Election survey shows widespread discontent

Thursday 15 June 2017

The Stuff.co.nz/Massey Election Survey identified significant levels of discontent. Our politicians have 100 days to rebuild faith, says Associate Professor Grant Duncan.

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The Stuff.co.nz/Massey Election Survey asked respondents if they trusted politicians and the political system. Many don't.

Last updated: Friday 3 June 2022

By Associate Professor Grant Duncan.

Only 100 days till our general election. And all across the democratic world, voters have given brutal lessons to politicians about complacency and arrogance. Discontented mid-west voters dealt to the Clinton dynasty. A surge in under-35 year-olds supporting Jeremy Corbyn denied Britain’s Conservative Party a parliamentary majority. Traditional left and right-wing parties in France have been demolished by a pop-up party. 

Are those in the Beehive today getting too smug and out of touch? Could similar things happen here?

The Stuff.co.nz/Massey University Election Survey asked questions that other polls don’t ask, to find out how much political discontent may be simmering in New Zealand. As a reader-initiated online survey, it is not calibrated to represent the population. For instance, ‘the discontented’ may well have felt more motivated to participate. But the number who completed it is an eye-popping 39,644 – over one per of the voting population.

So, let me give you highlights of the results.

About half the sample (and more than half of women and those under 40) opted for “a complete change of government”, even though Labour supporters were under-represented. Over two-thirds thought that the system of government itself is either “completely broken” or “working but needs to change”.

Only 23 per cent said we want a leader who won’t change things much. Forty-seven per cent said the mood of the country is “discontented” and only 23 per cent said “contented”. The older the age group, the more the respondents chose “contended”.

About half of the sample agreed that our political leaders are “out of touch with the people”. Only 21 per cent disagreed. Only 31 per cent agreed with the statement that “New Zealand is a land of equal opportunity”. More than half disagreed.

So, what could be underlying the discontent? The answers suggested by the survey are predictable, but strong.

Seventy-three per cent agreed that inequality is “too high and/or growing fast”, while slightly more (74 per cent) agreed that “there is a major housing crisis in New Zealand right now”.

Health, housing and environment (in that order) were the three most widely chosen issues likely to influence voters at the election. 

Immigration came in at number five, and respondents expressed reservations about foreigners. Fifty-five per cent agreed that the numbers of immigrants arriving are “too high”, and 53 per cent agreed that new arrivals should be told “do things the Kiwi way”. A whopping 72 per cent said that New Zealand should “strictly control foreign ownership of property”. These responses increased with age.

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Associate Professor Grant Duncan.

Young people hold the power for change

So, while this survey sample may not exactly match the voting age population, it points to a discontented constituency large enough to reshape the political landscape.The young feel they’re not getting a fair deal, and they are the most likely to highlight housing as the most decisive election issue.

Young people may not realise it, but collectively they hold the power for change this election. If they vote in much larger numbers, it’s a serious worry for Mr English. But Andrew Little shouldn’t be rubbing his hands with glee. Today’s wave of discontent can sever heads in both directions, as the French have shown.

The obvious thought is that Mr Peters may benefit from elder discontent. A vote for NZ First most likely helps National to stay in power. Our results suggest that Peters can exploit older people’s concern about immigration and diversity. In fact, he’s already started.

Political distrust need not be feared, though, if politicians listen carefully to public sentiment. The young worry about their future material and environmental security; the old about their health-care. 

But, at present, all of the leading parties, including the Greens, are crowding into the centre. They’re trying to be a mouthpiece for what they think the average voter’s opinion should be.

The more carefully managed the message, the less sincere it sounds. As the range of values expressed by the parties converges on the median, the greater the proportion of people on the margins who feel they haven’t been heard. And the belief that politicians don’t care about “people like me” may grow.

Every election is about trust, because voters are entrusting the nation’s supreme law-making and executive powers to their elected representatives. But, with a widespread mood of discontent, the 2017 election especially puts political trust into the spotlight. This means every candidate for office will have to earn that trust, from the door-knocking level up, and not take it for granted. 

Only 16 per cent of the survey agreed that “our political leaders care about the things that people like me really value”. And only 16 per cent agreed that politicians generally keep their promises.

Caring about the things that people really value. Keeping your promises. These are the absolute basics of democracy. Every candidate for this election should strive to rebuild our faith in political life. You have a hundred days to do it.

Associate Professor Grant Duncan teaches political theory and New Zealand politics at Massey University’s Albany campus.