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What the polling entrails tell us

By Peter Dunne, political observer
Seasoned politicians and political observers follow the opinion poll ratings of the various parties in a way others might consider obsessive. But, they never get too hung up on any specific poll result, focusing instead on the trend of a series of polls over time upon which to base their assessments.

Even then, the poring over the entrails of the various parties’ poll ratings runs secondary to the attention they pay to one other important poll figure. The “is the country on the right or wrong track” question is considered to be the far more accurate reflection of the real political mood of the country, and therefore the best guide to the likely outcome of the next election.

For example, a Roy Morgan poll taken a few weeks before Labour’s landslide election victory in October 2020 recorded 71 percent of respondents feeling the country was heading in the right direction, with less than 20 percent considering it was moving in the wrong direction. By contrast, a similar poll earlier this week showed just 29 percent of respondents now believe the country is on the right track, with 61 percent considering New Zealand was moving in the wrong direction.

Successive Roy Morgan polls have shown the right track/wrong track indicator turned negative in early 2022, about the same time all the major polls started recording National polling ahead of Labour for the first time since early 2020, before the arrival of the pandemic and the subsequent “Covid” election.

These results also parallel Roy Morgan’s consumer confidence polls that have shown consumer confidence has been negative since early 2022.

Although individual party rankings have bounced around a little in the same period, the underlying trend is undeniable. The electorate’s disposition has been largely negative for about 20 months now, and that trend is strengthening. In such circumstances, any government faces immense difficulties in restoring public confidence that it can turn things around.

Right now, as the opinion polls show the election horse race between the various parties moving inexorably in favour of the centre-right bloc, the major parties’ responses to the long-term confidence trends are similarly intensifying. Labour understands, if it does not appreciate, these current feelings of uncertainty and declining confidence, and so is trying to structure its campaign around reassuring voters that it is best equipped to lead them through during these trying times.

It will therefore focus on the positive, although declining, approval ratings of the Prime Minister, in direct contrast to the far less positive responses to National’s leader. Labour will try to buttress this with some bold new policy announcements, like last month’s leak that GST will be removed from fresh fruit and vegetables.

In that respect, its recently revealed “In it for You” slogan captures neatly the party’s message that here is the government, and the Prime Minister in particular, with their sleeves rolled up, just getting on with the job of responding pragmatically to the “bread and butter” issues worrying New Zealand households today.

It is a simple and straightforward strategy, with an implicit defiance of its critics reminiscent of Jim Bolger’s infamous “Bugger the polls” comment so many years ago.

Whether it will work, given the seemingly now entrenched view that New Zealand has been moving in the wrong direction under Labour for some time now is a highly contestable point. But, it is the only card it has left to play. In doing so, it will need to be mindful of cynicism that these yet unannounced policies are simply being rolled out now because the election situation looks dire, when they could have been introduced at any point during the last six years Labour has been in power.

National also understands the importance of the right track/wrong track sentiment. As the Opposition, it knows it has little influence on current policy direction. But, it also knows it is extremely difficult for incumbent governments to win re-election when a substantial number of voters thinks the country is heading in the wrong direction.

So, its focus is more on reinforcing current negative voter sentiment, rather than wooing them with bold new policies. Hence its slogan to “Get New Zealand back on track”. Where specific new policies have been released, such as the roading announcements of recent weeks, they have harkened back to the direction of the previous National-led government, when a majority of voters felt the country was moving in the right direction.

It is likely any further policy announcements will be similarly strategically designed.

Even New Zealand First appears to understand the significance of the right track/wrong track question, promising to “Let’s take back our country”, although the “back” it envisages is a time most New Zealanders are not old enough to remember. In any case, it conveniently overlooks that it was part of the Government whose actions led to the current level of wrong track sentiment.

In this environment, there is consequently plenty of scope for potential support parties likely to be in the next Parliament such as ACT, the Greens and Te Pati Maori to be bolder in their policy offerings, as they have been. They can afford to do so, knowing that while their more outlandish pledges will appeal to their core supporters they will never be implemented fully by either of the major parties, so they will be free to campaign on them again at the 2026 election.

The election is likely to come down to changing the country’s future direction. Therefore, the outcome is more likely to reflect the negative sentiment of the last couple of years, rather than any positive reaction to bold, new policies unveiled in the last minute heat of an election campaign.

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