Why Australia's politics is so much more feral and polarising than New Zealand's

by The Listener / 30 August, 2018
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Scott Morrison. Photo/Getty Images

With the new addition of Scott Morrison, Australia has had six changes of prime minister since 2007, with a fair share of bloodletting along the way.

Australia has had six changes of prime minister since 2007, when John Howard’s golden run ended. That compares with four changes at the top in New Zealand over the same period. But what’s more significant is the manner of those changes. In New Zealand, the transitions were orderly and bloodless: John Key took over from Helen Clark as the result of an election, Key voluntarily handed power to his deputy, Bill English, and English in turn was removed from office as a result of an election. Contrast that with Canberra, where every change since Howard has been accompanied by bloodletting and score-settling that have left the long-suffering Australian public dismayed and disillusioned. It’s not just because of the Bledisloe Cup that Australians look enviously across the Tasman.

Why so different, when our two societies appear to have so much in common? Historians might point to a fundamental divergence resulting from the way the two countries were colonised – Australia by supposed criminals sent there as punishment, New Zealand by willing immigrants who came in search of a better life. Bare-knuckle brawling and rambunctiousness may be in Australia’s cultural DNA while New Zealand evolved as more civil and sedate.

Whatever the explanation, politics in Australia is more feral and polarised than here, and the extremes more extreme – the rednecks a brighter shade of crimson (New Zealand has no one to match Pauline Hanson or Bob Katter), the left-wing inner-city radicals angrier and more strident, and party factionalism more vicious.

But there are other factors, one being the politicisation of the Australian media. In an opinion piece in the Fairfax-owned Sydney Morning Herald, former two-time Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd, a man who knows a thing or two about score-settling, pinned the blame for the recent knifing of Liberal prime minister Malcolm Turnbull on powerful right-wing media figures – most of all, Rupert Murdoch.

It’s true there was a sustained media campaign to undermine Turnbull, who was regarded with deep distrust by Liberal Party conservatives even before he deposed their hero, Tony Abbott, in a 2015 coup. But the Fairfax press is hardly blameless either. The influential Fairfax papers, which are seen as a counter to the Murdoch press, have stoked the fires with their own partisan journalism. The turmoil across the Tasman is a stark warning of the consequences when media commentators become active participants in the political process. Add to this overheated mix the demands of the 24/7 news cycle and the pressure for knee-jerk responses to the latest opinion polls, and Australian politics resembles a juggernaut that even the politicians seem powerless to control.

For now, attention is focused on whether the Australian Government, under its new Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, can survive. There are already jokes doing the rounds about the “single-use Prime Minister”. The Liberals’ precarious majority looks even shakier following the leadership fiasco and will be tested by an election next year – sooner if the Government unravels. The ideological fault lines in Australian politics, especially on the lightning-rod issues of multiculturalism, border security and energy policy, run deep. Morrison was a hardliner as immigration minister and will have pleased the party’s right by reappointing another conservative, the failed leadership challenger Peter Dutton, to the important home affairs portfolio. But the strains within the Liberal caucus will not magically evaporate. The new Prime Minister will be under pressure to water down carbon emissions reduction targets, which are being blamed for high electricity charges. Abbott, who has had the satisfaction of seeing his bitter rival Turnbull ousted, will remain a potentially divisive figure on the back bench. Meanwhile, the capable and popular former foreign affairs minister, Julie Bishop, who might have steered a centrist path as prime minister, has been taken out of the game, a victim of factional voting. In the testosterone-soaked Liberal Party backroom, being a woman wouldn’t have helped her chances.

On the face of it, the new Government line-up looks like a triumph for conservatives who yearn for Australia the way it used to be. Will it be good for New Zealand? No more than previous ones, and possibly even less. We can expect the usual platitudes about the Anzac bond, but an unstable Government preoccupied with its own problems (did we mention the catastrophic New South Wales drought?) is unlikely to be sympathetic to ours.

This editorial was first published in the September 8, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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