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Do we need better leaders?
Two months out from election day and change is in the wind.
Lacking a fresh and juicy scandal to bite into last week, some pundits turned to the apparently low levels of support for the two potential prime ministers. Indeed, it’s odd to see the Labour leader, Chris Hipkins, ahead in preferred prime minister polls while his party declines below 30%. But still, at mid-20s, support for Hipkins isn’t stellar, and it’s coming mainly from dyed-in-the-wool Labour voters.
And, by the way, have you noticed that the Labour government has managed to get through two whole weeks without a single scandal?
National’s Christopher Luxon meanwhile has lagged behind Hipkins, below 20% (although the most recent Taxpayer Union/Curia poll has him level with Hipkins on 25% – so we’ll wait and see if that’s turning around). Opinion polls have repeatedly indicated that fewer Kiwis like or trust Luxon than Hipkins – and Luxon rates lower among women, unsurprisingly.
But the National-plus-ACT numbers hint that Luxon could become the next prime minister – with a razor-slim majority. His low approval ratings aren’t good news for National but, naturally, the disapproval is heavily weighted from the left.
Neither leader could be described as charismatic; neither has the ‘made for TV’ appeal that John Key and Jacinda Ardern had.
This is disappointing for the TV stations who present elections as if they were presidential contests – which they’re not, as we have a parliamentary system. The head-to-head debates between the National and Labour leaders have become staple diet for campaign season, but this time we have no celebrity to boost ratings.
What can be done to tart up these two competent but uninspiring white dudes called Chris? Not much; so don’t even try; people notice inauthenticity.
I expect there’ll be far fewer international journalists calling for comment on our election this year compared with 2017 and 2020 when the world’s media were following Jacinda.
(Anyway, I rather like the fact that the rest of the world doesn’t know and doesn’t care what we’re doing down here.)
The election coverage may have to concentrate more on policies this time, rather than personalities. That’s not good for TV perhaps, but is it good for the voters?
Personalisation of politics is a widely recognised problem. It means the persona of the leader overshadows or dominates the political party, its manifesto and what it represents.
This goes as far as leaders inventing pop-up parties that are indelibly associated with them. Examples include the late Silvio Berlusconi, Emmanuel Macron, Volodomyr Zelensky and our very own Winston Peters.
And then there’s Donald Trump – out there in a class of his own – who gatecrashed the Republican Party in 2016 and took over as DJ.
People are looking for strong or charismatic leadership – to the point that, if they’re not cowering in fear before a thug, they’re hoping for a redeemer. But redemption never comes; such hopes are bound to be dashed.
Charismatic leaders are polarising because those who adore them are matched by those loath them. The public become split by a collective love–hate relationship.
This doesn’t come about by some law of nature, however. We let it happen.
Maybe Kiwis could count themselves lucky, then, that the two main contenders for the post of prime minister are both rather ordinary. We could focus our minds on difficult, but unavoidable, matters of law and public policy.
With Labour having just announced two key elements of its plan to address the cost of living (removal of the GST sales tax on fresh and frozen fruit and vegetables) and a boost to Working for Families (WFF) tax credits, we’re seeing outlines of what could turn into a more policy-focused (rather than personality-focused) campaign debate between Labour and National.
Don’t miss out on the readers’ poll at the bottom.
There’s a new pollster in town. The Guardian has reported the Essential Report, which apparently will be monthly.
I’m always cautious and sceptical about polls, and, for those interested, there’s a methodological assessment of this one below.
First, though: Essential had Labour on 29%, so that’s three recent polls that have put Labour below 30. But the Essential poll includes 6.1% ‘undecided’. Based on those who did express a preference, National and ACT would get a slim majority of 61 seats, and NZ First would be on the cross-benches with 7 seats. But who’s counting chickens?
Opinion polling isn’t an exact science, and it’s only getting harder. The Essential poll looks relatively good, though, as they publish notes about their methodology: an online panel survey with ‘incentives’ (in cash?) for completion. After excluding those not eligible or not intending to vote, they publish the percentage of ‘undecided’ respondents. I wish others would do that.
Their data presentation is way better than the others, and I’d encourage those who are keen enough to explore their cross-tabs online. Their demographic breakdown doesn’t include ethnicity, so I’d ask how effective they are at polling ethnic minorities, and hence whether their comparatively low figure of 2.5% for TPM may be an underestimate.
Overall, the Essential poll is worth following. It’s good to see some new data and a higher standard of presentation.
Now for my big (totally unscientific) poll. All readers are welcome to have a say.