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New Zealand Election 2017: Undercurrents of change in new poll

Cartoon/Chris Slane

Our poll of those who were planning to vote in the general election shows a change of government is unlikely but there’s not even a bare minority’s support for the status quo. How does that work? 

Welcome to the blindfold smorgasbord that is an MMP election. As a voter, you can approach the feast with the clearest possible idea of what you want on your plate, but even if you get it, it might come with a dollop of both ice cream and gravy. As for sensible portion size or nutritional balance, forget it.

The Listener’s Insights 2017 Election Barometer shows that although a slight majority of voters actually want a change of government, that’s not what they are likely to serve themselves. On the contrary, those who most want change are preparing to vote in a way that makes change less and less likely.

Our research also suggests that, whatever voters order, it will come with a serving of Winston Peters – he’s the sort of fries-with-everything option – though probably without a Gareth Morgan garnish. It also shows a healthier portion of Greens than registers in most others’ polling so far, but as with past elections, it’s likely to be a side dish again.

The headline news is that National is still by far the dominant party, with a better-than-fair chance of being able to form an identical or similar support arrangement as this term’s. Bill English is way ahead as preferred prime minister, despite his sporting efforts to even the field with goofy cookery and a lame dad-joke exercise video. Three-quarters of our respondents reckon New Zealand is the best place to live (though they’re worried our “clean green” image is tarnished) and nearly as many worry that we’re more prey than in the past to global forces. All of this reinforces the prevailing view that, after the jolt of John Key’s December resignation, National is back in its comfy old sleepwalk-to-victory groove.

But there’s another, weirdly counter-intuitive result from our Barometer research: there is still strong underlying support in favour of a change of government – slightly more, in fact, than for retaining National at the helm.

How can both things be true? It’s complicated, but even when you’re running the strictly proportional buffet that is a New Zealand election, perversities will occur.

National is in a comfortable, secure position because the Opposition parties are swapping votes among themselves more than they are devouring National’s vote. In the absence of a truly dominant Opposition party, it is hard for the Opposition bloc to capitalise on softening support for National.

Our respondents have certainly cooled on the Government. Last election, 49% voted National; now that support is down to 35%. But that’s more than enough for comfort. Even if at times various polls show Opposition parties have a margin over National and its supporters, National is still technically winning because it has such a commanding margin over any other single party.

Leaders and deputies: Bill English, Paula Bennett, David Seymour, Andrew Little, Jacinda Ardern, Winston Peters. Photos/Getty Images/Newspix

Undercurrents of change

In the Opposition grouping, however, there are undercurrents of significant change. The Greens show up much more strongly in our poll than in others’ polls, posing a greater threat to the health of Labour, which registers here at shatteringly low 19%. No other poll has shown the party even close to plumbing the depths below 20. Meanwhile, as has been clear for much of this term, New Zealand First remains firmly in the potential balance-of-power zone, its numbers healthier here than in some others’ polls.

Add up voters’ party-vote preferences and it’s clear National is well on the way to forming the next government. With its 35%, and assuming Act, United Future and the Maori Party survive and contribute our respondents’ 3% worth of support, this bloc would have 38%. Labour at 19 and the Greens at 13 combine to just 32%. (Note that we’re discounting the Opportunities and Conservative parties on the grounds that neither is likely to pass the 5% vote threshold or win an electorate.)

NZ First, with its 8% support, could in theory make Labour the king, since with the Greens, such a bloc would make 40% to the National bloc’s 38.

But that’s highly unlikely. At 19% support, Labour would lack the moral authority to lead a government. Even were it to get to 30%, which it has approached in others’ recent polls, it would struggle to make the case to take over the Beehive. A putative “coalition of the losers” would be anathema to Peters, the NZ First leader, and would be a long-term risk to the credibility of Labour and the Greens. So we can assume that in our poll’s scenario, Peters would take his party the other way and torture the Nats – and by some indications from the wily old slugger, this would be his preference. His most cherished grudges are against National.

Leaders and deputies:  James Shaw, Metiria Turei, Peter Dunne, Te Ururoa Flavell, Marama Fox, Gareth Morgan. Photo/Getty Images/Hagen Hopkins

A yen for change

So all up, it’s looking pretty horrible for the left in politics, and potentially catastrophic for Labour. That’s the brass tacks, the Realpolitik of the situation. But it doesn’t mean that there’s not a mood for change. On the contrary, there may be slightly more of a yen for change than for retaining the status quo. And it’s a preference that envisages Labour at the helm.

When we asked voters which coalition grouping they’d prefer, they marginally preferred one led by Labour over one again led by National. Four out of 10 wanted Labour to govern, in varying options including Labour, Green, Maori and NZ First, and 39% wanted National, in combinations of Maori, United Future, Act and NZ First. (Undecideds were 21%.)

This tells us that notwithstanding the mechanics of MMP, which on current trends make a change of government unlikely, there’s not necessarily even a bare minority’s support for keeping the present Government.

Perhaps most ticklishly, this way of allocating people’s preferences tells us that supporters of NZ First and the Maori Party are more likely to want a Labour than a National government – even though this is the opposite of what their favourite parties are likely to deliver. How strongly these voters feel about this, and whether doubts over coalition intention might soften their votes, is hard for researchers to gauge. We know that many supporters of both parties have felt betrayed when NZ First and the Maori Party have joined with National; those voters must also consider whether they would prefer their parties in government or not. Voters have seen just two Maori MPs get significant policy wins from being in government with National.

NZ First has had some enduring wins from its various Beehive stints, notably the SuperGold card for pensioners. By contrast, the Greens have achieved very little, despite having a strong continuous presence in Parliament since the 1990s.

This is a perennial conundrum: it is hard for a minor party to have both principles and power. This research shows no discernible support for the Greens to join a National-led Government. It’s Labour or nothing – even though “nothing” means extremely limited ability to make any policy gains.

More cold political reality: the better the Greens do, the less likely they are to reach the Beehive, since their vote profits at Labour’s expense. Unless and until the Greens can decisively overtake Labour and achieve a 30%-plus vote, National will retain the Beehive. The more traditional scenario – in which Labour overtakes National – could fairly be characterised as on the road to extinction. The party has failed to rebuild its ravaged vote base despite finally achieving settled leadership, and despite National’s losing a once-in-a-lifetime political asset in Key.

The Jacinda factor

On paper, Labour has a ready means to reverse its slump. In our poll, its new deputy, Jacinda Ardern, is the country’s second most-preferred prime minister. Granted, at 16%, she’s well below English’s 35% endorsement, but she’s also well ahead of every other contender, and is three points clear of her leader, Andrew Little. There’s little doubt an Ardern leadership would improve Labour’s standing, even allowing for the downside – that leadership changes make parties look unstable.

Few dislike or mock Little as they did his three predecessors, but he has conspicuously failed to ignite. Labour’s constitution would allow MPs to make the swap within three months of polling day without the uproar of a party-wide vote, but this would still probably only prevent utter carnage rather than unlocking the Beehive.

In any case, there would need to be at least one willing party. Neither Little nor, more decisively, Ardern would co-operate with a leadership change. So that’s that. Not even Labour’s rules allow putative party saviours to be forcibly conscripted to the leadership.

For Peters, the electoral boundaries are more elastic. NZ First’s entire rhetorical and policy pitch is anti-National, but it has the option to frame this as “keeping the bastards honest”, which tends to mollify NZ First voters who want a change of government. If Peters can’t get rid of National, the pitch goes, at least he can sandbag them.

Now Peters is saddling up with a new deputy dawg: he will announce this week that former Labour MP Shane Jones is the party’s new star candidate. Politicos have long identified Jones as having undischarged crossover appeal – a blokey, working-class reach, which for sundry reasons Labour never succeeded in exploiting.

In his rather flat first parliamentary career, Jones was as much sinning as sinned against. He wasn’t the most industrious caucus member, so his immense charm and intelligence largely languished as insider knowledge. Jones’s electoral appeal has also never been strenuously marketed, even by himself. It could be that, like the imminent Ardern takeover of Labour, it will prove to be nothing more than a fun counterfactual argument to have over the sorts of dinner tables where socialist chardonnay or John Key’s label pinot noir flow.

Suffice it to say that he will have a serious go at featuring on our 2020 Election Barometer. As will they all.

House rules

Somewhere along the line, Home Sweet Home became House Bloody House and There’s No Place Like Home pulled up short at There’s No Place! New Zealanders are so massively preoccupied with this one particular issue that it’s remarkable no one has inaugurated a Housing Party.

Very few problems or goals exist for our voters that don’t have housing as a dominant component. It’s our politics’ all-roads-lead-to-Rome issue (if only we could get the roads built).

To be clear, as a nation, we are very much in favour of housing. We can’t get enough of it, though too much of it is bad for us and not enough is pretty awful too. Somehow we’re in both glut and famine at the same time and, having failed to address any of these imbalances, the Government has its weakest flank exposed as this election’s greatest obsession.

Without prompting or supplying a list of options, we asked what issue or issues were most important in this election, and “housing/homes/property” was lengths ahead of the field – 893 mentions, compared with the next most important issue, immigration, at 240 mentions. That’s a strobing neon sign.

The reason the dreaded H-word dwarfs wages, poverty, jobs, health, the environment, inequality and even Auckland as an election issue is that it is all of the other issues, too. Our housing crisis is indivisible from considerations of population, the environment, the economy, social cohesion – you name it, housing issues are making it more difficult. It’s making some people sicker and poorer, it’s stretching some schools’ ability to teach children and it’s hampering tertiary students’ ability to afford to study. It’s distorting everything else, including the employment market.

When we asked people which of a list of issues would receive the most focus this campaign, again housing capped this country’s ills. At 79%, it ranked 21 points ahead of immigration, and the economy and health were 31 behind. The other top 10 issues were all heavily subject to housing-related factors with the exception of mental health.

Some of the Opposition parties’ most cherished issues were well down the list of 20. Only 20% plumped for inequality as a prime focus, global warming was bottom of the list at 17%.

Election Year Barometer

The Election Year Barometer is the first of four components of our election-year research. This online survey, carried out from May 19 to 10am on May 24 (closing before the 2017 Budget), canvassed 1816 New Zealanders aged 18 and over who were planning to vote in the general election. The results are weighted by age, gender and location, and the margin of error at the 96% confidence level is ±2.3%.

This article was first published in the June 10, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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