With less than a month to go before the General Election on October 19 the latest polls in New Zealand show the Labour Government well ahead despite many commentators saying Prime Minister Ardern’s performance in the first TV election debate lacked lustre.
After a stellar performance in the polls, three more polls in succession told different stories about whether Labour would be able to govern without the need to find a coalition partner.
They all agree Labour has a high likelihood of winning against National, but they are divided on whether there might be a return to the so-called “elected dictatorship” that MMP (Mixed Member Proportional) voting was designed to prevent. MMP was also intended to end the cycle of governments elected because they could swing specific marginal electorates, while failing to win a majority of votes in the country.
A strong trend apparent from the polling is that apart from the Greens and the right wing party ACT, the minor parties will have difficulty producing even one MP.
A poll taken in August and published on September 1 by Roy Morgan showed Labour at 48 percent, down 5.5 percent on a month earlier but well ahead of National on 28.5 percent. National gained 2 percent during the month.
On those figures Labour could not govern alone. It was their lowest Roy Morgan poll result since March, but still well ahead of National.
Several events had contributed to reduced support for Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party however most of the lost support went to the Government’s coalition partners New Zealand First and the Greens rather than the Opposition.
Ardern faced several challenges during August. After 102 days the first new case outside a managed facility was announced on August 12. This renewed outbreak of Covid-19 led to the re-imposition of a Stage Three lockdown in Auckland.
The outbreak caused the four-week postponement of the General Election and raised questions about the long term sustainability of the Covid-19 elimination policy.
Minor parties including Labour’s coalition partners had mixed fortunes. The Centre-Right New Zealand First was sinking. On 2.5 percent the party which held the balance of power and put Labour into Government at the 2017 election had not enough support to obtain one seat in Parliament if an election were held on these poll figures.
The Greens were up 3.5 percent on 11.5 percent so could become the coalition partner with Labour.
The National Party under its new leader Judith Collins on 28.5 percent was still below the 30.5 percent former leader Simon Bridges managed in April before he was removed as leader.
Just hours before the first TV debate a 1News Colmar Brunton poll showed Labour on 48 percent and National on 31. This time the result showed Labour would be able to govern alone. On these figures Labour would have 62 seats, one more than needed to form a government.
The country’s pandemic position continued to improve with the virus heavily suppressed. Auckland returned to Level 2 and the rest of the country to Level 1.
With many sectors of the economy back at work and politicians able to actively campaign the outlook for the Government also improved although tourism and the international education sectors remained areas of concern.
While the news for Jacinda Ardern was improving Judith Collins had two embarrassing shocks. Her party’s economic policy announcement was spoilt when Finance Minister Grant Richardson pointed out a $4 billion error in National’s calculations.
Within days a further $4 billion dollar error was noticed. Collins and her finance spokesman denied there was an $8 billion dollar error but serious doubts remained.
With the latest poll results and the large accounting errors dominating headlines, the Opposition Leader needed to produce an inspiring performance in the first TV debate of the campaign on Television New Zealand’s main commercial channel TV1. She achieved a measure of success.
Collins looked poised, well-rehearsed and assertive. Some commentators said she was also aggressive and rude.
Unlike Collins, Ardern hadn’t been rehearsing during the day of the debate but had been campaigning. She lacked her usual star quality.
Collins’ interruptions and grimaces intruded on Ardern’s arguments. Television New Zealand’s camera shot choices often had Collins visible behind Ardern or in a split screen showing her reacting while Ardern spoke.
The moderator seemed to support Collins’ combative style when occasionally he interrupted Ardern then called on Collins to comment without allowing Ardern to finish.
Despite the programme’s failings the polls taken after the debate appear to show it had little influence on public opinion.
A Newshub-Reid Research poll published on Sunday September 27 continued the story of Labour’s dominance, on 50.1 percent.
National was still on sub-30 percent with 29.6 percent. The small parties Greens and ACT both improved to over six percent each.
On those numbers Labour could govern alone, and both Greens and ACT would have a respectable eight seats each.
A day later the picture changed again. Another 1News Colmar Brunton poll published on Monday September 28 showed Labour still well ahead on 47 percent, down one percent on the previous Colmar Brunton poll a week earlier.
It again showed Labour unable to govern alone. The party’s level of support would produce only 59 of the 61 seats needed to form a government. The Greens would be needed in coalition.
Jacinda Ardern remained highly popular on 54 percent in the preferred Prime Minister stakes, far ahead of National’s leader Judith Collins although she improved five percent to 23 percent.
The National Party rose 2 percent to 33 percent but was well behind Labour. New Zealand First would still not have enough support to secure any seats. Its long term high profile leader Winston Peters, who first became an MP in 1979, would be out of Parliament.
The minor party ACT led by David Seymour increased one percent to eight percent. ACT is a right wing libertarian party that advocates free market policies and reducing the role of government. The party was kept alive for years by the National Party refraining from running a candidate against the ACT candidate in the wealthy Epsom electorate.
Currently with one MP, ACT would improve to eight seats if the latest poll translated into votes on Election Day. This could signal a strengthening of the conservative side of New Zealand politics.
While The Greens and ACT are prospering, other minor parties including the Maori Party are polling around one or two percent each and struggling to survive.
The pandemic dominated the campaign. National has a fiscally conservative, market and private enterprise approach to the challenges produced by the crisis. They would set up a new Border Force, and they sharply criticise the Government’s security arrangements for travellers in isolation.
The Labour Government is spending heavily on jobs, skills training and infrastructure, in keeping with its well established policy of positive improvement for the country, with the slogan “Let’s keep moving”.
While the polls show the result of the election is highly likely to be an overall win for Labour there is much at stake for all parties.
Max Hayton was a political correspondent and TV Foreign Editor in New Zealand.