How could this happen?

16 December 2016

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Robert McMullan is a Visiting Fellow at Crawford School of Public Policy, following a long and distinguished career in the Australian Parliament as one of Australia’s pre-eminent Labor politicians. He is a former Executive Director to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

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Australia has churned through five prime ministers in the same time New Zealand has had only two. Why such a divergence between two otherwise very similar nations, Robert McMullan asks.

The sudden resignation of John Key from the position of prime minister of New Zealand has generated a lot of positive assessments of his term in office.

They seem to me to be well deserved.

Similarly, when Helen Clark was defeated in the 2008 election, there were many reflections on her very significant and successful period as leader.

These also seem well deserved.

What strikes me then is this: how has New Zealand had two successful and respected prime ministers in the same 17-year period in which Australia has gone through six prime ministerships (although admittedly only five different prime ministers)?

After all, New Zealand has a proportional representation electoral system, one that is generally recognised as likely to cause unstable coalitions. Australia, meanwhile, has the preferential voting system, which tends to create inflated majorities for the winning side. Furthermore, they have been able to maintain policy stability on some of the long-term issues which require such mature policy-making.

The prime example is the carbon price.

The New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme was introduced by the Labour Government in September 2008 and was continued, with amendments in 2009 and 2012, by the subsequent National Party Government.

There is no simple answer to the question: “how could this happen”?

Australia and New Zealand are too similar for there to be a “national character” explanation.

It may be coincidence (or as Ian Fleming would say happenstance).

There is no doubt that part of the explanation lies in the character of the five Australian prime ministers. John Howard stayed too long; Kevin Rudd was unable to maintain the support of his team; Julia Gillard botched the transition; Tony Abbott never grew out of his opposition mentality and Malcolm Turnbull seems to have given up his mojo as the price for winning the top job.

But perhaps there is more to it than this.

The New Zealand electoral system may have created an environment in which compromise and stability are at a premium.

I have always been a defender of the Australian electoral system. Compulsory voting makes it harder for the extremes to flourish, preferential voting allows for protest and tactical voting while still giving voters the ability to exercise an effective choice between the alternative governments and we are able to deliver stable majorities on almost every occasion.

Proportional representation has a valid role in choosing parliamentary houses of review, even if preference deals have recently led to some bizarre results in the Australian Senate. However, I have never favoured it for choosing governments.

But perhaps those of us who have expressed strong views on this issue need to reconsider. The explanation of the different approach to maintaining continuity of policy on long-term questions such as climate change is undoubtedly bound up with the explanation of the character of the various leaders in Australia, particularly Tony Abbott but all the others also to some extent. It is also undoubtedly the case that the Australian economy is more directly impacted by a price on carbon than is the New Zealand one.

But although I don’t pay as much attention to New Zealand politics as I do to the Australian version, I have not heard of the New Zealand equivalent of the $100 roast lamb type claims voiced in Australia.

After the new New Zealand Prime Minister is chosen and confronts the challenges of governing and then trying to win an election, we may find the differences between the two sides of the Tasman narrow. We can then relax, satisfied that the reasons behind recent differences can be chalked up to the combination of luck and character – two factors that so often explain so much for which we seek more profound explanations.

This article was first published by Policy, the website of the Asia and the Pacific Policy Society and Crawford School.

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