Opinion: Why do we need governments anyway?

Friday 1 September 2017

While people may distrust or dislike 'the government of the day,' they still rely on public services, says Associate Professor Grant Duncan.

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Voters want leaders whom they can trust to deliver public services like healthcare.

Last updated: Friday 15 July 2022

By Associate Professor Grant Duncan

Why do we need governments anyway? A common reply is that the duty of government is the safety and security of the people it represents. New Zealand is fortunate that external security threats are currently considered to be low. Natural disasters, in contrast, are a real and tangible risk. Our confidence in how well the country is governed is put to the test when there are serious earthquakes and floods.

In the Stuff.co.nz/Massey University Election Survey in late May, we asked you about the government’s response to natural disasters. Only 20 per cent of respondents ticked the ‘woefully inadequate’ box. Sixty-three per cent chose ‘good but could be better,’ and 17 per cent chose ‘very effective.’ We always want to do better for people in distress, so perhaps that’s not too bad as an expression of confidence.

But National supporters were much more likely to rate the government’s response to natural disasters as ‘very effective’ than Labour, Green and NZ First supporters – and vice versa for the ‘woefully inadequate’ option. Our evaluation of the effectiveness of civil defence and emergency services is not just a matter of how well they actually perform; it correlates with our political views about who’s in government.

While people may distrust or dislike ‘the government of the day,’ they still rely on public services. And not many survey respondents (only 13 per cent) went as far as to say that our system of government itself (regardless of who’s in office) is ‘completely broken.’

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Professor Grant Duncan says people may distrust or dislike ‘the government of the day', they still rely on public services.

There's discontent, but not enough to elect a Donald Trump

The Stuff.co.nz/Massey University Election survey asked how much the anti-establishment mood that shook the USA, UK and Europe recently could be a factor in our election. It confirmed that Donald Trump is unelectable in New Zealand. This survey and others suggest that only a small minority of New Zealanders – no more than 13 per cent – would have voted for him, had they been able to.

Nonetheless, the survey also revealed a significant degree of discontent and distrust – including many who are unhappy with the extent of immigration. Such opinions are especially prevalent among NZ First supporters. Thirty-six percent of them ticked Trump, while 29 per cent said the system of government is ‘completely broken.’ And two-thirds of NZ First supporters said that the government’s policies towards minorities are ‘too politically correct,’ compared with 39 per cent of the survey sample as a whole.

Populist discontent may boost NZ First’s election result above the 8.66 per cent it got in 2014. But, as I write, Mr Peters is asking who leaked personal information about his NZ Superannuation income.

And he’s not the only one to strike trouble. National, Labour, Greens and United Future have all hit speed-bumps. The opinion polls have bounced around, and three party leaders have stood down.

Some pundits anticipated a ‘pollquake,’ and it’s happened on the centre-left. Jacinda Ardern’s rise has energized many of those who were seeking change but lacked confidence in the alternatives on offer.

Public confidence in public services

The policy issue that matters most to New Zealanders, across the whole political spectrum, however, is health. Both major parties know this, and both have issued promises about public health. Health is followed by economic growth, poverty/inequality and housing.

In round two of our survey in early August, the overwhelming majority agreed that the public health system is ‘over-loaded and under-funded,’ poverty is ‘real and unjust,’ and the minimum wage is ‘too low to earn a decent living.’

Economic growth was ticked as a decisive issue by 63 per cent of National supporters – but not because they are worried about recession. On the contrary, 87 per cent of National supporters (compared with 36 per cent of Labour supporters) said they are confident that the economy will continue to grow.

This election will be influenced by voters’ perceptions of how we share the benefits of a growing economy, especially for those who need health-care, lack decent housing, or earn less than a living wage. 

Public confidence in public services, especially health-care, is a key issue, as it was in 1999. But voters are not in a mood to throw a spanner in the works – unlike 1993 when 53 per cent supported a referendum for proportional representation and radically changed our political system.

Law and order is a perennial concern, especially for conservative and older voters. So it’s no surprise that National replayed an old favourite called “Boot camps for young offenders.”

The kind of thing that really matters to most Kiwis, however, is whether grandma gets decent care, and whether young couples can afford a home to raise a family. They want positive change at that level – not radical change. They want leaders whom they can trust – leaders who will deliver materially better public services. 

Associate Professor Grant Duncan teaches political theory and New Zealand politics at Massey University.