Matthew Hooton: Labour crushing National on top 20 issues


Labour is now seen as more capable than National on every one of the top 20 issues concerning New Zealanders.

That’s the stark finding for Judith Collins’ Opposition in the latest New Zealand Issues Monitor from Ipsos, the world’s third-largest market research agency, which works in 90 markets and employs over 18,000 people.

Worse, the data suggests this has at least as much to do with National’s performance aswith Labour’s.

Except intimes of crisis, Jacinda Ardern’s government has seldom been rated as more than average. For its first 18 months, her government’s performance was rated by voters in the Ipsos study as no better than 5.7 out of 10 – a C grade in any New Zealand university.

After the March 15 terrorist attack, the nation rightly rallied behind its leader and the Government scored a B-. But perceptions of its competence soon slipped back again, as the comical “year of delivery” unravelled.

Covid initially saw Ardern’s regime leap to a creditable B+ but it has slid back to a C+ since. That sounds about right for a government thatis largely a safe pair of hands, with a prime minister who provides Churchillian leadership in times of crisis, but which consistently fails on all its most important commitments.

Yet, according to Ipsos, Labour is now seen as more capable than National not just on health, education and welfare, where it traditionally does better, but on the economy, law and order and even national defence. The only important matter on which Labour is not voters’ first pick is on issues facing Māori, where it is edged out by Te Pāti Māori.

The usual strategy for oppositions facing popular governments is to ignore issues where the incumbent is seen as capable and shift the national debate to topics where the challenger is more trusted. National’s problem is that there are now none of those.

Housing is by far voters’ most important issue, identified as a problem by over half of us.

Despite the ongoing KiwiBuild comedy – as I predicted the day Ardern announced 4000 new houses at Unitec in March 2018, not a single one has yet been built – Labour remains nearly twice as trusted as National on the issue.

The next major issues are health, inflation and poverty, with each worrying around a quarter of us. Labour now owns them all.

For the fifth-ranked issue, the economy, National’s lead in terms of perceived competence plunged in the second quarter of 2020, contributing to the ill-fated Todd Muller successfully challenging Simon Bridges. Labour has remained well ahead ever since.

Collins’ political strategy makes sense only if one assumesher objective is mere survival as leader. Instead of focusing on the top five issues the data suggests voters care most about, she and National strategist Todd McClay are emphasising those that matter to National’s hard core of farmers and elderly conservatives.

Thus, Collins put He Puapua at the centre of National’s regional conferences and her new “Demand the Debate” campaign, and so visibly supported the Groundswell protests against a wide range of issues upsetting rural New Zealand.

Collins’ hard core loved it, but for urban and less politically engaged New Zealanders, exactly what He Puapua and Groundswell are about remains a mystery. Moreover, with Labour denying He Puapua is policy and some of the Groundswell messages being well beyond mainstream opinion, Collins risks sounding extreme not just to the median voter but to many in her own party.

Young people sliding backwards on their house deposits, families terrified of being smashed by rising interest rates and prices and older people worried about catching Covid don’t much care about proposals for medium-term constitutional change or taxes on new utes.

Still, however uncomfortable National’s liberals are with Collins’ strategy, the Ipsos data hardly offers them many alternatives.

National’s longest serving MP, Gerry Brownlee, may have discovered a better strategy for an Opposition now trusted on nothing at all by the median voter.

To everyone’s surprise, the famously technophobic Brownlee has launched a new podcast series called The Backroom of Politics. Even more shocking were Brownlee’s first two guests: Green MP Golriz Ghahraman and Climate Change Commission boss Rod Carr, both especial ogres in the Collins canon.

According to an interview he gave to journalist Richard Harman – another who is permanently off Collins’ Christmas card list – Brownlee plans to follow this up with National’s climate change spokesmanStuart Smith and American financier Bill Browder.

Brownlee told Harman he thinks current political interviews are too short and he wants to reinvent the long-form interview.

It’s possible Brownlee is just positioning himself for a career with NewstalkZB, but he may have hit upon a new path to regaining voters’ respect. If voters don’t think National is the most competent party on anything, then Brownlee is at least demonstrating he is listening to ideas which are not his own, and engaging with people beyond – well beyond – the National Party base.

Brownlee is careful not to contradict National’s official position on anything, but the friendly tone he deploys is targeted at the median voter – the polar opposite of the tough rhetoric Collins uses to keep faith with her party base.

Brownlee started in Parliament as a backbencher in the third term of Jim Bolger’s government. He helped Jenny Shipley become prime minister so National could present a new face to voters in 1999. He saw up close Bill English’s failed attempt at populism in the early 2000s, Don Brash’s success in restoring National’s base, and John Key’s sunny triumph in 2008. He has taken over the party’s deputy leadership twice in times of crisis, and was the third-ranked minister throughout the Key-English government.

He understands both the benefits and costs of moving left or right; smiling or scowling; endorsing Labour’s policies or going on the attack.

Most importantly, he understands the eternal rule of politics: that a party, once out of power, must fundamentally change to get back in. Ardern’s government is different from Helen Clark’s. Clark’s was different from David Lange’s. Lange’s was different from Norman Kirk’s. Similarly, Key’s government was different from Bolger’s, which was different from Robert Muldoon’s, which was different from Keith Holyoake’s.

In the face of such disastrous data from Ipsos, Brownlee’s strategy of demonstrating an open mind and engaging with different ideas is a better long-term bet than dialling up partisan rhetoric.

Rating the parties

Q: Please select the political party that you believe is most capable of managing each of the following issues:

Housing/Price of housing: Labour
Poverty/Inequality: Labour
Inflation/Cost of living: Labour
Economy: Labour
Healthcare/Hospitals: Labour
Climate change: Labour
Crime/Law & order: Labour
Unemployment: Labour
Drug/Alcohol abuse: Labour
Pollution/Water concerns: Labour
Transport/Public transport/Infrastructure: Labour
Household/Personal debt: Labour
Education: Labour
Race relations/Racism: Labour
Petrol prices/Fuel: Labour
Immigration: Labour
Issues facing Māori: The Māori Party
Population/Overpopulation: Labour
Taxation: Labour
Defence/Foreign affairs: Labour
Source: Ipsos research

– Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based public relations consultant.

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