Rugby joy short-lived, nation pessimistic

The mood of the nation is at the lowest point since the global financial crisis of 2008 – and New Zealanders' hopes for this year are bleak.

A survey to gauge our outlook reveals a steady decline in optimism over the past two years, as the global economy teeters and Canterbury recovers from a series of devastating earthquakes.

It follows a boost in spirits in early 2009, after the election of a National-led government in 2008.

New Zealanders were briefly lifted by last year's Rugby World Cup, 75 per cent rating their happiness as seven out of 10 or greater in October. By December it had fallen to 69 per cent.

Job satisfaction remains below its 2008 peak, at 80 per cent.

A special 20-year edition of polling agency UMR's annual Mood of the Nation has tracked Kiwis' spirits over the past two decades. A record low came in 1991, just after the deeply unpopular fourth Labour government left office and a severe economic recession engulfed the country, prompting National's punishing "Mother of all Budgets".

It improved considerably from 1999 to 2003, reflecting a new government, a popular prime minister in Helen Clark, high employment, and rising house prices.

A similar lift was seen between 1991 and 1995.

But Kiwis soon sank into the doldrums as a recession bit, relations between National and coalition partner Winston Peters soured, and the government's popularity dropped.

UMR also tracks happiness, and ratings have trended down since 2007, when 85 per cent of people scored seven out of 10 or higher. That year, at the tail end of the fourth Labour government which invested heavily in social reform, 42 per cent rated nine out of 10, compared to 23 per cent in December last year. However, it seems the mood will lift as an increasing number of people put their faith in an improvement in the economy, the health and transport systems, and the environment over the next decade.

Although our mood is low, we are more likely to be satisfied with our finances, housing and personal life.

Mindworks psychologist Sara Chatwin believes New Zealanders have been on a rollercoaster of emotion over the past 12 months.

"It was a year where we had amazing lows and an amazing high with the world cup. We were shocked as a nation over what happened in Christchurch, we were shocked about Pike River, and then were exuberant and exhilarated by the world cup."

AUT Professor of Sociology Charles Crothers said the nation's mood was more likely to follow economic rather than political cycles.

"What we have got is a doubling up of politics and economics at the same time. There may be separate economic and political cycles, but when they co-join it really has a cumulative effect."

But political leadership was also a factor.

"Reaction to leaders has its own cycle. People get a bit fed up with the leader. John Key has that feel-good factor, although he is losing it at the moment."

More than half of those questioned (58 per cent) over the past year believe the country is on the right track, down from a 20-year high in 2009 of 65 per cent. Hopes for the economy are especially gloomy as the effects of the Euro-debt crisis and the Canterbury earthquakes hit home.

After a largely optimistic 2010, only 38 per cent believe the economy will improve, and 42 per cent think it will get worse. Just 35 per cent expect an improved standard of living.

We are moderately optimistic about long-term prospects for the economy – 45 per cent believe it will be better in 10 years. And almost 50 per cent think unemployment will rise over the next 13 months.

National's law and order policies appear to have paid off – 40 per cent believe policing will get better over the next decade, up from seven per cent in 2010. More than a third believe things are looking up for the environment (up 8 per cent) in the years to 2022.

Sunday Star Times