Occasionally, I get thinkpieces sent to my inbox from overseas with a different angle or perspective on things happening. This is the first I am publishing, from an avid follower of politics, here and abroad. Guest columns like this will remain anonymous unless the contributing writer requests otherwise.
Is Key as golden as he seems?
There’s seldom a week that goes by without a story running in one of our daily papers about John Key’s honeymoon as National Leader. With a few notable exceptions – for example, he received deserved criticism over his claim that Helen Clark’s trip to Washington was a failure because she did not return with a free-trade deal – the Press Gallery gives the impression that everything Key touches turns to gold. In contrast, it portrays Helen Clark as having lost her feel for the pulse of the New Zealand electorate and leading an Administration that is on its way out. The term “lame duck” has started to rear its head.
The release of every opinion poll is taken as validation of this storyline – the positives for National and negatives for Labour are magnified; conflicting evidence is brushed aside. The best example of this was the latest TV3/TNS poll: despite showing a slight Labour lead, it was depicted as bad news for Clark, because NZ First recorded a poor rating.
The only problem with this Key-has-the-golden-touch/Clark-is-on-her-way-out storyline is that the numbers simply don’t bear it out. This can be seen by comparing the latest opinion poll results with those taken in the last days of the Brash leadership. Taking an average of the TV3, TVNZ, NZ Herald and Roy Morgan polls, National’s average party vote support pre-Key was 44.8%; now, it is 44.0%. Labour’s average support pre-Key was 38.4%; now, it is 39.8%. So, Key’s leadership has had no significant effect on the two major parties’ polling support: if anything, National’s ascendancy in the polls has slipped slightly from around 6% to around 4%.
If the Press Gallery really wants to see what an Opposition Leader With The Midas Touch sticking it to a Lame Duck Prime Minister looks like, it needs only look across the Tasman. Kevin Rudd assumed the Australian Labor Party leadership a week after John Key took over at the head of the New Zealand National Party. His first four months in charge have been much more successful, polling-wise, than Key’s. Taking an average of the Roy Morgan, Newspoll and AC Nielsen polls, Labor’s primary vote support has moved from 39.7% pre-Rudd to 47.8% now. Meanwhile, the primary vote support for John Howard’s Liberal/National Coalition has fallen from 39.5% to 35.8%. So, since Rudd has taken over, he has converted a neck-and-neck race into a thumping 12% lead.
What about the Preferred Prime Minister stakes, you ask? It is true that Key has closed the gap on Clark. Her lead (over all her National competitors combined) has shrunk from on average of 16 percentage points (40% v 24%) to an average of 8 percentage points (39% vs 31%). What this shows is that Key is held in higher regard now than Brash was towards the end of the latter’s leadership; equally, it illustrates that Key has failed to discernibly dent Clark’s popularity: her average preferred PM rating has barely moved in Key’s four months at the top. Again, on this score, Rudd completely outshines Key. Pre-Rudd, John Howard had an average lead in the Preferred Prime Minister race of 24 percentage points – 53% plays 29%. Now he finds himself trailing Rudd by 7 percentage points – 48% plays 41%. That’s a dramatic turnaround, and goes a long way to prove that Rudd has so far been much more effective than Key in turning voters off their respective Prime Ministers.
None of this means that Helen Clark is assured of a fourth term in office. National still holds, on average, a small but significant lead over Labour. John Key has a year longer up his sleeve than Kevin Rudd to convince voters of the need for change. But the above numbers should give John Key’s cheerleaders in the media pause for thought. They should also take note of the Australian media’s restraint: despite Rudd’s impressive numbers, no Australian Gallery journalists I’m aware of have been willing to write off John Howard just yet. This is because Howard has come back from behind before. But, then, so has Helen Clark. We should all remember that the same Press Gallery journalists predicting doom and gloom for Helen Clark in 2008 are the very same people who were convinced in the final weeks of the 2005 campaign that Don Brash was about to become Prime Minister.
The Key juggernaut might be an alluring storyline, but so far the evidence doesn’t bear it out. To be sure, if you were to wager on one Prime Minister, out of Helen Clark and John Howard, still being in office when the next President of the United States takes over in January 2009, you’d be a fool to bet against the Kiwi.
Kevin Rudd: Assumed
leadership 4 December 2006
Roy Morgan 41.0/38.5 48.5/33.5
Newspoll 37/41 49/38
AC Nielsen 41/39 46/36
Average: 39.7/39.5 47.8/35.8
AC Nielsen 33/51 48/43
Newspoll 25/55 48/38
Average: 29/53 48/40.5
Assumed leadership 27
TV3/TNS 40/42 42/44
Roy Morgan 42.5/37.5 45/37.5
TVNZ/Colmar Brunton 49/36 46/37
NZ Herald/Digipoll 47.5/38 43.1/40.6
Average: 44.8/38.4 44.0/39.8
TV3/TNS 15/35 28/37
TVNZ/Colmar Brunton 28/33 29/32
NZ Herald/Digipoll 30.9/52.4 36.2/47.7
Average: 24.3/40.1 31.1/38.9