Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (L) and leadership challenger Peter Dutton in Canberra on August 21, 2018. (Photo by Sean Davey / AFP/ Getty Images)

The ’Straya spills prove that MMP was one of the best decisions NZ ever made

Green MP Gareth Hughes reports from Australia, where the seemingly neverending political upheaval is getting in the way of big decisions – like what to do about climate change.

Political spills are as quintessentially Australian as that image of the dingo eating the washed-up shark on the beach while two snakes mate in the foreground.

I’m in Australia witnessing the political drama unfold and I’m asking myself why the so-called Lucky Country has been so unlucky when it comes to the political stability stakes. Since the 11 year reign of John Howard no Australian prime minister has finished a full term. That’s an incredible fact.

On this side of the ditch, Australians call a political coup a spill. This week Aussie prime minister Malcolm Turnbull narrowly survived a leadership challenge from one of his senior ministers, Peter Dutton – someone well-known to New Zealanders. Even though the spill wasn’t successfully spilt, it’s still left quite a mess in Canberra.

I’m here, leading the Social Services and Community Select Committee on a delegation investigating child poverty and homelessness. Watching Parliament up close from Canberra has opened a fascinating window into the fractious, tumult facing Aussie politics. Everyone we’ve met has had an opinion or a diplomatically coded phrase. One politician had to cancel on a meeting at the last minute to deal with ‘you know what’. People are constantly checking their phone to see if the country still has a prime minister. Instability is in the air. The catalyst for this leadership vote was a vicious internal debate in the Coalition over energy regulation and Australia’s climate target which was causing Turnbull grief.

We learnt the spill was on when we were in a meeting with a community homelessness provider. The unnamed Kiwi MP who was checking her phone when she really shouldn’t have been passed the message along the line of the delegation. Australia has an estimated 100,000 homeless and I wondered if a new room was going to suddenly become available in Kirribilli House, but by the end of the one hour meeting the spill was over (or is that successfully mopped up) and Turnbull kept the keys to Kirribilli. He may have won the vote 48 to 35, but that’s cold comfort for a snap vote he called himself. It’s now a question of how long he can stagger on, stabbed now both in the front and the back. And now a second challenge is on. How could there not be, with ministers resigning, a new poll looming, and arch-enemy Tony Abbot, new-enemy Dutton and an entire back bench all looking electoral oblivion in the eye.

What is it with ‘Straya and all the spills? Is it something in the water? The heat? The flies? Since Howard’s time in the top office there has been a succession of leadership failures. Rudd lasted two and a half years as PM, Gillard, three. Rudd got a second chance but only for three months before losing to Abbott, who then only lasted two years as PM before being outed by Turnbull. He’s so far held on for nearly three years since rolling the Speedo-loving former monk, but his days are clearly numbered. Aussie politics seems about as stable as an iceberg in a tropical sea.

Some of the leading lights of Australian politics in their natural habitats: l-r Malcom Turnbull, Tony Abbott, Peter Dutton

If there’s one theme uniting all the spills, challenges and changes of government, it’s been the central role of climate and energy policy as hot button electoral issues and points of party disunity. Changing the prime minister seems easier than climate change policy for Australian politicians. Kevin Rudd tried to get an emissions trading scheme of the ground and was thwarted by the Senate, then rolled by Julia Gillard. Gillard did get a carbon tax passed, but the unpopularity of that leading into an election saw her rolled by Rudd. Rudd still lost and was beaten by Tony Abbot, who in 2013 repealed the carbon tax, dismantled the Climate Commission and was quoted as saying climate science “is absolute crap”.

That exasperated his more liberal rival, Malcolm Turnbull, who in 2015 challenged and won. Turnbull went to the Paris talks, and set an emissions target but has been thoroughly undermined by Abbott. Turnbull this week ditched his key climate policy, the National Energy Guarantee, because he couldn’t get the numbers in his own party. But that was seen as desperate, weak and insufficient to comfort conservatives and led to the leadership vote the day after. Four prime ministers all unable to serve a full term, all burned by climate policy.

Meanwhile back home on the climate front…*cicadas chirping,* it’s been a very different picture. We’ve had an Emissions Trading Scheme since 2007, no party leader has seen public infighting over climate policy and the closest we’ve come to trading blows over climate change was the misnamed Fart Tax protest with a tractor driving up the steps of Parliament. Earlier this year Leader of the Opposition Simon Bridges wrote to the government saying “I am confident that we can work constructively together to establish an enduring non-political framework for future governments and parliaments when considering climate change issues.” It’s like our politicians have approached climate policy like a game of cricket while Australians is no-holds-barred cage fighting. Against their own team.

For two countries so similar, the difference between our climate debates has been stark. Why has it been so different?

For many years Australia has been a climate laggard, one of the last to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Mining makes up between 50-60% of Australian exports and fossil fuels 85% of electricity generation, so climate change is an inconvenient truth. It’s not without some irony that Australia, the world’s largest exporter of coal, is also one of the countries most impacted by climate change. Right now it’s facing winter bushfires, the Great Barrier Reef is dying, and the future looks bleak with an increase in scorching temperatures and drought. Throw in fossil-fuel-funded think tanks, lobbyists and PR campaigns and you can understand the vested interest in derailing climate initiatives.

Then mix in outsized political personalities and extreme micro-parties using climate change as a political weapon, and you have a recipe for combustible politics. Australia has seen billionaire mining magnates, shock-jocks, and even the Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party elected to the Senate. It has also seen a marked increase in support for smaller parties. From 16% in 2007, the minor-party vote increased to 35% in 2016, and it has dragged political debate increasingly towards the edges while opening up internal ructions in the big parties. Currently one senator is being sued by another for saying “stop shagging men”; the One Nation leader recently dressed up in a burqa. Senator Fraser Anning, backed “1000%” by his leader Bob Katter, unapologetically used the term ‘final solution’ in relation to Muslim migration. You know your quote is bad when it’s even too extreme for Pauline Hanson. If you thought our politics was cray, Australia’s response is “Hold my Victoria Bitter”.

Climate policy hasn’t been the only issue setting the Australian political world aflame but it has been a constantly recurring point of conflict. Small parties taking even more extreme positions to get their political oxygen have compounded a system where progress on just about every contentious issue seems blocked. The politics here seems broken, dysfunctional and toxic. Given the importance of Australia’s role in global climate change this isn’t farce, it’s tragedy.

When we moved to MMP in the 90s I remember the argument that New Zealand would become politically unstable if we adopted it. The reverse has been true. Our politicians learnt to talk, negotiate and compromise – all skills Australian politicians may need to adopt if they are going to break the cycle of spills. You can see the difference in the way our two countries have approached climate change. I’m glad our parties are talking about climate policy and putting the important issues above petty personality politics and internecine party wars.

As the public service meme goes, as Australia changes prime minister once again, it’s time to check your smoke alarm.


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