The trend line is unmistakable, but there’s also a hint of plague-on-both-your-houses, writes Toby Manhire.
The Labour Party will have felt some relief that last night’s 1 News / Kantar poll was not the catastrophe of the last televised poll, which punctured the lung of its conference weekend. But there’s no escaping the trend. National has opened up a five-point advantage over the party which won an unprecedented outright MMP majority at the last election. With less than a year to go to the next, Christopher Luxon is emphatically sitting in pole position. On these numbers National and Act could form a government without breaking a sweat.
There are other storylines beyond that headline.
We’ve begun to take it for granted, but it remains remarkable that both the Greens and Act, notwithstanding some unfathomable tailspin, are on track to comfortably return, sailing way above the 5% threshold. Winston Peters is for the thousandth time defying obituarists to hover just beneath that mark. Te Pāti Māori are highly likely to make it back to parliament by winning electorate seats. The Opportunities Party, in what is probably its last serious throw of the dice, has a chance, too, if Raf Manji’s confidence about Ilam bears out.
Here, then, is the lay of the land across the most recent polls from the reputable outfits.
If there was one consistent message through the local body election results it was a disgruntlement with the general direction of things. That may be reflected in a mood of disaffection with the two main parties, which translates in turn to an opportunity for the smaller parties.
Looking at the polling for 1 News since the 2017 election, that pattern is divined in the drop in support for the two big dogs. At its peak in February 2018, the combined backing for National and Labour among decided voters was a whopping 91%. The equivalent number in last night’s poll was 71%.
MMP was designed for diffusion, of course. The critical thing is the blocs. Here, the trend line is unmistakable. Should that blue line poke its nose over the 50% mark in the months to come, National and Act will be starting to measure the Beehive drapes.
For the Labour-Green side, there are a couple of things to cling to. First, Christopher Luxon’s personal support remains on the plateau. His best result in the preferred prime minister category in this poll was in March, when he scored 25%. He repeated that in May, before hitting 22% in August, 21% in September and 23% last night. It’s not remotely a disaster – and Ardern's own slide on that count, now down to 29%, is a serious worry for Labour – but it suggests Luxon has yet to capture imaginations.
And here’s another point of interest: Kantar asks respondents for their mood on the economy. Are you optimistic or pessimistic? Last time, 36% were optimistic. That’s now halved to 18%. The proportion who professed pessimism leapt from 38% to 61%. No massive surprise there; people were just listening to Adrian Orr – polling took place in the days immediately following the Reserve Bank governor announcing not just a record rise in the official cash rate, but the 2023 prognosis of a shallow recession, rising unemployment, and hard-to-shake inflation.
For Grant Robertson, then, there may be some solace that the punishment in this poll for Labour was of no real statistical significance: a one-point fall. Could be that; could be there's a lag.
There has, however, been a marked reorientation of strategy, led by Robertson and Ardern. It wasn’t that long ago, remember, that the prime minister was fending off invitations to call growing cost of living pressures a “crisis”. What a difference a few months makes. Today, they’re flinging on the high-vis and bellowing crisis from the cliffs. And just like a tsunami threat, they claims, the source is across the oceans.
That pivot was exemplified in the line Ardern took yesterday at her post-cabinet press conference. Pointing to the twin crises preying on New Zealanders’ minds – economic gloom and a spate of crime – she said: “We're a government, unfortunately, with experience in supporting New Zealand through crises, whether it's health or economic. That’s what we have experience in, and it's what we're focused on.”
That approach, they're hoping, will play to Gracinda's strengths, and to Luxon’s weak spots. It doesn’t change the weather, though: a burst of criminal activity that culminated in the killing of a dairy worker, a three waters horror show made worse by failing to notice an entrenchment amendment, stubborn inflation and the central banker saying we wish you a thrifty Christmas and a recesssiony new year.
We don’t need to wait long for the next major poll. The sample may be geographically focused, and none of the Greens, NZ First or Te Pati Māori are among the options. But the Hamilton West electorate is a pretty big sample, and it’s sure to send a message of its own, even if it’s one of exhaustion and apathy.