Matthew Hooton: Poll slide a warning to PM Jacinda Ardern – and it could get even worse

OPINION:

This week’s leaked polls, from Talbot Mills on the left and Curia on the right, presage a close contest in 2023. Both show the gap between Labour-Green and National-Act within 10points and bridgeable.

That National itself still polls dismally is ultimately uninteresting. It will continue to underperform while Judith Collins remains leader and the party keeps offering no more than policy left-overs from the Bolger and Key eras mixed with nods to pre-1984 agrarianism, anti-vaxxer sentiment and general conspiracism.

Things should improve when the party establishment’s dream team takes over, most likely a Simon Bridges-Erica Stanford ticket, with Christopher Luxon in finance and Nicola Willis, Chris Bishop, Shane Reti and Louise Upston in prominent positions.

Real improvement will follow if the new lineup accepts the advice of National-leaning economist Cameron Bagrie that it must drop its “historical mindset”, and thinks carefully about what the alternative to statism, welfarism and growing demands for true Māori sovereignty looks like in the 2020s.

Once National takes mainstream voters seriously again, it will recapture some of the support it has lost to Act, including among voters under 40 where David Seymour’s novice crew has established a significant margin.

Far more interesting is this month’s plunge in confidence in Labour, Jacinda Ardern, the Covid response and the country’s direction generally. For the first time since the last days of the Clark Government, Curia reports more people saying the country is heading in the wrong rather than the right direction. The polling was complete before John Key went public warning of another looming economic crisis.

Beehive strategists are hardly admitting defeat but sound far less cocky than they did even a fortnight ago. Their own polling shows a sharp drop in the national mood and falling economic confidence.

Recent protests have been dominated by a hotchpotch of weirdos whose comparisons of Ardern with the worst mass murderers are as offensive as they as stupid. Ardern is not a Hitler, Stalin or Mao. But she is increasingly governing like a second-term Robert Muldoon or Helen Clark, which is surely bad enough — especially given what followed in their third terms, with moves like the Clutha Development (Clyde Dam) Empowering Act and the Electoral Finance Act.

A stench of bewilderment, detachment from reality, confusion and lack of candour has joined the old odour of incompetence that has surrounded Ardern’s Government since it first became obvious in early 2018 that it had no idea how to go about delivering its signature promise to build 100,000 KiwiBuild homes.

With a handful of exceptions like David Parker, the criticism that this is a government of student politicians rings true. It is not just that they don’t know how business produces goods and services to generate revenue to pay wages and returns on investment, but that most have never even thought about how the paper and toner gets in the photocopier in the university library, or how the campus gets cleaned at night.

In the face of Covid, they could shut everything down easily enough but have made a hash of anything operational and of opening up.

Business figures who spoke to her behind closed doors during her brief touchdown in Auckland say the Prime Minister demonstrated little comprehension of either the economic or mental health challenges the city has faced.

Clinicians at Middlemore Hospital, at the epicentre of endemic Covid in Auckland, are amazed that only recently have improvements been made to prepare for mass cases.

For her part, Ardern never told anyone her Government was moving from quarantining sick people in hospital or the Jet Park to self-isolation at home — until media noticed the numbers from the Ministry of Health didn’t add up.

As of yesterday, 1230 people with Covid were self-isolating at home, despite Health Minister Andrew Little saying the system was designed to cope with no more than 120. Most of those allowed to self-isolate are unvaccinated.

Despite this, Ardern persists with her Government’s cruel and unjustified lottery system denying tens of thousands of New Zealanders their rights as citizens to return home, even if they have already had Covid, are double-vaccinated and consistently test negative for the disease.

There remains no certainty about when internal borders will be relaxed, even though they are ultimately futile, with Covid Minister Chris Hipkins saying the disease will spread throughout the country in coming months.

Ardern’s argument that delay is necessary because of relatively low vaccination rates among Māori in their 20s and 30s and in Northland, Coromandel, the Bay of Plenty and the East Coast is reasonable.

But it only underlines that it was her Government that delayed the vaccination rollout and rebuffed offers of help from the likes of Whānau Ora, iwi organisations, local marae and other NGOs connected with communities that are unfathomable to privileged Wellington health bureaucrats.

Hipkins’ threat of restrictions on vaccinated people moving around New Zealand over summer — or being held up in traffic jams worse than ever known before, as the police search for unvaccinated passengers — remains on the table.

Labour’s falling poll numbers will hopefully wake up not just National but also the Government.

It has dramatically reversed its plans to ram through the three waters reforms, slowing things down with a new working group to be chaired by Wellington’s most accomplished Mr Fixit, Doug Martin, and consisting of its staunchest local government critics, along with iwi representatives hopeful of getting either greater ownership or regulatory powers.

But if Ardern wants to reverse her polling slide, she needs to get back in control of the Covid narrative sooner than her planned November 29 announcement of “pragmatic” changes.

She might start by immediately ending the anxiety over what will happen this summer, by ruling out the police searching every vehicle for unvaccinated people trying to leave Auckland in favour of an audit system — closer to how speeding or drunk driving are managed on the roads, but with even greater publicity and much bigger fines.

She could announce now, and give airlines and airports time to prepare, that double-vaccinated New Zealanders abroad, who consistently test negative, will be allowed to exercise their citizenship rights to return home from December 1 without restriction.

And she might make a proper visit to Auckland to understand the toll her indecision and dissembling is taking on the population, and that Aucklanders no longer care for her rehearsed expressions of concern from her now entirely unreliable podium of truth.

Her alternative, if she continues on her current course, is even worse news when the next polls are leaked.

– Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based public relations consultant.

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