The incoming government would do well to make a start by taking a long hard look at insights into public opinion revealed by Vote Compass, the interactive voter tool run by TVNZ and supported by academics at the University of Auckland and Victoria.
Pre-election, more than 400,000 New Zealanders used this civic engagement application to compare their views with the policies of all parties. The result is the most in-depth view of voter opinion that we have in New Zealand which, post-election, provides important lessons for the newly-elected Prime Minister and Cabinet.
Overall, the data also shows strong support for government action on large-scale, infrastructural issues that require time and money. The challenge for the new Government will be taking – and communicating – effective action quickly to retain the support shown by voters at the ballot box. And learning from the following will help:
Lesson 1: It’s not just the economy, stupid – the new Government must put health at the top of the agenda
The top issues voters were concerned about were (in order):
5. Social Welfare
Apart from the economy, there are core ‘people’ issues. There is a general sense that the state or public services are not providing enough care for people to live well and thrive. And this view did not change according to party lines – health care is still the second most important issue for National supporters.
Lesson 2: The new Government must take action on water pollution
Eighty-three percent of respondents said the government should do somewhat more, or much more, to reduce water pollution in New Zealand, with 44 percent specifying ‘much more’ in particular. Only 15 percent said the status quo was acceptable and only one percent said somewhat less. This indicates a clear desire for action, and again, it goes across party lines – 60 percent Act supporters, 73 percent National supporters and 87 percent NZ First supporters wanted more action on water.
Similarly, there is desire for action on other environmental issues too.
On the question of how much should New Zealand do to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions: 63 percent said somewhat, or much more. This includes 47 percent of National supporters and 51 percent of NZ First – and older voters too, not just the young – 55 percent of voters aged 65+; 57 percent aged 50-64. On the question – how much funding should DoC receive, 62 percent said somewhat, or much more.
Lesson 3: The new Government has support for restricting immigration
Despite the liberal nature of the views discussed above, when asked how many immigrants New Zealand should admit, there was more support for much less or somewhat less, with an average of 17.5 percent much less; 29 percent somewhat less; 36.5 percent for about the same as now; 12 percent for somewhat more; three percent much more. In other words, 46.5 percent of voters think New Zealand should reduce the amount of immigrants whereas only 15 percent think we should have more.
Lesson 4: There is support for increasing taxes on the wealthy
Most of these concerns are about infrastructure – despite the strong economy voters are beginning to see the downsides of growth and want action taken before it is too late. But building infrastructure takes time and money – taxpayers’ money – and voters do not normally like tax, hence National’s ‘Let’s tax this’ attack ad which was run in the final couple of weeks of the campaign.
Yet, on the question of ‘how much should wealthier people pay in taxes’, 37 percent said about the same as now, 57 percent said somewhat, or much more. Those saying more included 32 percent of National supporters; 64 percent NZ first; 80 percent Labour and 82 percent Green – no surprise there from the last two.
In terms of income – i.e. those who would end up actually paying more if taxes increased – of those earning more than $100,000, 31 percent said somewhat or much more; 52 percent of those on between $60,000 and $100,000 said somewhat or much more.
Lesson 5: There is desire for more action on the gender pay gap
Recent court settlements and media coverage have, despite National’s attempts to restrict further gender pay gap disputes, clearly cemented the need for action in the public’s mind. Fifty-seven percent somewhat agree and strongly agree that private companies should be required to disclose how much male and female employees are paid for the same work. Only 25 percent strongly disagree or somewhat disagree. Given this was a question about corporations and not the public sector, it suggests a strong appetite for more government action and leadership in the area of gender equality. It is 2017, after all.
Lesson 6: There isn’t strong support for increasing the refugee quota
Before we think New Zealand has moved to the left, overall 45.5 percent disagree that New Zealand should increase its refugee quota. Only 30 percent agree it should increase, again pointing to concerns about the country’s ability to cope with more residents. Even among young voters, 35 percent of those aged 18 to 29 disagreed with increasing our refugee quota.
Lesson 7: The new Prime Minister should lead – or allow ACT to lead – on developing new legislation to allow euthanasia
Sixty-eight percent of New Zealanders somewhat and strongly agree patients with terminal illnesses should be allowed to end their own lives with medical assistance. Even National supporters think this – 54 percent of National supporters somewhat agreed and strongly agreed. Only 22 percent strongly disagreed and somewhat disagreed.
Lesson 8: The country is divided on several other issues, leaving room for leadership
Whoever wins, there is divided opinion on other issues like free tertiary education, Māori language in schools, legalising marijuana and getting closer to the US and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). This presents challenges, but also opens opportunity for leadership in these areas.
Labour’s idea of introducing free tertiary education received a mixed response. On one hand, among overall respondents, 51 percent agreed and 30 percent disagreed. But among voters aged 18-29, 28 percent disagreed and only 58 percent agreed that government should fund three years post-school education for all New Zealanders. On the idea that all children should learn Māori language in school, 47 percent somewhat or strongly disagree, while 37 percent somewhat or strongly agree.
On the statement that ‘the personal use of marijuana by adults should be legalised’ 41 percent strongly or somewhat disagree, whereas almost identical numbers (42 percent) somewhat or strongly agree. There were also divided views on whether the government should develop closer defence ties with the US, with 38 percent saying somewhat or strongly disagree; 33 percent neutral and 28 percent somewhat or strongly agree. Similarly on whether NZ should continue to pursue the TPPA, 33 percent somewhat or strongly disagreed; 25 percent were neutral and 37 percent somewhat or strongly agree.
Where opinion is divided, it can present challenges as there is no clear steer from the public as to what they will accept. On the other hand, where there are large numbers of neutrals, as on foreign policy, this gives the newly-elected government room to show leadership and move neutral respondents into a more supportive view.
Overall: delivering better infrastructure is key and this government will not be an easy ride
Key concerns are about the infrastructure underpinning daily life – health, education, housing, water and climate change. Particular issues making progress include the gender pay gap and developing new provisions on new issues such as euthanasia.
This has been a turbulent election campaign in terms of changing leaders and changing polls. And even now the result has been decided through the ballot box, continued challenges – and opportunities – will present themselves for the new government.
Campaigns are often seen as the most challenging part of being a politician – but actually, it’s once you get into power that the real challenges begin. This new government has no room for complacency, or to simply deliver more of the same. And delivering better infrastructure will be key to its success.