Robert Ayson is a Visiting Fellow with the ANU's Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, on research leave from the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.
One of the delights of a sabbatical in Canberra as spring struggles to replace winter is the chance to watch a federal election campaign which is at times awfully fascinating and quite frequently fascinatingly awful. Aside from the occasional moment of levity (see above), the Abbott-Rudd contest is confirmation that one of the Western world's strongest economies can produce some of its most perplexing politics. But it is the interaction between those features – how Australia's next government manages the downside of the boom it has enjoyed in the last few years – that defines New Zealand's main interest in the contest on 7 September.
New Zealand was insulated to some degree from the global financial crisis because Australia and China, which comprise its top two trading partners, kept growing. And because Australia kept growing partly as a result of China's demand, New Zealand benefited twice from the Middle Kingdom's expansion. So the first request from Wellington is for Canberra to ensure that its post-September policy settings are business and trade friendly.
On the first of these, one hopes the intention of both main candidates to spend money that isn't there and impose unnecessary taxation are simply signs of the strains of the campaign. On the second, New Zealand's trade-oriented government would want Australia to keep its eyes on the prize of wider free trade arrangements in Asia, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership. While that's something either an Abbott or a Rudd government would probably do in any case, it will mean some hard bargaining with partners who want to protect their agricultural industries (including sugar and dairy). So some extra energy in this direction from a newly elected Australian prime minister would help.
But trade negotiations are not the main concern for the wider New Zealand public, almost all of whom have family members living across the ditch.
The many New Zealanders who have arrived in Australia since February 2001 get the privileges of entering and working without a visa, but cannot access benefits in spite of their heroic taxpaying contributions to the federal budget. This is a major irritant for the New Zealand community on both sides of the Tasman. A few months ago some progress was made in allowing for young kiwis who have been in Australia for many years to get access to Australian student loans. But there is a long way to go for the playing field to be even.
A bit of movement in that direction would help assuage the concerns of New Zealanders. But for John Key's government, too much movement might be counterproductive if that only increased the appeal of settling in Australia. Every time there is a story on the thousands of kiwis who keep making that move, the New Zealand Government gets clobbered in the media.
A different type of people movement is probably one area where New Zealand may be genuinely concerned about what might go down after the Australian election.
Mr Rudd and Mr Abbott have outdone themselves in proposing the incredible notion that there is some sort of 'solution' to the boats laden with asylum seekers that see Australia as their number one destination. The alternatives seem to be a PNG policy that is already adrift for Mr Rudd, and a false optimism in military command of the situation that has infected Mr Abbott. Of the two, the second may be less worrying only because it is not yet in play. But the brand new ALP approach, which appears to have been adopted very rapidly, may assume that New Zealand will be there to absorb some of the refugees PNG is unwilling or unable to settle. It will be important for a new federal government to recognise the interests its New Zealand and Pacific neighbours have in finding a sustainable approach to this situation. And by 'sustainable' I mean a steady and more-or-less bipartisan approach which is about managing the issue rather than unconvincing displays of toughness.
This all probably means that New Zealand is looking for a boringly steady economic and security partner after the 7 September election. In what it seeks from Canberra, Wellington is like the cabinet minister who does not want any surprises. One should never forget that consistency has a great deal to commend it, including in Australia's Bledisloe Cup performances since 2002.
But one rather major change would be welcome: a conscious effort by whoever is elected to put the Australian Defence Force on a sounder footing by addressing the gap between ambition and resources. That would be a surprising development, but it would be one that New Zealand could certainly live with.