Why Malcolm Turnbull may be unnerved by Jacinda Ardern

by Bernard Lagan / 04 November, 2017
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Jacinda Ardern and Malcolm Turnbull. Photo/Getty Images

The departure of New Zealand's centre-right government is a sobering sight for Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. 

If you were Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, you’d probably be unnerved by Jacinda Ardern’s swift ascent to the ninth floor of the Beehive.

The Key-English Government was a model for Turnbull of a savvy, centre-right administration that fostered a flourishing economy, tried to carry the people with it before acting and stayed unified, all the while enjoying what seemed an unassailable lead over its Labour opponents.

It was, in short, everything that Turnbull wanted for his own fractious Government, which has trailed Bill Shorten’s Labor opposition in all of the past 21 Newspoll surveys conducted for the Australian newspaper. That’s a tally that is used against Turnbull, because he unwisely cited the loss of 30 Newspolls in a row as a reason for deposing Tony Abbott in September 2015.

The Ardern ascendancy shows that, even if Turnbull manages in the two years remaining until the next election to unify his party, lift its poll numbers and maintain Australia’s world-record 26-year run of economic growth, it might not be enough to secure re-election.

The vein of disadvantage and discontent that Ardern tapped in what seemed – outwardly at least – an economically buoyant country is to be found in Australia, too, and for many of the same reasons: as in New Zealand, there is resentment here that the benefits of sustained economic growth haven’t trickled down.

Wages are stagnant. Even the governor of Australia’s Reserve Bank, Philip Lowe, in July contradicted the Turnbull Government’s insistence that the gap between the haves and have-nots is diminishing.

The Australian Labor Party has come to the same realisation as Ardern: that it is no longer a heresy to repudiate the enthusiastic faith in markets of the Hawke and Keating Labor governments and the Rogernomics-era Labour Party in New Zealand.

With the shuttering in late October of the last car plant, Australia has no large-scale engineering manufacturing left. Shorten promised a Labor government would set up a $1 billion fund to help out advanced manufacturing firms that can’t get a bank loan. That’s old-fashioned intervention.

Doubtless, Australians will warm to New Zealand’s new Prime Minister in the way her compatriots – mostly – have. But the change of leader has its risks for relations between Australia and New Zealand.

Ardern has made it plain that she’s not minded to accept more discrimination against New Zealanders living in Australia. She has said that if Australia presses ahead with a Budget-night undertaking to start treating Kiwi-born university students as international full-fee-paying students from next year – a move that could triple fees – she’ll retaliate against Australian students in New Zealand, even though there are very few of those.

That’s the kind of incendiary talk the Clark and Key governments avoided. They knew Australia could cause more discomfort to the half-million Kiwis living there than New Zealand could to expatriate Australians.

There’s another potentially divisive issue between the two countries. The Australian defence and foreign-policy Establishment is agitated over New Zealand’s low level of defence spending, which is diminishing its ability to operate effectively alongside Australian forces.

Since the end of the Cold War, the gap between the countries’ respective spending has grown: by last year, Australia was spending 2% of GDP and New Zealand only 1.1%. The NZ Defence Force is much less well equipped than its neighbour’s.

Australia will be worried that the new Prime Minister – mindful that New Zealand’s last Labour leader happily grounded the air force’s fighters – will shelve the $20 billion plan set out last year in New Zealand’s Defence White Paper to replace the country’s aged Orion maritime-patrol aircraft, Hercules transports and Anzac frigates.

New Zealander Bernard Lagan is the Australian correspondent for the Times, London.

This article was first published in the November 4, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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