Trans-Tasman rivalry is normally restricted to either the sporting field or disputes about the origins of various (Kiwi) successes — from Phar Lap and the pavlova, to Russell Crowe and Neil Finn. Thanks to Jacinda Ardern and John Key, a new area of competition is emerging: politics, and more specifically prime ministers.
For eight years John Key, a seeming paragon of stability and levelheadedness, guided his country through the tribulations of the GFC and two major earthquakes. In the same period, Australia witnessed internecine war in both major parties and churned through five prime ministers. The contrast was captured best by Key himself when he quipped about meeting his Australian counterpart, “I don’t really mind who turns up; just wear a name badge so I know who it is”.
And now comes Jacinda Ardern. Even before the Christchurch terror attacks she had demonstrated her leadership skills by being the first world leader to attend the UN General Assembly with her baby and by being prepared to criticise China for its human rights abuses in spite of that country’s importance to New Zealand as a trading partner. Ardern’s triumphant handling of the Christchurch attack has now raised her profile to a whole new level. Less than a week after the attack, The New York Times published an editorial that was typical of the adulation she received: “America deserves a leader as good as Jacinda Ardern”.
Many Australians now have a bad case of PM envy.
However Australians were much grumpier about politics than their Kiwi cousins even before Ardern’s arrival on the prime ministerial scene, as evidenced by the Australian Election Study and the New Zealand Election Study. For the latest national election in each country — 2016 in Australia and 2017 in New Zealand — both surveys asked whether voting “matters”, and whether it “makes any difference to what happens”. 81% of the Kiwi respondents who expressed a view said that voting matters. The figure in the Australian survey was just 58%.
The surveys also asked respondents whether it “makes a difference who is in power”. Once again it was the New Zealanders who were more optimistic — 73% said it makes a difference, compared to only 55% of Australians.
Do these results mean that New Zealand has a better quality of politics or that Kiwis have lower standards? Many Australians might argue that the results simply prove New Zealanders are more gullible and naïve than their worldly Australian neighbours. That would be wishful thinking.
The attitudes and values of the two peoples are very similar. The marked disparity in the election surveys reflects instead the much more chaotic and dysfunctional politics on this side of the ditch. This is no mystery. Even Australian politicians acknowledge the problem. Shortly after winning a narrow victory in the 2016 election, Malcolm Turnbull admitted that there “is no doubt that there is a level of disillusionment with politics, with government and with the major parties”.
Polling undertaken since 2007 by the Scanlon Foundation has reflected this. There is a downward trajectory in the percentage of respondents who, when asked if “the government in Canberra can be trusted to do the right thing for the Australian people” reply “almost always” or “most of the time”. The figure was just 30% in 2018. The quality of government and politicians was ranked as the second most important problem facing Australia, as it has been in most of the Scanlon surveys.
Griffith University and Transparency International Australia carry out the Global Corruption Barometer which asks how much trust and confidence respondents have in the federal government doing “a good job in carrying out its responsibilities”. In 2008 about 20% replied “not very much” or “none at all”. By 2018 that figure had risen to more than 50%.
The message is clear — trust in politics and politicians is low and declining in Australia. An increasing number of Australians seem to subscribe to the view, expressed more than 50 years ago by Donald Horne in his 1964 book The Lucky Country, that Australia is a “lucky country run mainly by second-rate people who share its luck”.
As we rapidly approach the next federal election, we can only hope that there are some first-rate people on the horizon.
Ross Stitt is a lawyer and freelance writer. He tweets at @ross_stitt.