In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Comparative Politics of Australia and New Zealand

  • Introduction
  • Foundational Works
  • Journals and Other Sources
  • Policy Transfer

Political Science Comparative Politics of Australia and New Zealand
Marian Sawer, Kirsty McLaren, Norm Kelly
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 July 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0008


Australia and New Zealand have many commonalities, apart from both having national flags featuring the Union Jack and the Southern Cross. As British settlements in the South Pacific, or settler societies, the Australasian colonies inherited Westminster political institutions and a tendency to believe in the superiority of the British race. When the federation process began in Australia in the last decade of the 19th century, it was thought that New Zealand might become the seventh state, but this was not to be. While this period was characterized by a significant amount of policy transfer between policy innovators on both sides of the Tasman Sea, New Zealanders prided themselves on better policy in relation to their Indigenous population, the Maori, and did not wish to put this at risk. For this and other reasons, New Zealand did not become part of the Commonwealth of Australia, although both Australia and New Zealand are now members of the Commonwealth of Nations based on the former British Empire. Policy transfer speeded up again in the 1980s with the institutional and cultural similarities of the two countries facilitating the adoption of successful policy experiments tested in one or another of the Australasian jurisdictions and the rejection of less successful ones. This brief history indicates some of the features that make Australia and New Zealand good candidates for comparative studies based on a “most similar systems” design. This approach seeks to compare cases that are similar in as many respects as possible, to simplify the task of identifying the source of difference. The two countries also differ in interesting ways in terms of political architecture and the treaty framework for Indigenous relations in New Zealand. A brief note on terminology may be helpful. Outsiders often find the different meanings of the term Commonwealth confusing—it is both the official name of the federal government of Australia as well as shorthand for the Commonwealth of Nations, of which both Australia and New Zealand are members. The term Australasia is also a source of confusion. The term was invented in the 18th century by a French explorer to mean “south of Asia.” It most often refers simply to Australia and New Zealand, although sometimes to the island of New Guinea as well. Another bugbear for comparative research is that the Australian Labor Party dropped the “u” from labour after its 1905 federal conference, but the New Zealand Labour Party has retained it. This article uses the Australian and New Zealand spelling of “labour”; here as in other works the “u” is retained where both parties are being referred to but otherwise the parties’ own spelling is used.

Foundational Works

The most important classic texts influencing international perceptions of Australasia as a “social laboratory” are Albert Métin’s Le socialisme sans doctrines: La question agraire et la question ouvrière en Australie et Nouvelle-Zélande (Métin 1977) and William Pember Reeves’s State Experiments in Australia and New Zealand (Reeves 1968–1969). Métin won a traveling scholarship from the University of Paris and a commission from the French Office of Labor to undertake his research in 1899, which was originally published as a government report with plenty of statistics. Métin was deeply impressed by the degree of social, economic, and political equality achieved in the colonies, despite the church-going nature of the workers, their loyalty to queen and empire, and their lack of awareness of, or interest in, socialist theory. New Zealand–born Pember Reeves provides a “local” perspective. Reeves was a minister (1891–1896) in the reforming Liberal governments of John Ballance and Richard Seddon. He introduced the world’s first successful scheme of compulsory industrial arbitration with legally enforceable awards, as well as legislating for labour exchanges, Saturday half days, and a factory inspectorate. Both authors put stress not only on the practical rather than philosophical strengths of Australasian reformers, but also on the advanced character of their social reforms (“the workers’ paradise”). Bryce 1921 discusses the outcomes of the “rule of the multitude” in Australia and New Zealand. Like Métin, he pointed out that “socialistic practice” in Australia and New Zealand had not been accompanied by “socialistic doctrine.” More recently, Castles 1998 provides a useful analysis of views of Australasia as a social laboratory.

  • Bryce, James. Modern Democracies. 2 vols. London: Macmillan, 1921.

    In the second volume of this influential account of modern democracy, Viscount Bryce deals in some detail with the United States of America, Australia, and New Zealand. Bryce believed the results of the rule of the multitude could be best studied in the newest democracies, where it included state regulation of wages.

  • Castles, Francis G. “Social Laboratory.” In The Oxford Companion to Australian History. Edited by Graeme Davison, John Hirst, and Stuart Macintyre, 592–593. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1998.

    Discusses the idea of Australasia as a site of social experimentation and the role of outsiders, such as Métin and Bryce, in developing this idea, along with “local” protagonist Pember Reeves. Castles points out that the concept of Australasia as a social laboratory, for testing ideas under discussion elsewhere, sometimes shaded into a concept of Australasian exceptionalism.

  • Métin, Albert. Socialism without Doctrine. Translated by Russel Ward. Chippendale, Australia: Alternative Publishing Co-operative, 1977.

    English translation of Le socialisme sans doctrines: La question agraire et la question ouvrière en Australie et Nouvelle-Zélande (Paris: Félix Alcan, 1901). Revised and expanded edition 1910. The English translation of his book was very belated, perhaps in part because a rival work (Reeves 1968–1969) was available in English. Provides a lively European perspective on Australasian social reforms.

  • Reeves, W. Pember. State Experiments in Australia and New Zealand. 2 vols. Melbourne: Macmillan, 1968–1969.

    First published in 1902 (London: Grant Richards). An invaluable source on the introduction of compulsory arbitration and other labour legislation in the Australasian colonies as well as the struggle to introduce progressive land taxes. Also a valuable source on the introduction of noncontributory old-age pensions. Covers a number of other “experiments,” such as women’s suffrage.

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