Fran O'Sullivan: Will backlash against elites show up in Oz?

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull hopes to still be in the job tomorrow night. Photo / AP
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull hopes to still be in the job tomorrow night. Photo / AP

Prime Minister John Key will be watching intently as Australia goes to the polls tomorrow to see how fellow political Brahmin Malcolm Turnbull fares.

The outcome of the Australian election will arguably provide more of an indication as to whether the groundswell against elites, which has occurred in Britain, is of sufficient momentum to topple established centre-right governments elsewhere.

Like the Australian prime minister, Key is a creature of the elites.

Key has spent his working life as either a currency trader-turned investment banking millionaire or as a politician after he left Merrill Lynch to enter national politics in New Zealand.

The Australian prime minister's career has taken a different trajectory.

Turnbull has been a journalist, a lawyer and a merchant banker. He rose to become chairman and managing director of Goldman Sachs Australia and also pursued an interest as a venture capitalist.

Unlike Turnbull, the NZ prime minister is also a chameleon possessed of the ability to "fit in" with all manner of people

"Unlike Turnbull, the NZ prime minister is also a chameleon possessed of the ability to "fit in" with all manner of people". Photo / Greg Bowker
"Unlike Turnbull, the NZ prime minister is also a chameleon possessed of the ability to "fit in" with all manner of people". Photo / Greg Bowker

Both men are also rich. While Key - like Turnbull - lives comfortably in a large inner city residence, the patina of extreme wealth does not show so markedly.

The Brexit vote has confounded the centre-right.

Key did not see it coming.

Last Friday, Turnbull issued some soothing notes after the Brexit vote, suggesting a vote for the Liberal-National Coalition would be a vote for stability in a time of flux.

His tune has changed markedly over the past week.

"I believe they want our parliament to off-load the ideology, to end the juvenile theatrics and gotcha moments, to drop the personality politics," was how Turnbull put it in notes for a speech to the Canberra press club yesterday.

Turnbull is right.

But the Australian election is also more critically a test of economic orthodoxy.

Turnbull makes no secret of his admiration for the continued support that the NZ National-led Government has achieved since it was elected in late 2008 at a time of worldwide economic turmoil caused by the GFC.

The Liberals in Australia hoped to emulate this when they came to office. But former Treasurer Joe Hockey moved too swiftly in his first Budget. Unlike Finance Minister Bill English he went for the big bang approach instead of one of incremental radicalism.

Both he and then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott were ultimately knifed.

Turnbull wants to adopt a similar model to that employed by Key and English in New Zealand where they have had a strong focus on the economy, growth and jobs. He wants Australia to balance its books. It is a compelling message but fiscal rigour may not be enough.

Labor Leader Bill Shorten opposes the current economic orthodoxy. Shorten stands for higher taxes and higher spending and also higher fiscal deficits.

Turnbull remains the favourite.

A poll in The Australian this week showed the Liberal-National coalition had pulled ahead of Labor and was leading by 51 per cent to 49 per cent as the economy took centre stage amid the fallout from Brexit.

On the balance of probabilities Turnbull should still be prime minister on Sunday.

But there could still be a quantum shift among the Australian voters.

Shorten's high deficit and high spending recipe will be a disaster for Australia.

Global economic growth is still fragile; global trade has slowed.

In other times these factors ought to steer voters towards a "safer" alternative.

Turnbull is betting on widespread disengagement to secure his return.

But if the mood for radical change emerges in Australia - as it has in Britain and also the United States - there could yet be an upset.

- NZ Herald

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Head of Business for NZME

Fran O'Sullivan has written a weekly column for the Business Herald since its inception in April 1997. In her early journalistic career she was a political journalist in Wellington and subsequently an investigative journalist who broke many major business stories including the first articles that led to the Winebox Inquiry in both NBR and the Sydney Morning Herald. She has specific expertise in relation to China where she has been a frequent visitor since the late 1990s. She is a former Editor of the National Business Review; has twice been awarded Qantas Journalist of the Year and is a multiple winner of the Westpac Financial Journalism Supreme Award.

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