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From Overcoming ‘Bonkers’ To A Political Pickle

Published: Thu 21 Mar 2024 07:32 PM
Labour’s landslide victory in the 2020 general election meant that it became the first majority government in Aotearoa New Zealand since the introduction of proportional representation in 1996.
If someone had said then it would not only be voted out but also thrashed in the next election, the response would have overwhelmingly been ‘bonkers’, or perhaps something more explicit.
Just as National was slaughtered in 2020, Labour was similarly so in 2023.
But it happened! ‘Bonkers’ was overcome. I’ve discussed why Labour was so strongly rejected by the electorate in an earlier Political Bytes post (22 November):Why Labour lost the 2023 election so badly.The honeymoon that got away
A common post-election feature of incoming new governments is that both the main governing party’s vote (National  or Labour) in subsequent opinion polls exceeds the election night result.
The same also applies to the new prime minister (Jim Bolger, Helen Clark, John Key and Jacinda Ardern all experienced this). This common feature is called a ‘political honeymoon’.
So what has been the experience of today’s main governing party (National) and the new prime minister (Christopher Luxon)?
This is discussed in an insightful column by Dr Bryce Edwards published by the Democracy Project (19 March): Bye, bye political honeymoon.‘A minimal amount of flux’
Edwards considers the pattern of post-election opinion polls – Talbott Mills, Curia (for the right-wing Taxpayers Union), and the Australian based Roy Morgan poll. All are reputable although the methodology of the third has limitations.
In terms of the three coalition government parties and the three opposition parties, each of their results are roughly unchanged from election night. Edwards describes this as overall “…a minimal amount of flux…”
Further, there has been a decline in the confidence of those polled over the current direction of the country; always a political alarm bell for incumbent governments.
Given the high promotion of its ‘First 100 Day programme’ this is surprising. Essentially the support for the two main parties, National and Labour, is unchanged.
Early programme promotions of previous incoming governments led by both National and Labour parties had a much lower relative profile but still achieved noteworthy poll boosts.A poor score
There is more to come, however. Edwards draws upon the recent survey by the IPSOS polling company as released in its ‘NZ Issues Monitor’ (February 2024):Latest IPSOS Issues Monitor.
The poll was of 1,000 New Zealanders. It asked:
Overall, how would you rate the government for its job in the last 6 months from 0 to 10, where 0 means ‘abysmal’ and 10 means ‘outstanding’?
The result was a mean average of 4.6. This is a poor score according to IPSOS. During the peak of its unpopularity (August 2023) the former Labour government scored 4.5.
What this is saying is that at a time when the government should be bathing in the glory of increased public support its score is a mere 0.1out of 10 higher than its predecessor government at the height of its unpopularity.
Edwards drills down further. In this latest survey, 37% of respondents gave the government a low score (0-3/10) which was the highest proportion since the survey began in July 2017. IPSOS calls this a “significant” increase.
On the other hand, 30% of respondents  gave the government a high score (7-10/10) and 29% a mid-score. This suggests to Edwards a “rather polarised electorate”.Behind the poor score
What sits beyond the government’s poor overall score? This occurred during the peak of the public Treaty of Waitangi and ethnicity controversy to begin with.
Then, for example, throw into the mix:the success of the tobacco industry in the repeal of the smokefree legislation;the fast-track resource management bill;big tax reductions for landlords (especially the wealthiest);cutting school lunches; anddownplaying the importance of climate change, including reducing the incentive to reduce motor vehicle emissions and diminishing the importance of environmental protection in relation to business and commercial expansion.
This is a cocktail for a growing impression of a ’nasty’ government that gets things done for the more powerful and wealthy rather than less powerful and poorer tinged with cronyism.Prime Ministerial unpopularity
Edwards also discusses the significant decline of the incumbent prime minister’s popularity (when it should be increasing) both in terms of the ‘preferred PM result and the net favourability rating compared with his predecessor Chris Hipkins.
The biggest factor in Christopher Luxon’s popularity fall was undoubtedly his un-endearing sense of entitlement to claim for an accommodation allowance whose purpose was to meet additional costs that he, in fact, was not incurring.
While his action was lawful, ethical or moral is another question. It took extensive public exposure for him to pull back from this self-inflicted blunder.
But this was not before his action was negatively contrasted with the intention to reduce school lunches targeted at areas where child hunger was evident. It continues to leave a nasty taste in the mouths of many.Political pickle
But if the National led coalition government and its prime minister are being rated so poorly, why is Labour still lagging so far behind?
Primarily it is because it is a choice between an unpopular prime minister who is leading a government that is losing support versus a discredited Labour Party which was soundly rejected at the ballot box last October.
This has created a right political pickle – an electorate unhappy with the government it elected to replace the previous government it was unhappy with. Oh joy!
Overall the Labour government performed badly. It failed to make the necessary practical measures to significantly address critical issues such as child poverty, low incomes (above the minimum wage), housing, sustainability of schools, and university funding.
It also badly mishandled ‘Three Waters’ (its essence was critical to water supply and safety), the health system, and technical education.
It was high on aspiration that was driven by social liberal technocratic elitism leading to an inevitable failure to deliver on the ground.Social democrats afraid of social democracy
Labour describes itself as a social democrat party. Social democracy is not revolutionary (it was until World War1).
Instead it promotes economic and political democracy (socialism) through gradualism and reformism. This is in a formal democratic process and inclusive of a social liberal framework.
In this context social democracy can be transformational as witnessed by the first Labour government elected in 1935.
Being transformational includes effecting substantive changes that significantly enhance in a tangible way peoples economic. political and social wellbeing.
Regrettably Labour has degenerated to a social democrat party that is afraid of social democracy. It can barely see past structural centralism as the way forward. It puts form before function.
As they did after the 2020 election, most people would have thought after the 2023 election that it would be ‘bonkers’ to predict that this new government would be voted out in the next election in 2026 (and probably still do). They are probably right.
But if Labour is to find a way through the political pickle that it finds itself (and helped create) it has to abandon elitism and rediscover social democracy starting by putting function before form.
It must develop tangible and practical policies that lead to economic and social justice in peoples everyday lives.
In other words, Labour needs to overcome its fear of social democracy. That would then set the foundation for a genuine contest of values and ideas between it and the current government.
Ian Powell
Otaihanga Second Opinion is a regular health systems blog in New Zealand.
Ian Powell is the editor of the health systems blog 'Otaihanga Second Opinion.' He is also a columnist for New Zealand Doctor, occasional columnist for the Sunday Star Times, and contributor to the Victoria University hosted Democracy Project. For over 30 years , until December 2019, he was the Executive Director of Salaried Medical Salaried Medical Specialists, the union representing senior doctors and dentists in New Zealand.
Contact Ian Powell

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