'Completely broken'? Widening inequality fuels discontent among Kiwis

Complacency is something Kiwi politicians can ill-afford to ignore, in the wake of the UK and French elections. And the ...
HAGEN HOPKINS/GETTY IMAGES

Complacency is something Kiwi politicians can ill-afford to ignore, in the wake of the UK and French elections. And the Stuff/Massey survey suggests there may also be appetite for change on our own shores.

OPINION: It's only 100 days until our general election.

And all across the democratic world, voters have given brutal lessons to politicians about complacency and arrogance.

Discontented mid-west voters dealt to the Clinton dynasty. A surge in under-35-year-olds supporting Jeremy Corbyn denied Britain's Conservative Party a parliamentary majority. Traditional Left and Right-wing parties in France have been demolished by a pop-up party.

Are those in the Beehive today getting too smug and out of touch? Could similar things happen here?

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The Stuff.co.nz/Massey University Election Survey asked questions that other polls don't ask, to find out how much political discontent may be simmering in New Zealand.

As a reader-initiated online survey, it is not calibrated to represent the population. For instance, "the discontented" may well have felt more motivated to participate. But the number who completed it is an eye-popping 39,644 – more than 1 per cent of the voting population.

So let me give you highlights of the results.

About half the sample (and more than half of women and those under 40) opted for "a complete change of government", even though Labour supporters were under-represented.

Over two-thirds thought that the system of government itself is either "completely broken" or "working but needs to change".

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Only 23 per cent said they wanted a leader who wouldn't change things much.

Forty-seven per cent said the mood of the country was "discontented" and only 23 per cent said "contented". The older the age-group, the more the respondents chose "contented".

Leader of the Opposition Andrew Little may be encouraged by the survey's findings that more than half of people under 40 ...
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Leader of the Opposition Andrew Little may be encouraged by the survey's findings that more than half of people under 40 wanted a complete change of government.

About half of the sample agreed that our political leaders are "out of touch with the people". Only 21 per cent disagreed.

Only 31 per cent agreed with the statement that "New Zealand is a land of equal opportunity". More than half disagreed.

So, what could be underlying the discontent? The answers suggested by the survey are predictable, but strong.

Seventy-three per cent agreed that inequality is "too high and/or growing fast", while slightly more (74 per cent) agreed that "there is a major housing crisis in New Zealand right now".

Health, housing and environment (in that order) were the three most widely chosen issues likely to influence voters at the election.

Immigration came in at number five, and respondents expressed reservations about foreigners.  Fifty-five per cent agreed that the numbers of immigrants arriving are "too high", and nearly  53 per cent agreed that new arrivals should be told "do things the Kiwi way". A whopping 72 per cent said that New Zealand should "strictly control foreign ownership of property". These responses increased with age.

So, while this survey sample may not exactly match the voting-age population, it points to a discontented constituency large enough to reshape the political landscape.

The young feel they're not getting a fair deal, and they are the most likely to highlight housing as the most decisive election issue.

Young people may not realise it, but collectively they hold the power for change this election. If they vote in much larger numbers, it's a serious worry for Bill English.

But Andrew Little shouldn't be rubbing his hands with glee. Today's wave of discontent can sever heads in both directions, as the French have shown.

The obvious thought is that Winston Peters may benefit from elder discontent. A vote for NZ First most likely helps National to stay in power. Our results suggest that

Peters can exploit older people's concern about immigration and diversity. In fact, he's already started.

Political distrust need not be feared, though, if politicians listen carefully to public sentiment. The young worry about their future material and environmental security; the old about their healthcare.

But, at present, all of the leading parties, including the Greens, are crowding into the Centre. They're trying to be a mouth-piece for what they think the average voter's opinion should be.

The more carefully managed the message, the less sincere it sounds. As the range of values expressed by the parties converges on the median, the greater the proportion of people on the margins who feel they haven't been heard. And the belief that politicians don't care about 'people like me' may grow.

Every election is about trust, because voters are entrusting the nation's supreme law-making and executive powers to their elected representatives. But, with a widespread mood of discontent, the 2017 election especially puts political trust into the spotlight. This means every candidate for office will have to earn that trust, from the door-knocking level up, and not take it for granted.

Only 16 per cent of the survey agreed that "our political leaders care about the things that people like me really value". 

And only 16 per cent agreed that politicians generally keep their promises.

Caring about the things that people really value. Keeping your promises. These are the absolute basics of democracy. Every candidate for this election should strive to rebuild our faith in political life. You have a hundred days to do it.

Associate Professor Grant Duncan teaches political theory and New Zealand politics at Massey University's Albany campus.

A partnership between Massey University and Stuff, the Stuff.co.nz/Massey University Election Survey was designed to gauge the mood of the country as we head into the 2017 General Election. Its aim was to provide insights into the issues of importance to New Zealanders and to uncover any underlying concerns around leadership, trust and the political system. While the results are not scientific, a staggering 39,600 people took part. The survey findings will be the starting point for important conversations about the future of New Zealand, and we'll be running a series of stories based on the findings. Key issues will be put before political leaders at a series of election debates hosted by Massey, Stuff and the Wellington and Auckland Chambers of Commerce, to be held in August.

* Comments on this article have been closed.

 - Stuff

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