Flat White

Our pols can learn a thing or two from the Kiwi cousins

17 February 2017

10:00 AM

17 February 2017

10:00 AM

Today, Malcolm Turnbull visits New Zealand for his first leaders’ meeting with Kiwi Prime Minister Bill English. Trans-Tasman trade and whether there’s a future for the Trans-Pacific Partnership will be on the agenda.

When it comes to outstanding Kiwi products and services, however, there’s one Turnbull can get some useful pointers from English: the quality of Kiwi government and politics.

For well over a decade, since John Howard lost to Labor’s Kevin Rudd in 2007, Australia’s national government has been an awful mess.  It’s not just no Aussie PM since Howard – Rudd, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott and now Turnbull – serving a full term before being turfed by their colleagues or the electorate.  The whole practice of government in Australia has become ever more chaotic, and the political culture permanently angry and toxic.

Since 2007, when either Labor and Liberal-National government have tried to be even mildly reformist they’ve been beaten into submission by opponents, aided by internal political mismanagement and infighting. Unlike their New Zealand counterparts, for a decade both major parties in Opposition have courted votes and contested elections by relentlessly opposing and running scare campaigns about the other’s policies.

Populism is now the road to electoral victory in Australia. Oppositions, and minor parties and independents who control the Senate, make the task of centrist and moderate reformist government almost impossible.  What’s more, changes to the senate electoral system in 2016, intended to clean out crossbenchers pushing increasingly extreme agendas, backfired at last year’s election, not least in returning populist princess, Pauline Hanson, to Canberra after a nearly 20-year absence.

Instead of taking collective responsibility for economic leadership by paring back government’s share of GDP growth, and shooting down any savings measure that creates losers as well as winners, our political populists demand yet more government programmes and spending while refusing to compromise or support any budget cuts, and urge higher taxes and borrowings instead.  In recent years, successive governments have been in office but not necessarily in power, and out of frustration end up fighting themselves.

All post-Howard governments all have been infected by factionalism, personality conflicts, and have struggled to find direction and shape cohesive policy plans.  Rudd and Abbott were both brought down by internal chaos as much as any policy adventurism or political miscalculations: Turnbull is frustrated by a hostile parliament and dissident Liberal MPs.  Just this week, a sensible package of welfare reform was blocked by senate crossbenchers wanting the lavish new spending but not cuts to existing programmes to pay for it.

Australia’s democracy is all but unworkable and, while Kiwis may not believe it, New Zealand’s is highly stable by comparison.

Even with minority government all but guaranteed under a mixed-member proportional voting system – which effectively rolls Australia’s single-seat MP House of Representatives and proportionally-elected Senate into one chamber – things still get done.  Governments, oppositions and minor parties argue hard yet somehow rub along together and mostly have some respect for each other.  Rightly or wrongly, to Australians politics across the ditch are relatively civil and cooperative, as observers of both countries’ parliamentary question times can attest.

Both National and Labour governments have not only survived under MMP, but thrived.  Helen Clark, John Key and now English haven’t been afraid to pursue politically challenging social, economic and welfare reforms, tempered by consensus-building in an MMP parliament yet with such success Australian politicians look to New Zealand for inspiration.  That consensus keeps New Zealand politics sensibly centrist, while Australia’s are dominated by left and right fringes.

Under MMP and non-compulsory voting New Zealand party leaders also work hard to engage and explain policies to voters.  In Australia, that art of patient political explanation has been lost, as Abbott demonstrated when bringing down an unexpectedly harsh but fiscally-necessary budget in 2014, the resulting political failure merely emboldening parliamentary populists on both left and right to take all and give nothing.

New Zealand’s MMP experience shows you don’t need to have a majority government to have good government.

Furthermore, governments run themselves far better in New Zealand than Australia.  While Abbott’s fate was partly sealed by the aggressive and flamboyant leadership of his high-profile chief-of-staff and now media commentator, Peta Credlin, Key and now English have benefited greatly from a highly-efficient back office led ably but unobtrusively by the PM’s right-hand man, Wayne Eagleson.  Key talks about working in Australia post-politics: Turnbull should engage him to teach the lessons of New Zealand’s political success story to his own team.  Heaven knows, they could do with a John Key pep talk!

New Zealanders don’t know how lucky they are in the quality of their government, politics and even their politicians. Theirs is a democracy to be truly proud of.  Today, Bill English and his ministers can give their Aussie counterparts some good Kiwi ideas to take home.

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