'Polarising' PM losing gloss

TRACY WATKINS AND KATE CHAPMAN
Last updated 05:00 29/07/2012
JOHN KEY
GRAHAME COX
According to National Business Review, John Key is worth $50 million.
John Key
EMMA ALLEN/ Fairfax NZ
John Key

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A new poll has found Prime Minister John Key is increasingly becoming a polarising figure - especially among women.

The first Fairfax Media/Ipsos political poll shows National has enough support for a third term, 44.9 per cent to Labour's 32.6 per cent, assuming the current mix of support parties. But it also reveals a growing divide, with many still strongly backing Key, but a growing sense of anger and distrust among others.

Interviewers asked 100 people to describe Key in as few words as possible. The pollsters said many voters rated him a straight-shooter and good or excellent leader, but a significant number thought he was arrogant, smarmy and out of touch.

Key still has the confidence of an overwhelming majority - 63 per cent saying he had a clear vision for the country, and was a strong and effective leader.

But the poll cuts across the popular view that Key is not polarising in the way his Labour predecessor Helen Clark, who sparked strong feelings among her opponents, was.

Asset sales could be driving the mood, with the survey revealing a New Zealand hugely divided over the issue.

Among the 49.8 per cent of people who think the country is on the right track, 86 per cent of them are National voters, and nearly half think the right economic decisions are being taken, with asset sales a part of that. But among the 50.2 per cent who think we are on the wrong track, asset sales and foreign ownership were hugely emotive, and sparked strong opposition.

Left wing commentator Bryce Edwards said there was a noticeable hardening in attitudes against Key, in line with the perception of a growing ideological divide with the Left, which opposes the sales.

"I sense more hostility towards him than there was, but I get the sense it's among those who are predisposed to be against him."

But after a year with the headlines dominated by asset sales, ACC, Nick Smith's sacking, class sizes and the economy, Key is even losing his gloss among National voters, with one in four saying they hold a worse opinion of him than a year ago.

The number for voters generally, is even higher - 45.3 per cent feeling more negative about Key, compared with 14.2 per cent who view him more favourably. This will sound warning bells within National, which leans heavily on the Prime Minister's appeal.

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Political scientist Raymond Miller said National was hugely dependent on Key's leadership, and that showed when he attempted to adopt a more "hands-off managerial style" in the first months of National's second term.

"I think he sensed it wasn't working, and he was getting off-side with a lot of voters and was subjected to a fair amount of media criticism.

"He's become more assertive in the past few months, he's taken a more aggressive line."

Women were quickest to fall out of love with Key - also worrying for National, which has capitalised on his appeal to females as a softer face for a party traditionally seen as flinty.

Women were also more likely to feel anxious about their own prospects, and unhappy about the country's direction.

Before the last election, polls showed around 50 per cent of women supported National, but that is down to 39 per cent, the 1000 interviews done as part of the poll often returning to education and asset sales as reasons why Key has the country on the wrong track.

The poll reveals women worry not enough money is being put into education, about class sizes, that early childhood education has gone backwards, and that the quality of what is being taught is poor.

WHAT WOMEN SAY

Celia Wilson liked what she saw of John Key after the 2008 election and had no qualms about voting for him in 2011. But now she is not so sure about National.

It is not just that everything seems to have gone wrong since it got into power - she is looking for someone to spread some hope.

"I think we need someone to come in with the gift of enthusiasm and give more direction and hope. I don't think there's enough hope about," says the 59-year-old.

The first Fairfax Media/Ipsos Political Poll highlights the creeping loss of women such as Wilson from National's support base since it first swept into power in 2008 - a victory which came partly on the back of Key's huge appeal to female voters, who saw in him a softer face than National had previously presented.

The poll shows National's support among female at 39 per cent. Comparisons with similar polls in 2011 suggest that has slipped from around 50 per cent.

Wilson, who can't work because of a heart condition, says she thought Key did an “excellent job" as prime minister in his first term and struggles to put her finger on what's changed.

"Situations seem to consistently go wrong... I mean, he's not a magician, I understand that, but ..."

She worries that, for a little country, New Zealand has been rocked by more than its share of disasters and questions whether the Government has a clear plan, particularly in Christchurch: "I just don't know whether they've got a road ahead which is pictured firmly in the minds of the people and with the people trying to organise it."

But she is not convinced by Labour leader David Shearer either.

"That's the problem; there isn't anybody that [I want to vote for] and I think that David Shearer's too new to shine."

The fall in female support for National appears to correspond with heightened levels of anxiety around the Government and New Zealand's direction in general among women, compared with men.

Nearly 30 per cent of women questioned were anxious and unhappy about the direction the country was heading in under National and that corresponded with concern about their own lives.

But the Government's handling of education, particularly class sizes, may also be a factor in giving some women voters second thoughts, with education cited by some respondents concerned the country was on the wrong track.

One female teacher surveyed for our poll, who did not want to be named, says she has voted National all her life. But she was disillusioned by Hekia Parata's move to increase class sizes, a move which was later reversed after damaging fallout.

"Even though they've backtracked and said it's not going to happen I just can't 100 per cent trust that it's not going to."

She also worries about the direction in other areas like health services.

But there is no way she will vote for Labour so does not know what she will do at the next election, says the 38-year-old.

"Being a teacher, I see a lot of kids whose families obviously struggle and that's a concern to me, for sure, because I don't want my kids turning up to school without breakfast."

The loss of National's female support is a trickle, rather than a flood. But it comes as its wider support is also gently eroded. Most polls show National trending down, even if by only a few points.

And while, on the surface, the Government remains hugely popular at around 45 per cent in the polls, Key is becoming increasingly polarising, in the same way as Helen Clark between her second and third terms, though the anti-Key feeling is clearly not yet as visceral.

Pollster Duncan Stuart says that, while many New Zealanders admire Key, and rate his business skills as an asset, others see him as out of touch and arrogant.

"He rates well [at 63 per cent agree] for having a clear vision for New Zealand, and 63 per cent for being a strong effective leader - but is Key working primarily for the interests of all New Zealanders? This is where he has a perception problem. The result is split," Stuart says.

When asked to rate Key, the two words most used were "good, and excellent", suggesting he still has the trust of many New Zealanders. But the next biggest category of words and phrases used were what the pollsters lumped in the "derogatory" category - ranging from swearing to insults such as "dickhead".

And while the next group of people after that rated Key as down to earth, hard working and straight shooting, a large number also said he was untrustworthy, dishonest, arrogant, smarmy and out of touch.

That is surprising because most commentators and experts rate Key's "everyman" touch as the most potent factor in National's success.

Political scientist Raymond Millar says Key is not polarising in the way that his predecessor, Don Brash, was. Clark was also polarising, in the sense that National supporters held very strong feelings against her, says Miller.

But even those who are not National Party supporters are prepared to concede Key has "some positive features about him".

"He has the ability to understand what the average voter feels and wants. He sees politics as a practical business and he's a very pragmatic leader. He's not an inflexible politician by any means."

But Left-wing commentator and academic Bryce Edwards wonders whether Key is losing his common-man appeal.

"His greatest skill has always been his anti-politician nature... drinking the beer at the barbie, saying the things we don't expect politicians to say, appearing like one of us and playing on his roots, coming from a state house, wearing the T-shirts and playing the volleyball games. These days it seems to me that John Key is making a much greater attempt to be a statesman... maybe it's a necessary strategy on his part but it's the wrong one."

Edwards says he has picked up on some hardening in attitudes towards Key but that is predominantly among those who were already predisposed against National. And while he did not agree with the notion that National's second-term agenda had opened up a wider ideological gap with Labour, that was certainly the perception, Edwards says.

That was likely to see anti-Key feelings harden among non-National voters: "Certainly there is a feeling that they are much further apart than ever before and there is much greater ideological polarisation going on."

Most New Zealand leaders become polarising over time, due to the nature of the electoral cycle and voters' inclination to give governments three terms, after which they tire of them and are in the mood for change.

Clark became extremely polarising, despite continuing to rate highly in the preferred prime minister stakes right up till Labour lost power in 2008.

Edwards says people lost faith in her being "one of us" and that is what Key has to guard against.

"She seemed remote, she seemed unaware of what everyday people thought important. It wasn't that she became unpopular but people didn't think she was in touch with the electorate. And I do wonder whether John Key is suffering that same fate of that disconnect. It's not that people necessarily dislike him more but I am seeing people who think he's a bit more aloof from the public."

That seems far-fetched to National voter Tony Smith, a firm fan of the prime minister.

He met Key close up when the prime minister turned up to help with a community project run by his local church.

"Rather than waltzing in with an entourage taking a few photographs and a handshake, he spent an hour or two with a shovel and wheelbarrow helping rather than posing."

Smith, a civil engineer who recently shifted his family down to Christchurch, said he was a committed National voter but, even if he had been a 50:50 swing voter at the last election, he would not have seen anyone credible in Labour's lineup.

But he admits he is torn over asset sales.

"[Selling] things that actually deliver a real result to the country like power companies - I still struggle with it [but] you do the maths, ABC, the numbers add up. If you get to the point where you can't afford to pay for basic stuff - welfare, retirement incomes - we will never get ahead. I've taken a hard choice [though] saying that the majority of voters voted for asset sales is, I think, a long bow."

And there's the rub, admits retired widower Ross Campbell.

The 80-year-old, who lives in a "modest bungalow" in Christchurch with dog Charlie, says he voted Labour at the last election but is now leaning towards National.

"John Key gives the impression that he has got things in perspective. Although we all know that the country is in dire straits but, with a guy like him who can make millions in his own right, I feel that he is the best one."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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