Should Canberra copy NZ?

Terry Barnes writes:

When it comes to importing Kiwi products, however, there’s one outstanding Kiwi product Turnbull should have asked English about: The quality of Kiwi government and politics, writes Terry Barnes.

Australian politics have been an ungovernable mess for years, ever since John Howard lost to Labor’s Kevin Rudd in 2007.

Rudd got rolled by Gillard. Then Gillard got rolled by Rudd. Then Abbott beat Rudd. Then Turnbull rolled Abbott. And now Abbott seems to have turned into Rudd and is trying to toll Turnbull.

Unlike Wellington, gridlock now reigns in Canberra. Whether Labor or the Liberal-National coalition, governing parties trying to make even modest reforms and budget savings are savaged by opponents, and rent by internal political mismanagement and infighting.

Abbott in 2010 and 2013, and Labor’s Bill Shorten in 2016, won or almost won elections not with positive policies but by blocking governments at every turn and waging effective scare campaigns.

Key in 2008 was very different. He campaigned on how good New Zealand is, but how it could be even greater.

Whereas in New Zealand the consensus generally is for steady government featuring prudent economic management, the road to electoral victory in Australia is populist.

Oppositions, and minor parties and independents who control Australia’s senate, are making centrist yet moderately reformist government like New Zealand’s almost impossible.

Instead of taking collective responsibility for economic leadership by reining in the Australian budget deficit, populist senators happily shoot down any savings while demanding yet more government programmes and spending, and urge higher taxes and borrowings.

In hindsight Sid Holland did us a great favour in 1950 by abolishing the Legislative Chamber.

As Turnbull flew to Queenstown last week, his government’s childcare and disability reform package was blocked by crossbenchers wanting its lavish new spending but not cuts to existing programmes to pay for it.

The parties that hold the balance of power in the Senate have the power but not the responsibility. This is partly why Australia looks to continue with deficits for years to come, while NZ is back in surplus.

Helen Clark, Key and now English have pursued politically-challenging social, economic and welfare reforms, tempered by consensus-building and compromise in an MMP parliament. That keeps New Zealand politics reasonably centrist while Australia’s political agenda increasingly is fractured by angry and intolerant left and right fringes.

NZ Labour though is heading towards the angry intolerant left fringe.

Furthermore, governments run themselves far better in New Zealand. Key and English’s success has benefited from a highly-efficient back office led ably but unobtrusively from the Beehive’s ninth floor by prime ministerial chief-of-staff Wayne Eagleson.

Things get done, relationships with supporters and opponents are managed efficiently, and collegiality is more than a word. In Australia, unelected officials like Rudd and Abbott’s chiefs-of-staff, Alister Jordan and Peta Credlin, wrongly became controversial public players in their own right.

Political staff are a bit like poisoners – you can be a famous poisoner or a successful poisoner – but not both. They should never be the story.

New Zealanders should rightly be proud of the quality of their government, politics and even politicians.

If Malcolm Turnbull took home even just a few pointers from Bill English on how to run a country and manage a fragmented multi-party parliament effectively, his day in Queenstown will have not only been worthwhile, but might help him save his own embattled leadership.

I think our unicameral Parliament is an advantage. So is having no state governments.

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