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PoliticsFebruary 13, 2019

The polling circus is entertaining, but not what matters most in 2019


For a government promising “a year of delivery”, Ardern’s team has begun in something of a defensive crouch, writes Guyon Espiner for RNZ

Labour will count itself lucky the Newshub-Reid Research poll was held for nine days and released the night before MPs returned to parliament on Tuesday.

The poll, completed on 2 February but not released until 11 February, provided a welcome distraction for a government which has had a rocky start to the year.

The headlines were damaging for National, with Newshub calling it a “disastrous” poll for the party and a “dark day” for its leader, Simon Bridges.

Those kinds of stories create their own energy, sucking the politician into a whirlpool of uncertainty about their leadership. It’s difficult to escape that – just ask Phil Goff, Andrew Little, David Shearer or David Cunliffe.

I’ll leave the quibbling over the interpretation of polls to the politicians and the partisans but we do have a genuine issue in our modern media environment: Strapped for cash, almost everyone has given up polling.

The only media company now to poll consistently is TVNZ, for which Colmar Brunton polls every two months.

The Newshub Reid Research Poll in the media this week was the first poll it has done since March 2018. Newshub reports that National “plunged” 3.5% (which is about the margin of error in the poll). But since when? Well, since nearly a year ago.

Now, the poll may well be an accurate snap shot in time but establishing meaningful trends is the key thing in polling – and that is almost impossible if you leave it 11 months between surveys.

None of those nuances will change the public narrative of course. Labour gets a big motivational boost as the most popular party on 47%, six points clear of National.

If you step back and consider that when Jacinda Ardern took over the leadership from Andrew Little Labour was in the mid-20s, it is an extraordinary rebuild.

Having rightly raised their glasses to the leader who has nearly doubled their support, Labour MPs might also benefit from a sober reflection of how they start the parliamentary year.

For a government promising “a year of delivery” it has begun in something of a defensive crouch.

Even as the “delivery year” tagline was minted by the prime minister her housing minister conceded he was not delivering on KiwiBuild. Not even close – 1000 promised in the first year, fewer than 50 delivered.

There are questions too about whether the Provincial Growth Fund is delivering. National claims just 54 jobs have been created. Shane Jones disputes this but won’t bolster his case with numbers.

Waitangi Day again produced good photo-ops of the PM behind the barbecue in the sunny north, but there was a long shadow too. Hopes of a Ngāpuhi settlement, high at Waitangi in 2018, have faded.

While there was goodwill towards Ardern, Ngāpuhi leader Sonny Tau asked politicians to come back next year with a clearer understanding of the Treaty. It was a not so subtle dig at her fumbled response to a reporter’s questions about what was in the document.

With many of the government’s working groups reporting back this year, much of the hard stuff lies ahead.

The report of the Tax Working Group, led by former Finance Minister Michael Cullen, will be released shortly. Having gone to the country in 2011 and 2014 with a capital gains tax policy from opposition and lost – do they finally dare to implement it from government?

This will become a bigger challenge if the economy slows. National has already begun to try and weave the prospect of a Capital Gains Tax into reports that investor confidence – at two-year lows this week according to ASB – is dropping.

Fears about New Zealand’s deteriorating relationship with China is one of the government’s other big challenges this year and is linked to economic performance given our trade reliance on the super power.

If the economy holds National has little chance. A personality contest would be no contest at all. The polls tell Bridges he can’t compete with Judith Collins on popularity, let alone Jacinda Ardern. But he knew that anyway.

Perhaps that’s why Bridges is opting for policy over personality, promising to release eight positioning papers this year.

That is to be welcomed. If it is to be a “year of delivery” then let’s see the Opposition deliver too.

The polling contest is always entertaining but ultimately politics is a contest of ideas.

Keep going!