990s and the Australian High Court decision of 1998, whereby New Zealand producers were able  to get New Zealand television content included in Australian content quotas (using CER as an arguing point) has done  little to redress this inbalance, despite early demands that Australian screen would be ‘flooded with cheap New Zealand programmes’. Counter-flows of television content from New Zealand to Australia remain occasional , short-term and off-peak.

New Zealand political commentator Bryce Edwards suggests that New Zealand tends to respond to this big brother/small brother  between the two nations in a spirit of petty nationalism,

                Which is, of course, everywhere in the world. But what makes our petty

                nationalistic rivalry so strange is the fact that mostly, our two nations are

                incredibly similar. Our shared experiences and similar cultures could make for a

                closeness, but instead it mostly fosters a petty rivalry.


The situation regarding television flows can be partly ascribed to respective population size (New Zealand has a population of 4.2m; Australia has a population of 24m) but, more importantly, to the fact that from the beginning of television broadcasting in 1960, New Zealand has been a gross importer of foreign programming, with local content rarely rising above more a third of total broadcast content. In 2014 Local Content report compiled by the funding agency New Zealand On Air, locally produced content across the six major free-to-air channels comprised 33% of  total content, with 36% in primetime content being New Zealand-originated. However, only 18% of total NZ content was first-run programming.(

It is generally acknowledged that the New Zealand television market is the least regulated television environment in the world, with only lingering vestiges of a public service or non-commerical spirit through the state-funded, two-channel Maori Television service and the state-funded agency New Zealand On Air, which allocates funding to endangered genres such as children’s, drama and documentaries. The dominant pay-TV provider Sky Television,  in more than half of New Zealand households, offers little locally-originating content (other than sport)  and has gone through various phases of ownership, both local and foreign.

Comparisons with what television is offered to Australians is not necessarily useful, for there is no New Zealand equivalent of the Australian  Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). As a somewhat curious legacy, the dominant two channel Television New Zealand system remains state-owned (as a Crown Owned Enterprise) but, to all intents and purposes, operates as ratings-driven, commerical enterprise with a prime objective of returning dividends to the government.

Comparisons with countries of a similar size and population might be moire productive. Indeed, in my review of the Barlow, Mitchell and O’Malley 2005 book The Media in Wales: Voices of a Small Nation (in Media International Australia No. 119, May 2006) I suggested that Wales and New Zealand provided interesting parallels due to,

                similarities in size and population; echoes in historical experiences (especially

                concerning respective colonial experiences0; language policy and media

                interventions (S4C in Wales, the Maori Television Service in New Zealand);

                and sporting ties.

I think other connections could be made in respect of sometimes over-bearing neigbours, and the role television may or may not play in the formation, realignment and revision of  prevailing notions of the nation.


Geoff Lealand is Associate Professor in Screen and Media Studies at the University of Waikato.

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1 Response to Bigger Country — Smaller Nation? By Geoff Lealand

  1. ruth says:

    Nice one Geoff…I have been pondering the relationship between NOZ and OZ recently as we make our decision about where we shall spend the next decades. The similarities between the South Island of New Zealand and Melbourne/Adelaide axis are even more fascinating (gold (and mass migration from Victoria), early women’s movement, non conformist adult education, the early social safety net for workers etc etc ). Maybe we just let Queensland and Auckland go?


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