LAbour Party

Government's tough two weeks unlikely to hit poll numbers

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It's safe to say that the past two weeks have been the most difficult that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and the Labour-led Government have faced.

Between the sexual assaults at a Young Labour summer camp, the entire Russia fiasco, Ron Mark melting down over defence force flights, Jenny Salesa's Ministerial spending, criticism that not enough was being down to help the Nelson and Tasman regions in their recovery from Cyclone Gita, the Green Party ambushing Labour by announcing they were gifting questions to National, and Shane Jones repeatedly shoving his foot in his mouth over Air New Zealand, there's a lot that's been going wrong lately.

The public relations triumph that was Ardern's Waitangi visit must seem like an age ago, while the successful Pacific Mission has completely vanished from view.

Despite all that, when the next round of political polling is released I don't expect to see any significant change from what we saw in February. I'd expect to see Labour in the mid to high 40s, National in the mid to low 40s, and the Greens and New Zealand First struggling to reach 5 per cent.

The main reason for this is that Ardern hasn't been personally responsible for many of the issues that have played out and, where she has, they've mostly been on things that I don't think are necessarily going to sway voters. That, combined with her personal popularity, will mean that while Ardern has burnt some political capital fighting fires, she still has a deep well of support to call on.

The Labour Party's seemingly terrible handling of the sexual assaults at the Waihi camp will reflect badly on Labour's General Secretary Andrew Kirton, but as Ardern was only briefly at the camp delivering a speech, and had nothing to do with its organisation or the events in question, I doubt any voters will hold her responsible for it. A test may come further down the line when Labour's own internal investigation is complete if it finds significant failings on the part of the party organisation and Ardern doesn't demand that someone takes personal responsibility, but that's hard to preempt given there's a lot of water to go under the bridge.

The Russia fiasco - Winston Peters' alternative facts on Russian interference with the US election and Russian involvement in the downing of MH17, the bizarre focus of Peters on a Russian free trade deal, and the ham-fisted attempt by the Government to first condemn the Salisbury attack without blaming Russia, then several days later finally managing to step into line with our allies and blame Russia, as well as Ardern's bungled attempts to spin away that foreign policy disaster - while a bad look generally for Ardern and Peters, isn't the type of issue that will sway votes, even if it has lead to some questioning within the beltway of Ardern's own judgement and Peters' motives.

What has been interesting is that the Russia saga played out over 11 days. If a day is a long time in politics, then 11 days is an eternity for an issue like this to run its initial course. There's possibly more to come in this space, which could start to erode voter confidence in the Government's foreign policy and security credentials.

Ron Mark's defence force flights and Jenny Salesa's ministerial spending are similarly both minor issues. In the bigger scheme of things both are relatively minor issues. While Mark hasn't handled the pressure being questioned about the flights put him under particularly well, Ardern did the requisite telling off of Salesa and unless it becomes a pattern of overspend, the matter will rest there.

One thing that will nag at Labour's recovery of support in the regions, at least in the top of the South Island, has been the Government's sluggish response to Cyclone Gita in Nelson and Tasman. It took nearly three weeks after Cyclone Gita hit New Zealand for the Government to announce any meaningful assistance for businesses cut off by the storm. And unlike the flooding in Edgecumbe, which prompted a Prime Ministerial visit from Bill English to see first hand what had unfolded, the residents of Takaka and the surrounding areas still haven't seen or heard from Ardern.

Not that anyone is suggesting a Prime Minister visiting is somehow going to magically undo the damage done by a given disaster, but it usually serves as both a way to boost morale in the affected communities, as well as to highlight the ongoing importance of the recovery to Government agencies to ensure they keep their efforts up.

The Green Party surprising everyone by gifting questions in Question Time to National has been an interesting issue to follow the reaction to. While it feeds the Opposition's narrative that not all is well and cozy on the Government benches, any consequential reaction to it seems to be more directed at the Green Party over it, both supportive of the move and in opposition to it. While headlines of the Greens doing a deal with National aren't helpful to Labour, it seems unlikely this will translate into the polls either.

Finally, there was Shane Jones' attack on Air New Zealand. It kicked off on Friday and didn't end until Ardern finally hauled Jones back into line during Question Time on Wednesday. Jones' comments caused some concern in both the beltway and business community, as did Ardern's initial backing of Jones. Outside of the beltway, Jones' comments will have played well.

Towards the end of the past two weeks Ardern was getting visibly frustrated with both media questioning and Opposition attacks. In part this will stem from this being the first time her Government has been hauled over the coals for a significant length of time. But no doubt a lot of her annoyance will come from the fact that most of the problems she's been having to deal with aren't ones that she's been responsible for, barring her poor handling of the Russia issue.

The rough patch is set to continue too. With the Select Committee submissions soon to be heard on the Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill, there will be a stream of negative headlines about the Government pushing that Bill through, as well as the Green Party's support for it. There's also lingering questions around Winston Peters' infatuation with Putin's Russia.

It shouldn't escape anyone's notice that New Zealand First, who are struggling badly in polls, have been the source of three of the issues that have dogged the Government in the past two weeks. Shane Jones' comments are perhaps the most interesting in this regard, as they point towards New Zealand First taking a much more vocal stand on issues that might not always sit well with the responsibilities and requirements of occupying the Government benches.

The good news for Labour is that with Easter fast approaching, and beyond that the beginning of pre-Budget announcements, the Government does have an opportunity to start setting the news agenda rather than reacting to it.

Labour and Jacinda surge in the polls

What an incredible two weeks in politics it's been! Andrew Little gone as Labour leader, Meteria Turei resigning as Green co-leader, and now polls from Newshub and a leaked UMR poll that show Labour has surged in the polls, and Jacinda Ardern has rocketed right up to be level pegging with Bill English in the preferred Prime Minister stakes.

Obviously Jacinda Ardern has been not just a circuit breaker, but a game-changer for Labour. Her ascension has hit the Greens at the same time that Meteria Turei's leadership was being called into question, and appears to have been a double blow that has caused the Green Party to shed support. At the same time, on the surface of it, it looks like New Zealand First has lost support to Labour too, with National only down 0.8 points in the Newshub poll.

At first glance I, along with many others, assumed that it was Jacinda Ardern taking votes off the Greens and New Zealand First. But the more I've thought about it, I'm not entirely sure that's the case. I can see why Jacinda would reclaim support from the Greens where she'd get back some of the former Labour supporters that Andrew Little had lost to them, but I'm still not quite sure why as much of New Zealand First's support would go her way as initially appears to be the case.

What I've since released is that there's another possibility, that it might be more likely that there's been a significant number of undecided voters in these polls who have come off the fence in support of Jacinda. My understanding is that these polls usually just report on decided voters, leaving undecideds out of the final numbers presented (though I'm not 100 per cent sure this is the case). What might be motivating the movement of these undecideds is that they perceive Jacinda as having the ability to not just to be a very capable leader, but also to transform Labour into a party they can support. They identify with her values, her identity, and her brand, in a way that they just couldn't with Andrew Little. 

I've arrived at this conclusion mainly because I can see there being two logical places for Jacinda to get already committed voters from - the Greens and National. The Green voters she'd get back are the disenfranchised Labour supporters who didn't rate Andrew Little, the National voters she'd win are those in the centre ground who turned out to vote for Helen Clark in 1999, 2002, and to a lesser extent in 2005, and who I think Jacinda has a very strong appeal to.

Given that National and Bill English's support hasn't budged much in either of the polls I linked to in the first paragraph, I think New Zealand First might be leaking its support to National. What I think is happening here is that conservatives who have gravitated to Winston Peters over the past year and returning "home" to National in the face of Labour's recovery. Jacinda, meanwhile is broadening Labour's support both at the expense of the Greens and National's centre-block, and bringing in those undecideds I already mentioned, so National's loss of support to Labour is masked to some extent by gaining back voters from New Zealand First.

At this stage it's all instinctual guesswork on my part, but I've asked Newshub's Political Editor Patrick Gower if he can shed any light on the matter, as Newshub's polling data bank doesn't reveal what the undecideds were in each poll. We'll wait to see if more details come out in the coming days.