Key battle lines drawn in early political poll

The next election will be fought on five key battle grounds, the first Fairfax Media/Ipsos political poll reveals.

* See the full poll results here.

The state of core services like education and health, asset sales, the economy, Prime Minister John Key's leadership and a growing sense of "us and them" are shaping up as the critical issues for many voters.

Next on their list are crime and the environment.

The poll shows New Zealanders are sharply divided over whether National has put the country on the right track - and they are also at odds over asset sales.

While most surveys show asset sales are unpopular, today's poll reveals a stark difference in opinion between those who think the Government is making a huge mistake - and those who believe it has no choice.

That explains why National has not taken a big hit in the polls over asset sales, despite their unpopularity.

Many of its supporters accept that asset sales are needed to pay down debt, and credit Mr Key for keeping us afloat while countries like Greece are plunged into crisis over spiralling debt.

National is on 44.9 per cent support in the Fairfax Media/Ipsos poll compared to Labour on 32.9. On those numbers, National would win a third term, assuming the same mix of support parties. But National is walking a tightrope over its handling of the economy, with just under half of those surveyed - 49.8 per cent - believing things are on the right track, compared with 50.2 per cent who disagree.

When asked to explain their answer, asset sales are prominent on both sides of the debate.

"Selling assets is what we need to do at this time," said one National voter we polled. "I'm against it, but it's the only way out." But others are angry.

"I just don't think the Government is listening to the people," says a Labour voter.

Pollster Duncan Stuart says for people who think New Zealand is on the wrong track, asset sales are part of a wider concern about foreign investment, and fear that the Government is selling out New Zealand values and sovereignty.

But for those who think New Zealand is on the right track, it is about the Government making necessary choices.

The poll also reveals rising angst over inequality, which many who think New Zealand is on the wrong track believe is getting worse. National's tax cuts - which shifted a greater burden onto GST and cut taxes at the top - get some of the blame.

The election is also a referendum on John Key's leadership, however - and that figures prominently with both those who think New Zealand is on the right track, and those who think it is wrong.

Those who support New Zealand's direction under Mr Key think he is forthright, visionary, and a good Kiwi bloke - but those who think he is leading us in the wrong direction think he is arrogant, divisive and working for his party, not the nation.

Fairfax Media