Julia Gillard and the trans-Tasman agenda

History has a way of veering off track. Kevin Rudd’s “historic” first speech to Parliament by a foreign leader billed for tomorrow will not be history after all. Julia Gillard has rescheduled history. Will she also reschedule the Rudd trans-Tasman agenda?

Lying in behind this question is another, particularly on Australia’s side: might Gillard and John Key want in time to take that agenda to a new level?

Gillard’s priority is to get elected. Polls for Rudd and Labour plunged after a series of policy reversals and mistakes, including a tax to bite the mining hand that feeds Australians. Some in the Labor party said Rudd, a cool machine-man, was widely disliked.

Voters sublimate dislike if the goods are delivered. But over the past few months, in The Australian’s George Megalogenis’ words, voters began to judge Rudd to be “all doorstop and no delivery”.

Analyses of marginal electorates have suggested widespread losses, especially in usually solid Labor western Sydney, where there was a record swing in a state by-election on June 19.

Gillard will have to win back core Labor voters’ confidence before the election, to be held during her honeymoon window or late October or November.

Gillard’s strengths are that she combines real smile with real steel: approachable, clear-thinking and clear-spoken, able to handle tough audiences and tough assignments — not least taking a firmer line on teacher performance than Anne Tolley dares and facing down some blokey unionists. To see her in action at close quarters is to sense top quality.

Her weakness is that party panic brought her to the top. Panic dissolves trust that a Prime Minister and cabinet can deliver decisive, reliable government.

Whether Rudd would have pulled Labor back over the line (helped by the oddities, impetuosity and arrogance of Liberal leader Tony Abbott), as some argue, is moot. The same goes for Gillard. Paul Kelly, doyen of Australian political commentators and not one to shrink from picking an election winner, has declared the outlook “defies prediction”.

For this country the issue is Gillard’s commitment to the trans-Tasman agenda. Her portfolios have not required her direct engagement until now.

One dimension is climate change. One of Rudd’s reversals was to delay indefinitely his emissions trading scheme despite having in 2008 declared climate change “the greatest moral challenge of our time”.

Gillard mentioned a carbon price in her initial comments last week but did not promise to put the ETS back on track.

But she needs Green candidates’ second preferences in the coming election to hold marginal seats. That has been usual but has recently been in question.

And if Labor is returned to power the Greens are likely to hold the balance of power in the Senate. They might even win a lower house seat. The leverage that would give them might well revive the ETS and even strengthen it a bit.

That would take some of the heat off Key’s government, as it battles interest groups arguing that it is a pointless cost, the more so since Rudd pulled the plug, since it was supposed to mesh with Australia’s.

On the economic agenda — the single economic market (SEM) process — one pointer is that two years ago Gillard led a strong posse of ministers to Wellington for the annual Australia New Zealand Leadership Forum of politicians, officials, business leaders and some assorted others. Rudd was busy elsewhere. The meeting had been moved because Rudd unthinkingly scheduled his big summit on the original date.

Nevertheless, Rudd and Key did give SEM more impetus by elevating oversight of SEM matters to their Prime Ministers’ departments. That dismantled roadblocks erected over two decades by officials in lesser departments, mainly in Canberra. They agreed a long list of items on which they said they wanted action.

One marker is agreement at ministerial level last week on a long-delayed investment agreement, setting thresholds below which approval is automatic, which Key and Rudd were to have signed off.

Trade Minister Tim Groser will be back in Sydney on Thursday for a meeting of federal and state ministers with portfolios that touch on trade issues. That extends into external policy the long practice of New Zealand ministers with domestic portfolios sitting on such federal-state councils.

But is that it? First, Key needs to fix the rift over the joint Therapeutic Products Authority, agreed in 2003 but killed by Tony Ryall even though Abbott, as Health Minister, had agreed an opt-in compromise with Annette King. There are apparently moves afoot.

Beyond that, there has been developing at the leadership forum, especially among Australians, a theme that it is time to go the next step: to look hard at a common border, with a unified tariff and migration policy.

For New Zealand, which has the more open border, a common border is unattractive right now. But in a week when history lurched in Canberra, who knows how far Gillard might want to push?