Where Gillard and Abbott can agree

What do Australian apple growers and United States dairy farmers have in common? They are welfare dependants, cosseted by governments against taking responsibility for making their way in the world. Paula Bennett could offer some self-improving advice.

They also have in common pliant politicians. The United States Congress fears New Zealand’s cows. Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott fear our apple growers. Australia will appeal the World Trade Organisation’s ruling that there are no legal grounds for special biosecurity measures against New Zealand apples.

That is protectionism. Imagine if David Carter called an Australian orange condition a biosecurity risk justifying a ban.

Here’s Abbott, on principle: “We support the principle of fair and free trade among different economies.”

Note: “fair”. New Zealand apple growers are unfairly efficient and unfairly grow too tasty apples. An Australian visitor said to me in March she didn’t eat apples often but the one she was eating was delicious. Why couldn’t she buy the like in Australia?

Invoking “fairness” illustrates that Abbott the quirky conservative cabinet outrider has as leader discovered the virtues of the pragmatic centre.

He told The Australian newspaper: “Ultimately, you’ve got to be a pragmatist. To win an election and to govern successfully, you have to construct a majority. That means respecting a whole lot of people who might not instantly agree with you.”

Abbott might be Prime Minister after Australia’s Mediterranean-style election on Saturday.

He is married with children in a country where a woman party leader without children is thought a voting issue. He goes down well, particularly with men, in un-flash western Sydney which should be Labor territory but is in doubt, thanks in part to a toxic Labor state government.

Gillard’s ungentle despatch of Kevin Rudd and then dependency on him to stem the flow of electoral blood in his home state of Queensland doesn’t telegraph stability and strength, qualities Australians, like New Zealanders, look for in a government (and which Helen Clark had in abundance). She is implicated in Rudd’s flipflops which precipitated his sudden poll: “All doorstop (interview) and no delivery” was one commentator’s caustic comment on Rudd.

Nevertheless, the election is not (yet) in Abbott’s bag. Trendlines point to a “knife-edge”: seats in Queensland and New South Wales traded for seats in Victoria and South Australia. There has been speculation on a hung House of Representatives (maker and breaker of governments): its three independents have met to agree what to do if they hold the balance of power there.

The Greens have been polling far above normal. That is in part fallout from Labor’s ditching of the greenhouse gas emissions trading scheme (which, ironically, the Greens helped bring about by voting it down in the Senate as too weak).

But in Australia’s preferential voting system, where losing candidates’ votes are transferred according to voters’ preferences to candidates with more votes, Green votes mostly end up with Labor: between 75 and 80 per cent is the best guess of one of Australia’s most experienced voting experts.

That is one of several slender reasons Gillard’s Labor still looks marginally more likely to win than Abbott’s National-Liberal Coalition.

If Abbott does win he will almost certainly face a Senate with a Labor-Green majority which can vote down legislation those parties don’t like. Add to that the fact that Abbott is the Liberals’ third leader in three years and thus would have a big job restoring genuine unity. His long-term personal future might be better served by running close this time and setting up the Coalition to win solidly in 2013.

Labor has a different view of 2013 if Gillard wins: that she will demonstrate toughness and policy opportunism, bring back cabinet government and cement the Labor vote (as Clark did from 1999 to 2002). Maybe, but Labor, too has deep wounds to heal. One potential positive is that the Labor New South Wales government might lose so badly in its fixed-term election in March that its powerful right faction loses its grip and the faction system is weakened.

And policy? Domestically, the two parties’ differences are, as here, tendencies. Abbott’s differences would accumulate over time but by increments. His main campaign differences are on broadband (less ambitious), climate change (a $A1 billion “emissions reduction fund”), mining tax and parental leave.

On trans-Tasman matters, Gillard is an unknown quantity. She was in domestic portfolios,. Much would depend on advice from the likes of Simon Crean, a friend of this country. Abbott negotiated the Trans-Tasman Therapeutic Products Authority which Tony Ryall destroyed, so may have mixed memories — and Indonesia ranks higher than New Zealand on his visiting list. But most likely there would not be great change, whoever wins.

As for apples, they are domestic politics. Which in Australia are tough and rough.