National no longer a sure winner

TRACY WATKINS AND ANDREA VANCE
Last updated 05:00 20/02/2013

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The next election could be a cliffhanger.

Today's Fairfax Media-Ipsos political poll shows Labour leader David Shearer shaking off a torrid first year in the leadership, and inching into contention to lead the next government, despite continuing doubts about his performance.

But National's support is still holding up, and it is only a lack of obvious allies that puts its prospects of a third term on a knife edge.

Today's poll puts National on 44.9 per cent - 1.3 percentage points down on our last poll in December, and back to where it was last August.

But the big story is Labour's slow rise under Mr Shearer. The party is up 1.9 percentage points to 36.3 per cent, 3.7 per cent higher than in August.

The rise comes despite dissent within the ranks, heavy criticism of Mr Shearer's leadership style, and a leadership challenge, all within his first year on the job.

Labour has now closed the gap with National to just 8.6 percentage points, compared with 20 points on election night in 2011. With Labour allies the Greens making up the shortfall on 10.7 per cent, the poll points to a much tighter race in 2014.

On today's numbers, it would be a dead-heat between a National-led bloc and a Labour-led bloc in a 122-seat Parliament.

That is a big concern for Prime Minister John Key, whose current allies the Maori Party, ACT and UnitedFuture are unlikely to return in numbers, if at all.

NZ First is below the 5 per cent threshold - though no-one is writing it off yet - while the Conservative Party is next on 1.6 per cent, ahead of Mana, the Maori Party, ACT and UnitedFuture.

Mr Shearer took a gamble demoting leadership rival David Cunliffe after a stormy Labour Party conference late last year, but it appears to have paid off with voters. But the questions over his performance remain and some Labour MPs are believed to have withheld their vote of confidence in a secret leadership ballot this month.

Mr Key, meanwhile, may have made a mistake hanging on to Education Minister Hekia Parata.

She has become one of his biggest liabilities, with a majority of voters questioned for today's poll of the view that he should have dumped her.

The backlash against a string of bad calls in her education portfolio is strongest in Christchurch, where she and her officials initially mishandled school closures.

With the election probably still at least 18 months away, the big battleground will be for undecided voters, who made up 11.1 per cent of those surveyed.

Pollster Duncan Stuart said a breakdown of undecided voters suggested many were "soft" National supporters, who had started looking around.

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KEY SHOULD HAVE AXED PARATA - POLL

Education Minister Hekia Parata is rapidly turning into political public enemy No 1.

In today's Fairfax Media-Ipsos poll, almost 60 per cent of respondents believe Prime Minister John Key should have sacked his seventh-ranked minister in last month's Cabinet reshuffle.

That rose to 70 per cent among voters from Canterbury, where on Monday she announced a proposal to close or merge 19 schools.

Yesterday, more than 1500 school supporters delivered a motion of no confidence in Ms Parata's record to date to the Education Ministry's offices in Christchurch. It followed an NZEI rally in the city.

The dismal public rating comes after a series of political calamities. A plan to increase class sizes was met with derision last year, and resulted in a backdown.

A failure to deal with the ongoing problems with the Novopay payroll system saw criticism heaped on her - and Education Secretary Lesley Longstone quit. Ms Parata was further humiliated when Mr Key gave responsibility for the debacle to senior minister Steven Joyce.

Government proposals to close a residential school for disabled girls in Nelson were overturned by a High Court ruling in December.

The official announcement on Christchurch schools on Monday also infuriated some teachers and parents.

The poll, taken before Monday's official announcement, shows 59.8 per cent believe Mr Key should have removed her from the education portfolio. Women were more likely than men to want her sacked. Just over 18 per cent didn't know or couldn't say.

It follows a Colmar Brunton/TVNZ poll this week in which 59 per cent of voters polled believed Mr Key made the wrong decision by keeping her in the role.

She was undaunted by the poll results. "In education there are always challenges," she said.

"I am focused on renewing the education sector in Greater Christchurch and improving educational outcomes for every child in New Zealand."

- Fairfax Media

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