Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Newspaper Columns

Polls, Damned Polls


Any politician who says he/she takes no notice of polls is either a dilettante, or fibbing. An element of theatre is essential to good politics, and the practitioner needs polls to gauge audience reaction. In the end livelihoods depend on satisfying the spectators. In my political days we were always sensitive to polls. At first there weren't many but after Robert Muldoon became Prime Minister in 1975 they were taken more frequently. He studied their results in detail and became clever at manipulating the poll-taking process. He knew exactly when surveys were going to occur, and would try to engineer some event that would produce a favourable knee-jerk reaction. He'd invite an American warship before a poll. That always stimulated the wilder end of the peace movement to do something that Muldoon turned to advantage. Police raids on Bastion Point Maori protestors sometimes occurred just as polls were being taken. The Springbok Tour played a similar role. David Lange was probably the most theatrical of all our modern leaders. He had a fine eye for the dramatic gesture, but he soon lost his capacity to gauge audience reaction. In his later years I remember him poring over poll results at cabinet and caucus, trying hopefully to detect trends helpful to his increasingly lonesome battle against the rest of his cabinet. Helen Clark's government doesn't rely on outside polling; it spends lots of our money gauging audience reaction. Lange once dismissed his internal critics as "poll-driven fruitcakes". The present government has mastered the baking. They always try to calculate the effect of any decision to the last decimal point.

But it's one thing to keep polling, and quite another to know what, precisely, the results are telling you. The best poll reader in my time was Richard Prebble. He was able to get inside the figures and detect the trends. He saved the Lange-Douglas government on several occasions. The Clark-Cullen government seems to have lost their earlier skill at interpreting polls. There is one fundamental that they keep overlooking: to persist with conduct when it starts to grate with voters is foolish. Ever since the 2005 election Labour's audience has been drifting away from the theatre. A significant number of former Labour voters have now turned off tax and spend policies. Instead of 5% of taxpayers feeling the pinch of Labour's top marginal tax rate of 39%, more than 12% now pay it. That's a sizeable number of people who are looking more carefully at what Labour is achieving when it spends our money. Hospital waiting lists haven't dropped noticeably, although 40% more is now spent in that sector than in 1999. Indeed, productivity within hospitals has fallen. And it has taken an age for the government to acknowledge, much less fix, the deficiencies with NCEA. Worse, despite huge spending on social workers, crisis intervention teams and counselors, problems within the world that John Key labelled "the underclass" keep multiplying. Gangs now seem to run parts of our country. And to cap it all, economic growth that can do more for lower income people than anything else is slipping, while inflation remains higher than necessary. Some voters take time to realize that their money is being wasted, but they become very resentful once they realize what is happening.

The danger sets in for a government when it ignores the public's message for too long. Allowing Michael Cullen to repeat the mantra "no tax cuts" again this year was one step too far. A perception has set in that he'll find hard to shake: he knows best and won't listen either to economic experts or to the wider public.

Catastrophic poll collapses can occur for a variety of reasons. While Lange himself kicked his party's ratings down the stairs in early 1988 when he fell out with his Minister of Finance, Helen Clark has ended up with the same result because she didn't take a grip on her stubborn financial wizard. Once down in the polls, it is deadly to stay there long. Bad polls become self-reinforcing. The public adjusts its expectations to a new government waiting in the wings. It's now too late to expect that re-arranging ministers can rescue Labour. A new Minister of Finance who listens to the people and sets out on a new tangent just might lift their fortunes. But if something radical doesn't occur soon, or a major side-show emerge that takes the spotlight off this very tired ministry, the polls will stay down. Worried Labour insiders will start looking for another star.