Lessons for NZ politics in Australian election surprise

Australian PM Scott Morrison hugs his daughters Lily and Abbey as wife Jenny watches following...
Australian PM Scott Morrison hugs his daughters Lily and Abbey as wife Jenny watches following success in the Australian election in May. Photo: Getty Images
I'm visiting Sydney, where I confront the Aussie side of my soul. I grapple with the ways in which it is different, then wonder why I give a toss, writes John Lapsley.

This month, the Australian me sits on my shoulder, as confused as a cockatoo that's ordered a peppermint tea and been delivered a Harvey Wallbanger. I speak, as you immediately knew, of the recent Australian election.

Two days after bookies paid out early on the certainty of a Labor Party victory, the general public sneaked into the polling booths - and voted the wrong way. It was what The New York Times (amongst others) called "Australia's climate change election".

I'd been watching Saturday night football, and flicked channels to check how badly Scott Morrison's Liberal Party government had been beaten. Three hours later, I was still watching, as the red-faced pollsters and commentariat explained how other people had messed it up.

We're told Australia believes Jacinda Ardern would be its best prime minister. So does the result of their lost "climate change election" actually mean anything to New Zealand politics?

Unfortunately the answer is "yes" - and this is a thought that should be as discomforting as the toast crumbs in your pyjamas. You see, our Jacinda Ardern is also the politician who in January told the Davos World Economic Forum that world leaders have nothing to fear from acting on climate change.

Nothing to fear? I fear the Aussie election result shows such optimism is misguided. Leaders have much to fear - go too far and too quickly with climate change reform, or make it too costly, and the Australian example shows you'll be tossed by those ungrateful ingrates called voters.

At this stage your columnist forlornly states, and restates, that he is NOT attempting to write about what may be needed to address climate change - he is analysing an election campaign, and its result.

Every three years my Australian business went through a private nervous breakdown, because it had the election polling contract for a television network. Any mistakes would be obvious, and so much time and money was spent examining entrails, and bothering the public - which, you'll be surprised to learn, quite enjoys being phoned up and asked what it thinks.

I'm relieved we aren't there to be part of the "got it wrong" blame game for the 2019 pollsters. In their wan postmortems they'll agree that while climate change policy wasn't all that was in play in the Aussie election, its costs and consequences were at the heart of the surprise result.

All agreed that Labor's leader, Bill Shorten, was disliked and distrusted. He was also a man who represented the "woke" politics of the intellectual elites, rather than working people's ability to pay the bills.

It doesn't need hindsight wisdom to know he was the wrong chief salesman for a party selling higher taxes. Shorten promised to increase the take from retirees' super these people being a new brand of capitalists who were everyone's mums and dads. He also undertook to go after the "big end of town", while somehow making it seem the "big end" began only two doors up your street.

Most ambitious was the promise to nearly double the carbon emissions reduction rate Australia had signed up for in Paris in 2016.

Clearly the cost would be immense, but Shorten point blank refused to put a dollar figure on his most expensive campaign promise. This information vacuum was devastatingly filled by the economic analysts.

The price? They thought somewhere between $275billion and $500billion by 2030, depending on your scoring method. Plus 167,000 jobs lost. Plus wages going backwards by 3%. To give scale to all this - the cost of Australia's entire social security spend is $155billion a year.

Pressed further for costs, Shorten described the questioning as "idiotic" because whatever the figure, the cost of not doing it would be greater.

If someone with PM Ardern's political capital to burn couldn't sell a capital gains tax, imagine Bill Shorten's chances of selling Australia a blank cheque on his carbon emissions costs? Dracula for chief teller at the blood bank?

In the wash-up it was remarked that Bill Shorten's Green Labor did well in the rich seats where climate change is a moral issue, and poorly in the working seats, where climate change is an economic issue.

The first requirement of politics is the pesky task of getting elected.

Australia has just warned that a populace more like Kiwis than anyone else won't vote for hardline climate policies on a basis of that national anthem of most governments, called: "Trust us, we know best."

 - John Lapsley lives in Arrowtown.


Stone Sydney Nolan!

Binary opposites: working man/intellectual elites.

The working man is neither intellectual, nor elite, nor do intellectual elitists work.