Explaining the polls

Yesterday’s HoS piece by Keith Ng adds another possible reason for Labour’s slump in the polls. Ng cites VUW political scientist Jon Johansson:

“The real weakness of Clark is that there is no over-arching explanation as to what the purpose of her government is. We’ve seen this right through the three terms”

I just can’t agree with this. Most people I talk to — not a random sample of the entire population, I know, but including some moderately conservative types — speak warmly of Labour’s first & second terms.

These people tend to agree that the public policy settings were much fairer during those years, which was what many people wanted after 15 years of neo-liberal reform with its harsh inequities. I could go through the list of policies aimed at achieving greater fairness, from the Employment Relations Act to the Working for Families programme, higher minimum wages, paid parental leave, and so on. Labour and its allies managed the prosperity of the first seven years fairly and prudently. That’s the narrative.

It’s just that these issues aren’t seen as so important anymore. Ironically this seems to be in large measure due to the government’s success in these areas. The voters appear to now expect fairness and prudence as a bottom line.

If Labour weren’t successful in this, why are National so averse to announcing a further tranche of neo-liberalism?

In Johansson’s view, the lack of a political narrative “never mattered for the first two terms, when National was in disarray.” It’s certainly true that National’s problems and shortcomings helped Labour retain power, and that the electorate was never prepared to hand unfettered power to Clark. However, the Labour and more especially Clark polled well over this period.

Clark’s continued high ratings as a PM undermine that line of thinking.

VUW political scientist Nigel Roberts argues that the “government is looking tired and tawdry.” It’s just end-of-third-term blues. Johansson’s probably closer to the mark on the problems of political longevity when he talks about leaders inevitably becoming out of touch.

Having spent some time working in the Beehive, I can attest that this is a real problem for politicians and their factotums. So is being captured by the bureaucrats, and we’ve seen too many cabinet ministers fail on that score in recent times.

These are all reasons why Labour is suffering poll doldrums. The voters aren’t demanding a major change of direction, just some fresh faces who will listen more closely to them, it seems.

[For an interesting right-wing perspective that is not dissimilar to my own, see Chris Diack’s comment on kiwiblog.]


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4 Responses to “Explaining the polls”

  1. Steve Withers Says:

    Looks to me like our parliament is still too small. The governing caucus doesn’t have enough people in it to sustain it over the long haul. Cabinet Ministers should be rotated out for some months every term or ever few years as the signs of fatigue begin to accumulate. But we can’t do that because people think 120 is too many and would prefer they do a bad job with the $45 billion at their command instead of spending another $50 million to ensure they waste less of it.

  2. jafapete Says:

    Steve Withers: “Looks to me like our parliament is still too small.”

    Absolutely agree. I can’t understand what moves some people to demand a reduction in the size of Parliament, except a visceral dislike of politicians. 120 isn’t large when we compare ourselves to comparable countries, and does demonstrably fail to provide a large enough pool of talent from which to form cabinets. (Admittedly, the selection processes employed by the parties are also a factor in this.)

    The idea of fallow periods for ministers is interesting.

  3. MacDoctor Says:

    More politicians???!! I find that very hard to swallow JP and Steve. After all, New York city has very nearly twice the population of New Zealand and has a budget of 59 billion USD but only has 51 members. It seems to me that less than a third of our current crew actually do the real work while the rest apparently watch (I suspect that is not really true, but that is how it looks).

    And if you think that cabinet leaders would take kindly to being “rotated out” of the cabinet, you haven’t been paying much attention when there is a cabinet reshuffle! Leaving cabinet is a punishment for failure, not a reward for success. Look at poor old Cullen – do you see him being pastured out?

    And I don’t think that having more people to choose from would help. There is already plenty of evidence that the guy getting in at the bottom of the major party lists are not exactly “best of breed”.

    Personally, I would prefer to halve the number of politicians and double their salaries. The increased competition for parliament and, especially, cabinet posts would produce better quality, more capable, politicians.

  4. jafapete Says:


    Yes, but does NYC run its own foreign policy, defence force, etc? There’s an awful lot of stuff that the federal and state governments do… Just to begin, the bicameral NY State Legislature has 150 in the lower house and 62 in the upper house, and NYC accounts for 40%+ of the state’s population, so there’s another 60+ assemblypersons and who knows how many state senators you can add to your total, never mind congresspersons and senators.

    Part of the problem is the party list selection processes, which tend to be tightly controlled by those with power. It would seem that quality of potential cabinet memebrs is only one of many criteria used for selection, given that politics is inevitably about coalition building and maintaining followship with rewards. So halving the number of MPs and doubling their salaries would probably only succeed in reducing the talent pool and upping the rewards for the inevitable lobby fodder.

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