The latest Roy Morgan political opinion poll mirrors other polls in showing a narrowing gap between the main blocs, with National and ACT still slightly ahead of Labour and the Greens, but with neither able to form a majority government, without the support of Te Pati Māori.
The poll also shows a widening majority of voters believe the country is on the wrong track. Most polls in recent months have shown voters evenly split on that question, but with an increasing number believing that the country is heading in the wrong direction. Seasoned political observers know that the “right track/wrong track” question is often more relevant in determining the political state of the nation than the so-called horse race between the major blocs. It is very difficult for governments to win re-election if most voters believe they are taking the country in the wrong direction.
That is the situation presently in New Zealand, and the trend has been firming in recent months. It is a more than just a case of the “winter blues” that the country will snap out of once the warmer weather returns and is causing the Labour government a few worries. Its recent hurried about-face on applying GST to Kiwisaver fund fees was an example of its increasing sensitivity to voter perceptions. So too have been the pains it now goes to point out that sanctions are already in place for those who breach their benefit conditions, despite having ridiculed the very idea when National suggested it just a few weeks ago.
Labour knows voter perceptions about its performance have become quite negative, so will obviously intensify its efforts over the new few months to appear more voter friendly and in tune with their aspirations, as would be expected of any government fighting for its political survival and a third term in office.
But that should be less of a worry to National than its own mounting failure to capitalise on rising voter disillusionment. Although an increasing majority in the polls does not like the way the country is heading, they do not yet see, nor have sufficient confidence, that National, with ACT in tow, is a credible alternative. National is still at least 5-8% short of where it should be rating about now. With more and more people expressing unease about Labour’s direction, the National/ACT bloc ought to be enjoying a clear and increasing opinion poll lead, rather than being either just short of a majority or just over the bar, as at present.
There has been no end of opportunities for National to take advantage of. Issues such as the economy’s decline, post Covid19 uncertainty affecting public confidence, any benefit from the recent health reforms a long way off, come readily to mind. Add to that the government’s increasingly unpredictable decision-making, alongside more visceral issues like Three Waters, and National’s opportunities are endless. But it seems almost incapable of taking advantage of them.
Although the internal division and disunity that wracked the party until the end of last year seem to have been put to bed, or at least papered over for the meantime, they have yet to be seen as replaced with any positive alternative. The change of leadership and the reshuffling of Caucus responsibilities has given National a sharper image, but it has still to be shown what policy substance there is behind this.
National will be understandably wary of rolling out any bold new policies it may have this far from the election. In any case, it would be unwise to do so before the half yearly economic and fiscal update is published in December. Nevertheless, it needs to be developing a concise, almost dispassionate, narrative on the areas in which the country is heading in the wrong direction, and the broad sorts of steps needed to correct that. Over the next few months, it should be judging every action of the government against that narrative, and then, early next year, producing the specific policies to change things.
However, right now, National’s reaction is still too kneejerk, often opposing for the sake of opposing, rather than hinting how things could become better if they were restored to power next year. National leader Chris Luxon has appeared at his best when he talks about his view of where the country might head and the type of leader he would like to be, but he is not saying that often enough and many voters are simply not hearing him. Rather, all they see is the National Party and its leader carrying on as the carping critic of the government.
Post Covid19, the country is entering a new mindset. During the pandemic we all became too familiar with the problems and the dangers. Over the last few months, we have tired of hearing about those and have increasingly looked forward to the better times the future might hold. It is the same with politics in general. While we may not like the direction the country is headed in under this government, we are tiring of being told constantly how bad things are. We know that, but we are now really looking to non-government parties to start painting the picture of how things might be better in the future.
National needs to become the party of optimism and hope, not remain as the gloom merchant it is at present. With most people already having concluded for themselves things are not moving in the direction they want; they do not need National constantly reminding them of that. That current mode of criticism offers little that is new and paints National as part of the problem, the same way Labour is.
Because it is the government, Labour’s course is largely set. While it can tweak things here and there, and drop what is not working or unpopular, it is bound by its history of five years in office. It cannot credibly now hive off on a bold new direction, a year out from the election. Its die is cast.
National is not so constrained. It has all to play for, but, given the public’s ongoing doubts, it will not win office by default. It still needs to give sceptical voters a reason to vote for it. As the divergence between the “right track/wrong track” question and National’s party ratings shows it has yet to do so. Unlike previous years, just being “not” Labour will no longer be enough anymore.