The sleeping Australian giant awakens

Lead story in Fairfax NZ Business 25 November 2014

New Zealand and Australia have always enjoyed some friendly banter and rivalry. Whether in a rugby match, political satire or just friendly sparring between Kiwis and Aussies in pubs around the world.

Our trans Tasman rivalry could turn a little less friendly and a lot more ruthless with the signing of the Free Trade Agreement between Australia and China. That is unless New Zealand businesses, especially those without the luxury of Fonterra’s market share and Australian interests, step it up a notch.

When the agreement was announced, my first thought was with New Zealand. What does this mean to my former home and the companies that already face enormous international competition?

In a way, Australia has been a slumbering giant compared to New Zealand. Like a big corporate beast versus a nimble start up, Australia is more bureaucratic, slower to adapt to change and thinks it’s doing pretty well, thank you very much.

But this China deal has given Australia more reason to get it together. And though President Xi Jinping has assured New Zealand that there’s more than enough business to go around, if you’re a New Zealand company with a nervous niggle, I don’t blame you.

As I’ve written in the past, when you live in Australia you realise that many qualities New Zealand is positioned around are also readily found here.

From Tasmania to Queensland, country Victoria to the North Coast, all around Australia there are clean and green regions producing great food and dairy. Australians enjoy the same outdoors lifestyle New Zealanders have always been proud of. We all live a short drive away from beautiful regional towns and holiday destinations. We have farmers’ markets and clean beaches.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to one-up New Zealand by telling you how great Australia is. But I’m looking at our two countries from the eyes of the Chinese consumer and they don’t look that different.

Although New Zealand has always been masterful at marketing itself, Australia is gunning for the same space and is now incentivised to go for it with greater gusto.

PureNZ was a great position at the time, and although it was a tourism campaign, it had universal appeal to an international audience hungry for authenticity. But the New Zealand story of open spaces, hearts and minds doesn’t have the same punch.

New Zealand needs something else, and it needs to come up with it quickly before the great lumbering giant that is Australia wakes up entirely.

With China now New Zealand’s number one trading partner and Australia stepping into the fray, New Zealand businesses needs fiercer competitive strength. That means adopting some of that Australian thick skin and commercial edge.

I was sent a link to Sir Paul Callaghan’s 2011 address to StrategyNZ. It was an excellent presentation that rightly talked about New Zealand’s need to invest in talent and technology, rather than just dairy and tourism. There has never been a better time.

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