A week ago Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull went to Queenstown for his first leaders' meeting with Bill English.

Bilateral and regional trade was high on the agenda. When it comes to importing Kiwi products, however, there's one outstanding Kiwi product Turnbull should have asked English about: The quality of Kiwi government and politics, writes Terry Barnes.

Australian politics have been an ungovernable mess for years, ever since John Howard lost to Labor's Kevin Rudd in 2007.

It's not just that John Key in his time as PM had no less than four Aussie counterparts - Rudd, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott and Turnbull - the whole practice of government in Australia has become chaotic and the Australian political culture is permanently angry and toxic.


Unlike Wellington, gridlock now reigns in Canberra. Whether Labor or the Liberal-National coalition, governing parties trying to make even modest reforms and budget savings are savaged by opponents, and rent by internal political mismanagement and infighting.

Abbott in 2010 and 2013, and Labor's Bill Shorten in 2016, won or almost won elections not with positive policies but by blocking governments at every turn and waging effective scare campaigns.

Whereas in New Zealand the consensus generally is for steady government featuring prudent economic management, the road to electoral victory in Australia is populist.

Oppositions, and minor parties and independents who control Australia's senate, are making centrist yet moderately reformist government like New Zealand's almost impossible.

Instead of taking collective responsibility for economic leadership by reining in the Australian budget deficit, populist senators happily shoot down any savings while demanding yet more government programmes and spending, and urge higher taxes and borrowings.

These days, Australian governments are in office but not necessarily in power, with both Liberal and Labor parties having existential crises about what they stand for and believe in apart from gaining power.

Turnbull's changes to the senate voting system intended to clean out increasingly intransigent crossbenchers, backfired at last year's election, not least in returning One Nation's Pauline Hanson to Canberra after a nearly 20-year absence. Appealing to a growing number of voters disgusted with the major parties, a solid 10 per cent in recent opinion polls, Hanson may become Australia's Winston Peters, a permanent fixture and a populist thorn in the side of whoever governs.

As Turnbull flew to Queenstown last week, his government's childcare and disability reform package was blocked by crossbenchers wanting its lavish new spending but not cuts to existing programmes to pay for it.

That's the new normal in Canberra, Australia's democracy is all but unworkable and New Zealand's is highly stable by comparison.

Even with minority government all but guaranteed under MMP, which effectively rolls Australia's single-seat MP House of Representatives and proportionally-elected Senate into one chamber, things still get done in Wellington. Governments, oppositions and minor parties argue hard yet rub along together, and mostly show some respect for each other.

New Zealand's MMP experience shows you don't need a majority to have good government.

Both National and Labour governments have not only survived under MMP (mixed-member proportional), but thrived.

Helen Clark, Key and now English have pursued politically-challenging social, economic and welfare reforms, tempered by consensus-building and compromise in an MMP parliament. That keeps New Zealand politics reasonably centrist while Australia's political agenda increasingly is fractured by angry and intolerant left and right fringes.

Under MMP and non-compulsory voting, National and Labour leaders must work hard to engage and explain policies to voters.

In Australia that art of patient political explanation has been lost, as Abbott demonstrated when bringing down an unexpectedly harsh but fiscally-necessary budget in 2014. His demise merely emboldened populists on the left and right to take all and give nothing.

Furthermore, governments run themselves far better in New Zealand. Key and English's success has benefited from a highly-efficient back office led ably but unobtrusively from the Beehive's ninth floor by prime ministerial chief-of-staff Wayne Eagleson.

Things get done, relationships with supporters and opponents are managed efficiently, and collegiality is more than a word. In Australia, unelected officials like Rudd and Abbott's chiefs-of-staff, Alister Jordan and Peta Credlin, wrongly became controversial public players in their own right.

New Zealanders should rightly be proud of the quality of their government, politics and even politicians.

If Malcolm Turnbull took home even just a few pointers from Bill English on how to run a country and manage a fragmented multi-party parliament effectively, his day in Queenstown will have not only been worthwhile, but might help him save his own embattled leadership.

• Terry Barnes is an Australian political commentator and former senior adviser in John Howard's government.