If the Australian Liberal Party holds a leadership vote today (as looks possible) the stakes for New Zealand will be unusually high.

To use an Australian expression, for the Ardern Government, it will be Sydney  — or the bush.

The three likely contenders for the leadership represent different attitudes to New Zealand.

Most notably, the apparent front-runner, the former Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton, has clashed with New Zealand ministers over his hardline policy of deporting New Zealand-born prisoners at the end of their sentences.

And there are widespread fears that he could turn out to be Australia’s answer to Donald Trump.

FGormer PM Bill English and Scott Morrison in Sydney 2016

Scott Morrison, on the other hand,  is well known in Wellington where he lived when he ran the New Zealand Office of Tourism and Sport between 1998 and 2000.

As an Abbot then Turnbull minister he formed a close relationship with Key Government ministers like Bill English and Murray McCully.

Meanwhile, the third contender, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop appears to have formed a good personal relationship with Foreign Minister, Winston Peters after they bonded over dinner at Peters’ Auckland home.

They met on Wednesday and in a statement after the meeting Bishop described the relationship with New Zealand as “the closest and most comprehensive of all our bilateral relationships.”


But there are questions about the two countries’ respective foreign policies.

Only this week Australia barred the Chinese telecoms company, Huawei, from being involved in its rollout of 5G mobile networks on security grounds.

New Zealand has previously allowed Huawei to compete for telecoms contracts.

And Bishop has been a strong advocate of the “Indo-Pacific” concept of a regional framework which originated in Japan but which has enjoyed strong support from the Trump administration and which specifically excludes China.

New Zealand Foreign Minister, Winston Peters,  refuses to use that phrase and instead talks about the “Asia-Pacific” which leaves room for China.

But the bigger concern would be if Peter Dutton became Prime Minister.

Already Chinese language media are comparing him to Trump, and there are fears that he could take a much harder line on China.

His hard line on immigration and his opposition to the Paris climate change accords point in that direction.

Last month, responding to Andrew Little’s criticism of Australia’s deportation policy he appeared to warn New Zealand that Australia did all the “heavy lifting” when it came to stopping illegal migration boats.

He was caught by a live microphone in 2015  joking that Pacific Islanders are “about to have water lapping at (the) door”.

And there is speculation that he would be keen to follow Trump in withdrawing from the Paris Accords.

Speaking to CNN, former Liberal Party leader John Hewson said  Dutton wasn’t a “natural leader”, and his likely policy agenda might be too extreme for average Australians.

“If Peter Dutton is the answer, what the hell’s the question?” Hewson said.

But New Zealand and Australia have been drifting apart on their respective worldviews since the breakdown of the ANZUS agreement in 1985.

A Dutton Prime Ministership could simply accelerate that process.

However,  as Bishop pointed out, the trans-Tasman relationship may be too big and too ingrained for it to be substantially changed by a change of Prime Minister in one of the partners.

The Lowy Institute’s Daniel Flitton, yesterday argued that “in many ways, Dutton’s attitude would be in keeping with Turnbull, as much as Turnbull was in keeping with Abbott – a broadly similar approach to foreign policy distinguished more by personality that substantive difference.”

The bigger challenge that the Australian leadership crisis poses to New Zealand is a challenge to the centre-right in New Zealand.

In his press conference yesterday, Malcolm Turnbull, referred to forces outside Parliament which were undermining his leadership.

He undoubtedly meant the Murdoch media, “The Australian” and Sky News Australia.

Both outlets have run a succession of ultra-conservative commentators persistently attacking Malcolm Turnbull as a “leftist” and calling for the Australian Liberal Party to recognise its conservative base.

Sky News is regularly watched by many political insiders in New Zealand, and it is possible that the arguments from commentators like Peta Credlin or  Andrew Bolt could find an audience here. 

But the Australian Liberal Party is fictionalised in a way that the New Zealand National Party is not. 

In part that is a consequence of MMP which provides an avenue for factions to leave parties and set up on their own.

Even so, the National Party must worry that sooner or later Trumpism and Australian conservatism could l find its way here.

That poses a real challenge for the Simon Bridges National Party which still appears to be trying to be all things to all centre-right voters.

Do the Nats move to the centre and open up space on the right for a conservative party?

Or do they move to the right and open up space for a centre party?

If Dutton wins the Liberal Party leadership, then they will have the next Australian election  (which must be held by next May) to test how effective a conservative party might be electoral.

If Morrison or Bishop wins, then it should be business more or less as usual.