Bryce Edwards: Discontent and gloom dominate NZ’s political mood

Bryce Edwards: Discontent and gloom dominate NZ’s political mood

Three opinion polls have been released in the last two days, all showing that the new government is failing to hold their popular support. The usual honeymoon experienced during the first year of a first term government is entirely absent. The political mood is still gloomy and discontented, mainly due to dark economic times.

The 1News-Verian poll on Monday gave the following results for the party vote:

  • National: 36% (-2)
  • Labour: 30% (+2)
  • Greens: 14% (+2)
  • Act: 7% (-1)
  • NZF: 4% (-2)
  • TPM: 4% (n/a)

For more, see Felix Desmarais’s report for 1News: Poll: Labour could return to power if election held today

Then yesterday, the Talbot Mills poll that is carried out for corporate clients was leaked to Newshub, with the following results:

  • National: 34% (-4)
  • Labour: 33% (+5)
  • Greens: 12% (-2)
  • ACT: 7% (-1)
  • NZF: 6% (-)
  • TPM: 4% (n/a)

For more on this, see Jenna Lynch’s Second poll confirms Labour could take back power, Newshub understands

Last night, the Roy Morgan polling company released their party vote results:

  • National: 36.5% (-1.5)
  • Labour: 24.5% (+1.5%)
  • Greens: 13.0% (-0.5%)
  • Act: 11.0% (-0.5%)
  • NZF: 5.5% (-1.0%)
  • TPM: 5.5% (+1.5%)

For more on this, see Roy Morgan’s National/ACT/NZ First (53%) lead over Labour/ Greens/Maori (43%) – cut to 10% points in April

If you average out the three polls, you get the following party vote:

  • National: 35.5%
  • Labour: 29%
  • Greens: 13%
  • Act: 8%
  • NZF: 5%
  • TPM: 4.5%

How bad are these results for the Government?

Reporting on the 1News poll result, TVNZ political editor Maiki Sherman summarised the result like this: “The public has delivered a resounding boo from the bleachers as voters indicate they are slowly losing the faith. For a coalition that’s only been in government for five months, such a hiss from the electorate is nothing short of devastating” – see: Poll’s boo from bleachers will ring in Govt’s ears

Sherman also explained why the decline was particularly a problem, given that polling for governments fluctuates constantly: “It’s hard to think of a worse result for a first-term government so soon after being elected. John Key’s government in 2015 and Helen Clark’s government of 2006 had similar poll results — but they were both third-term administrations at the time.”

Business journalist Bernard Hickey also reiterated this sense of disaster for the incumbents, saying the poll result was “the worst polling performance for any first-term Government since the introduction of MMP in 1996. The previous worst was the National Government in 1991 in the lead-up to Ruth Richardson’s Mother of All Budgets” – see: Worst poll result for a new Government in MMP history

Similarly, Newsroom’s Sam Sachdeva pointed out how it compared to recent new governments: “At a similar point in their first terms, Helen Clark’s Labour and John Key’s National had each managed to outstrip their election result quite comfortably – by double digits in some polls. Jacinda Ardern’s Labour made more modest gains, but the party’s polls from its first six months in office were an average of three points higher than its election result.”
However, Sachdeva also argued that the recent results are “not exactly a precipitous fall” from the 38.1 per cent election result, as the average poll rating for National in the 15 polls publicly released since has been 37.6 per cent.

National’s pollster David Farrar dissented from the idea that the poll results are a disaster: “The fact the Coalition is marginally behind in a poll after six months is not the breathless news that One News tried to make it. Under MMP, the 1st coalition Government was behind in eight TVNZ polls in 1997. The Clark Government was behind in one TVNZ poll in 2000 and the Ardern Government behind in one (Curia) poll in 2018” – see: Re-election will be about results (paywalled)

Regardless of whether the poor results show the government parties declining or nearly static in their support levels, this is hardly the sort of support that a new government wants, especially after it’s moved so fast and carried out so many changes in its first 100 days.

Other signs of discontent and gloom

The new government’s struggle to retain support indicates that the electorate continues to be gloomy and discontented. There are plenty of other signs at the moment of this negative vibe.

The 1News-Verian poll also asks respondents whether they are optimistic or pessimistic about the country’s economic future. This month, the number of pessimists increased seven points—from 19 per cent to 26 per cent—while the number of optimists dropped from 39 per cent to 36 per cent.

The Roy Morgan poll released last night asked people whether New Zealand is headed in the right direction. Of those surveyed, 49 per cent say it’s on the “wrong track,” while only 34.5 per cent say it’s on the “right track.”

Separately, Roy Morgan has published their ANZ consumer confidence survey, showing that 51 per cent of New Zealanders expect bad economic times over the next year. This is up five points, while those expecting better economic times has dropped to just 11 per cent – see Roy Morgan’s New Zealand Consumer Confidence down 4 pts to 82.1 in April

Other recent polls by the international IPSOS survey company have also indicated high levels of discontent. Last month, respondents gave a very low verdict on the current government’s performance, which was similar to that given to the outgoing Labour administration – see my roundup column: Scoring 4.6 out of 10, the new Government is struggling in the polls

Then this month, a new IPSOS survey indicated that there are rising levels of anti-Establishment attitudes, including two-thirds of the public believing that “New Zealand needs a strong leader to take the country back from the rich and powerful” – see my column, Serious populist discontent is bubbling up in New Zealand

The political right channelled discontent but now bears the brunt of it

National, NZ First, and Act all got into power last year, thanks to the wave of discontent that had been building in New Zealand. They cleverly and legitimately channelled society’s unhappiness with the status quo into a vote for change.

The problem is that having benefitted from the gloom, the new government is now a victim of it. And the policies they are implementing are, rightly or wrongly, perceived very negatively.

Maiki Sherman explained this well in her poll report: “The Government has ploughed through a tonne of policy to date. But the overarching vibe is negative. In its first 100 days, much of the coalition’s work was scrapping and repealing initiatives by the previous Labour government. When the time finally came to focus on the Government’s own agenda, it was more of the same bleak optics: cracking down on beneficiaries, shrinking entitlement rules for disability payments, potentially reducing free lunches in schools, resurrecting the Three Strikes legislation, going after gangs with a proposed patch ban, and a controversial fast-track bill going through select committee.”

She argues that although voters might well support these policies, they all still amount to something of a “buzz kill” when there are fewer positive and inspiring initiatives.

Similarly, RNZ political editor Jo Moir has argued that the Government’s concentration on repeals and cuts “creates a negative framing of the work they’re doing and makes it hard to sell a positive story” – see: What the shock poll tells us about the coalition government. Furthermore, even if much of this is necessary, Moir points out that Luxon has had to burn political capital on selling questionable changes such as the repeal of the smokefree changes and cuts to school lunches.

Carrying out austerity isn’t as popular as campaigning against the discredited Chris Hipkins-led government. And the Spinoff’s Joel MacManus argues that the parties of the right haven’t enjoyed the transition from channelling discontent to bearing the brunt of it. It was easier being anti-Establishment when you weren’t in charge – see: On the politics of vengeance

Here’s the critical point made by MacManus: “When you’re in opposition, yelling from the outside about an economic or cultural elite seeking to control, manipulate or harm the country looks like punching up. It doesn’t work so well when you’re in power, especially in New Zealand, where a government’s power is as close to absolute as it gets. It just makes you look mean – or worse, pathetic… Now that the cuts are actually happening, it doesn’t look like righteous revenge against a woke cabal of insiders. It looks like thousands of regular New Zealanders losing their jobs, and tens of thousands more stressed about the possibility.”

It’s the New Zealand economy, stupid

Former National Prime Minister John Key got it right yesterday when he succinctly summed up the poor poll results: “I think it’s less about politics and more about economics” – referring to the huge concerns that New Zealanders currently have about the economy – see Adam Pearse’s Herald article: Economics, not politics: Former PM Sir John Key proposes theory explaining TV poll

This has been well elaborated on by National Party political commentator Liam Hehir, who explains the poor poll showings: “The economy just sucks too much”, and that the cost of living crisis killed the Hipkins government and now threatens to harm the new one – see: Inflation is the re-election killer (paywalled)

Some have compared this economic situation to what John Key’s government inherited in 2008 during the global financial crisis. But Hehir says: “What New Zealand faces today are much more protracted and persistent challenges. It is a different type of pain, more like torture than trauma.”

Hehir explains why inflation is so unpopular, and breeds discontent: “Day in, day out it immiserates ordinary people by making the necessities of life harder to afford while killing off discretionary spending on the things that make life enjoyable. While it’s doing this, it causes high interest rates, which increases mortgage payments, further depressing that discretionary spending, and deters business investment, creating unemployment.” He argues that the National-led Government needs to push on to fix the economic problems by conquering inflation via reduced government expenditure.

Stuff’s Henry Cooke agrees that if the economy can be turned around, and if the Reserve Bank can seriously cut interest rates before the next election, then the polls will turn around again – see: Has Christopher Luxon caught the incumbency curse?

Writing on the poll results, he says that what the New Zealand government is experiencing is typical globally: “The last few years have been a terrible time for serving governments the world over. Ever since inflation started to pick up in late 2021, voters have punished those in power – whether they are of left or right. In New Zealand, National started to consistently outpoll Labour at around this point. In the United Kingdom, Labour started to outpoll the governing Conservatives. Joe Biden’s approval rating tanked.”

Will parties of the right turn to culture wars?

Henry Cooke points out that other incumbent governments have dealt with the economic pains causing electoral damage by shifting attention to cultural war issues to channel public discontent towards another institution. For example, “Biden was able to largely turn the US 2022 midterms into a referendum on the Supreme Court’s decision on abortion, rather than his own term in Government.”

This is a point made by the Herald’s Audrey Young, who says that New Zealand First is the party most damaged by the poll drop: “It will only reinforce to Peters’ party advisers that there are no votes in statesmanship. The way to be remembered is not through lofty speeches but by low-level street fighting, attacking the media, wokeness, the Treaty, and media wokeness over the Treaty” – see: Winston Peters has the most to complain about after grim poll result (paywalled)

But 1News’ Maiki Sherman takes the opposite stance. In her view, New Zealand First and Act have already been playing the “race card”, and this might have led to “culture war fatigue” and be partly responsible for their polling decline. She draws attention to David Seymour and Winston Peters targeting the Waitangi Tribunal and Māori Land Court, and suggests this has been unpopular. Her answer seems to be that Peters and Seymour should focus less on “petty politics” and more on the economic problems facing New Zealand.

Regardless of who is right and whether economics or culture is the focus of political debate, New Zealand is deep in a “Winter of Discontent,” and it will get darker yet.

Dr Bryce Edwards
Political Analyst in Residence, Director of the Democracy Project, School of Government, Victoria University of Wellington