With Labour’s commanding lead over National seemingly locked in, the remaining days of the campaign may become more about movement amongst the minor players, Sam Sachdeva writes

Perhaps National should try to sneak some party volunteers into the pages of the pollsters’ phonebooks, as well as Judith Collins’ walkabouts.

The latest weekly 1 News-Colmar Brunton figures brought yet more grim reading for the party: that a 15-point gap to Labour arguably qualified as a best-case scenario gives a sense of just how dire things have become for Collins and company.

After being outshone by Jacinda Ardern in The Press leaders’ debate, facing leaks from disgruntled colleagues and being accused of putting “plants” on the campaign trail, the poll news for the National leader could have been worse.

The party did drop, but just one point to 32 percent, while Labour did not manage to increase its own support, staying unchanged on 47 percent.

But National’s position may well yet decline. While the polling did run up from last Saturday until Wednesday night, Colmar-Brunton’s previous surveying has tended to be slightly front-loaded, suggesting the full effect of the week’s events may not be reflected.

During National’s last post-government slump in 2002, the party fell as much as several points from a similar point (although things would have to go downhill rapidly for Collins to reach Bill English’s low-water result of just under 21 percent at that year’s election).

Yet Helen Clark’s Labour also fell by a similar margin during the same period, putting a single-party majority out of reach.

It is premature to say Ardern will also fail to fully capitalise on her opponent’s travails, but Labour has certainly descended from the artificially giddy heights of its support during the country’s Covid-19 lockdown.

Minor parties positioned to pounce

So it is the minor parties where the most interesting action may be in the remaining days of the campaign, with some on the right positioned to pick away at National’s carcass and those on the left looking to stop Labour from having the next term of Parliament all its own way.

While there was minimal change amongst them too, the smaller margins for error mean each new poll brings an outsized impact.

The Green Party had looked to have staunched the bleeding after co-leader James Shaw’s Green School blunder – yet while it remains above the five percent threshold, dropping one point to six percent leaves it perilously close to danger given the party’s tendency to underperform its polls.

In contrast, there is the faintest glimmer of hope for New Zealand First. While at two percent, it is still some way short of safety, managing to somehow improve its numbers after the news of Serious Fraud Offices charges over the New Zealand First Foundation will put the shivers up those wary of Winston Peters’ previous political recovery acts.

ACT remained steady on eight percent, with the question now just how many friends David Seymour can bring into Parliament with him.

The three leaders, along with Māori Party co-leader John Tamihere and Advance NZ co-leader Jami-Lee Ross, had a chance to chip away support from the “big two” at TVNZ’s multi-party leaders’ debate that followed Thursday night’s poll.

It was easy to see why Seymour has managed to increase ACT’s vote. While National has flailed under its various leaders, he channelled Peter Dunne’s ‘common-sense’ approach of 2002 to the point where he could almost have donned a bow-tie of his own.

1 News political editor Jessica Mutch McKay ably helmed proceedings, keeping the politicians on a tight leash to prevent candidate chaos and not afraid to call out a fudged answer.

It was easy to see why Seymour has managed to increase ACT’s vote. While National has flailed under its various leaders, he channelled Peter Dunne’s ‘common-sense’ approach of 2002 to the point where he could almost have donned a bow-tie of his own.

“I’ve offered constructive criticism when necessary and made helpful suggestions where possible,” Seymour said of the Government’s Covid-19 response, arguing New Zealand needed to compare itself with the best in the world rather than the worst.

Of course, that this country’s response has indeed been among the best has been illustrated by Seymour’s repeated use of Taiwan as his sole exemplar during the campaign – but it is easy to see why the line would appeal to some voters, as well as his argument that politicians “have to live within the same rules as everyone else” when it comes to debt.
Shaw was somewhat less compelling, at points halting in his delivery and crowded out by the more irreverent speakers around him.

Yet he did distinguish himself from the others on some critical points, including when he mounted a defence of the need to provide more support for those on lower incomes.

“About three weeks ago, the New Zealand Stock Exchange had a record historic high … house valuations are up about 15 percent on average around the country over the same time last year, and at exactly the same time wage and salary earners saw the median wage drop by seven and a half percent – it was the first drop in recorded history.”

And in his opening remarks, Shaw delivered perhaps the most persuasive reason for voters on the left to peel away from Labour, particularly those sceptical of Ardern’s innate centrism: “If the Greens don’t make it back in, we do run the risk that one party will have the power – our planet is running out of time.”

Winston Peters’ New Zealand First may have picked up some support, but he offered up little truly new or persuasive for undecided voters. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Peters was his usually rambunctious self, bickering with Mutch McKay over the reliability of her network’s polls and bragging of “getting rid of” two previous SFO heads.

His comment that New Zealand had done “marvellously well” in its Covid response seemed at odds with remarks earlier in the campaign criticising the errors of “Labour ministers”, and perhaps reflected a realisation that he was better to stick close to Ardern’s stardust rather than push her away.

Peters was more than happy to go negative on Seymour, though primarily through litigating Rogernomics and other battles of the past.

New Zealand First may have picked up a little, but in its leaders’ arguments it was hard to see anything new or likely to persuade voters still sitting on the fence.

Tamihere seemed to be having the most fun, and had the best line of the night on whether New Zealand should become a republic if Queen Elizabeth II died: “Oh, look, God bless the Queen and all that stuff, but it’s about time: she lives 12,000 miles away for goodness sakes, the closest I’ve ever come to her is licking the back of her head on a stamp.”

But the Māori Party’s task is more complex: the party vote doesn’t really matter, with its parliamentary presence – or absence – instead contingent on being able to snatch one of the Māori seats back from Labour.

As for Ross and Advance NZ, the less said the better: he did little to dispel the argument that his party didn’t deserve to be on that stage as he made false claims about the fatality rate of Covid-19 compared to the flu. A Māori TV poll released the same night, showing co-leader Billy Te Kahika floundering on one percent in Te Tai Tokerau, helped to undercut Ross’ claim that Te Kahika was on track for success there.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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