If the polls are to be believed, the major New Zealand political parties have surprisingly little to show for their attempts to tack right.
Labour Party leader Chris Hipkins has tried to move across to the centre by lighting a policy and budget bonfire, taking a trade-focused trip to China and batting away talk of wealth or capital gains taxes.
Yet a 1News Verian poll last week shows Hipkins has gained little from these dramatic manoeuvres and might even have slid backwards a bit.
National Party leader Christopher Luxon’s popularity may have edged upwards in the latest poll but his lead should be greater in an environment almost custom-made for his list of priorities: inflation, economic recession, crime and a seemingly never-ending wave of stories about government ministers in hot water.
In other words, Luxon also has little to show for his rightward tack on housing, farming, carbon emissions and crime – so far, anyway.
BusinessDesk’s poll of polls, which is an average of publicly available poll data weighted towards more recent polls, shows combined support for the two big centre-left and centre-right parties at 67%.
As TVNZ chief correspondent John Campbell points out during his analysis of their most recent poll, you have to go back to the second MMP election to see combined support for the major parties running so low, a time when the Helen Clark-led Labour party hoovered up 38.74% of the vote and a Jenny Shipley-led National took 30.5% of it.
This is not a trend restricted to NZ, either. Ian McAllister, co-author of the Australian Election Study, has been reported as saying combined support for both the major centre-right and centre-left parties at the last Australian general election hit a 35-year low.
Early on, there was also a belief among some within National and Labour that voters would shift towards one of the larger parties as we got closer to the election, but instead, the reverse seems to be happening. In BusinessDesk’s poll of polls a year ago, combined support for Labour and National sat at 71% but has shrunk since.
So why are both major parties doing so poorly?
After all, if the strategies of either party were working, you would expect Labour to make gains at the expense of National and National at the expense of ACT.
Funnily enough, Luxon once had a clear-eyed view of the reason for this.
In April 2022, he appeared at a Northern Club business event focused on India-related trade issues.
The main topic was trade with India, but he actually ended up facing a lot of questions about why he wasn’t talking more about co-governance and He Puapua.
Luxon said his job was to win the middle core of voters, not simply the 9% of people galvanised by such topics.
“Here’s the deal: if you’re sitting in my seat trying to win an election, there are 413,892 people that went straight from the National Party and Bill English, straight to Jacinda Ardern and the Labour Party at the last election.
“We sit here 18 months later and essentially every electorate voted for the Labour Party with the exception of Epsom – every single seat in this country.
“So if you’re sitting in my shoes, I want those 413,892 people to come back to the National Party, and therefore I have to focus very clearly on what matters [cost of living and housing] most to them right now,” Luxon said.
He also said he thought centre-right parties around the globe were only successful when they convinced people they cared about them.
“You’re worried about some other stuff, but actually, the average Kiwi, the everyday Kiwi, is sitting out there saying ‘Hang on, how am I supposed to manage this?’ Forty percent of them have less than $1,000 in their bank account to deal with a bad event.
“Because if you want to be a centre-right party, when I look all around the world and you ask why some of them aren’t successful, it’s because we project that we care about stuff, we don’t care about people.
“I can tell you I won’t win an election, and I won’t get the 413,892 people back that I want back by banging on about issues that actually aren’t the ones that matter the most, that move the boat.”
There is another factor to bear in mind: Sense Partners economist Shamubeel Eaqub’s theory that demographic change means the centre of politics doesn’t exist in the way we used to understand it.
If you look at population projections, the 2020 general election marked a turning point in demographics among eligible voters, where millennials overtook baby boomers as the largest demographic of potential voters.
Now, of course, being potentially eligible to vote does not mean you will actually turn up at the polling booth. Still, it marks a potential shift in political priorities among the electorate.
Another shift is equally notable: millennials might be the largest group of potential voters but other demographic groups are almost as large.
Eaqub’s argument is this has fractured the centre of politics and means you do not have the big core centre of voters you had after World War II and during the 1980s.
“When you’ve got a fractured population, there are a lot more fringe marginal voters who are looking for causes that relate to them,” Eaqub said earlier in the year.
“Those very large parties are trying to appeal to the masses, but the masses are fractured, so that’s the real chink in their armour: those very large parties do find it more difficult to be everything to everyone.”
The lack of a big centre group of voters leaves the larger parties with an unclear path to increasing their voter share – tack too far in one direction and you inadvertently bleed out a percentage of your voter base to someone else, potentially even to parties on the other side of the aisle.
This election will mark an interesting test of whether Eaqub’s theory is correct. So far, you would have to say his explanation seems to be the one matching most closely to the way things are turning out.