Mood of the nation: the haves and have-nots

By Jarrod Booker, Simon Collins, Yvonne Tahana


People from a cross-section of New Zealand society tell Herald reporters Simon Collins, Jarrod Booker and Yvonne Tahana how they are feeling going into the election

Kawerau's log processing yard is as busy this spring as it has ever been.

Despite the weak and jittery world economy, despite our devastating earthquakes, despite even the shipwreck of the Rena which threatened briefly to shut the nearby log export port of Tauranga, the mood in the logging yard is upbeat.

"As far as we are concerned, our work is pretty stable," says logger Mike Ruddell, 52. "Last year was one of the most productive years we've had."

Log exports to China are at record levels. Ruddell's boss Jacob Kajavala of Kajavala Forestry reckons the state of the country is very good "because the rest of the world seems to be going broke apart from China, and New Zealand isn't.

"Relatively speaking, I think we are doing better than most," he says.

His sense of relief, and cautious optimism, is echoed by a majority of 522 people questioned by the Herald in our fourth pre-election face-to-face "mood of the nation" survey of people in the streets and at shows and other public events from Auckland to Dunedin.

Almost half (47 per cent) of our sample rate the state of the country as "good" or better, up from 34 per cent in 2008 when world sharemarkets were imploding, although still not quite back to the optimism of the boom years in which the 2002 and 2005 elections were held.

Four-fifths (82 per cent), compared with 72 per cent three years ago, are plumping for at least "OK"- the mid-point of the seven-point scale we offered them.

And, as in 2002 and 2005, this positive tide is flowing over into support for the incumbent Government, and especially for its leader, John Key. Ruddell, again, reflects the mood.

"I used to be Labour but I've given up on the Labour Party. This time round I'm going to be voting National," he says.

"I don't like the Labour Party any more because of their leader [Phil Goff]. I like the National Party because they are doing a good job. I liked Helen Clark - she had balls. Goff's a whinger."

However, this year there is also a strong undercurrent flowing against the tide. A significant minority of New Zealanders have not been as lucky as the Kawerau loggers.

"Food prices for basic needs are high - milk and bread and butter," says 30-year-old nurse Priti Naidu of Papatoetoe, who rates the state of the country as "very poor".

"Clothes are so cheap but people don't need clothes. They need the basics - petrol, electricity, city rates. The basic needs are too high and the wages we earn here are not high."

In Dunedin Neville Dwyer, 60, has been unemployed since the recession started three years ago.

"I can't get a job anywhere," he says. "I'm good for nothing by the employers' estimation. I just have to resign myself to the fact that I won't work again."

New Zealanders are not blind to this polarisation. Dunedin plumber Peter Derbyshire, 49, says politicians "only think about the rich and not the lower classes".

"Everything has gone up but my wages," he says. "What about us?"

Matt Galt, 38, has seen both sides since he was injured while saving his infant son Lauchlan, now 2, when his Christchurch house was damaged in last February's earthquake. He had to give up his job as a chef, go on ACC's waiting list for treatment, and move the family to Auckland where his partner has found a job. "I've gone from being breadwinner to househusband," he says.

The family is staying in up-market Mission Bay until their home is repaired, but Galt shops, with Lauchlan on his back, a short hop away at down-market Glen Innes.

"The gap between rich and poor is getting bigger," he says. "On one side of the road you have $2 million homes. On the other side you have state houses."

Out in Manurewa, slaughterman Aloa (Joe) Toafa, 55, says the rich are getting richer while working families struggle to buy bread.

"There are too many beggars in the shopping centre," he says. "I've never seen that in my life."

This year's survey was squeezed into one week after the Rugby World Cup final to avoid it clashing with the nation's preoccupation with the game. The All Blacks' win has certainly helped the mood.

"We've just come off the back of a very good experience, which is the World Cup, and I think people are feeling good," says Wellington account director Andrew Smith, 45.

But with the Cup over, the economy is already back at the top of most people's thinking. Other issues that were important in past elections - race, crime, immigration, health and education - barely get a mention this year.

The focus on the economy plays to National's strength. Most people this year see National, and Key in particular, as competent economic managers.

New Zealanders share the Government's concern about the national debt.

"Private debt in New Zealand, that concerns me. Obviously borrowing concerns me, state borrowing," says Devonport salesman Grant Cowling, 47.

Brent Crawshaw, 37, who tutors unemployed youth in Thames, says: "I think we need to take a long, hard look at our spending - if you can't run a household or a business like that, how can you run a country? I'd seriously look at the social welfare system, which I thought National was going to do last time but didn't."

Those who have kept their jobs are relieved.

"We're in dire straits but there is still work coming in the door, but it's up and down. The wolf isn't at the door yet," says Taupo diesel engineer Steve Mepham, 65, better known as "Santa" on account of his long white hair and beard.

"I know people struggle, but my conditions are good," says Hamilton quantity surveyor Victor Snelius, 56.

Natural disasters, too, have played into Key's hands as people looked to a leader to rally around.

"We've had a lot of tragedies but I think John Key has managed them very well," says Wellington legal secretary Tracey Waterman, 43.

Kathie, 50, a Huntly motel broker, says: "I think that a lot of the disasters we've had have brought us together as a country."

As the Kawerau loggers suggest, Key's appeal extends across the social divide. Many voters gush with admiration.

Some use almost the same words that were used for Helen Clark at the same point in her premiership in 2002, reminding us that Key is still on his honeymoon with the electorate.

"I like Helen, she's down to earth," said Alan, a Hastings labourer and former gang member, in 2002.

"I feel more in tune with her for some reason," said 21-year-old mother Hariata Hetaraka then in Wanganui.

This time Nicole Manchester, an 18-year-old architectural technology student at Unitec in Auckland, is confused about which party Key leads but says: "I'll probably go with Labour purely on John Key, he seems quite down to earth.

"I listen to The Edge, he's done a bit of stuff for The Edge. He has a good sense of humour, he actually goes with it," she says.

In Christchurch, Maori bus driver Graham Norton, 52, is not sure how to vote but says: "John Key is doing a pretty good job, to be honest."

Social worker Jen Chapman, 32, is staying with Labour but admits: "I'm not sure how I feel about old Goff, though, because I actually quite like John Key."

Nigel Wilton, 46, a sober Hamilton finance officer, sums up: "We love John Key because he's a Kiwi bloke running a Kiwi country and he makes mistakes just like we do. He's one of us."

Kiwis also believe in a fair go, and after only three years most people are willing to give Key a second term to finish the job.

"I believe a party actually needs two terms to make a significant change," says Christiana Balmer, 22, a Bachelor of Social Practice student at Unitec.

Retired retailer Ishwar Patel, 65, of Royal Oak, says: "Three years time is not good enough for any party to govern the country."

In contrast, National's support is weakest among the minority of New Zealanders who have not managed to escape intact from the recession or the earthquakes.

Young Thames father Aaron Rycroft, 28, lost his job when he had an epileptic fit in the work wagon on the way home from work and now supports his wife Simone, 24, and daughter Gypsy, 2, on an invalid's benefit.

"I'm currently looking for work, but being an epileptic it's hard," he says. He's voting Green.

Dunedin homework centre supervisor Marie Laufiso, 48, knows "lots of people who are very poor and quite desperate". She's backing Hone Harawira's Mana Party.

Northcote security guard Chris Rowan, 37, works 148 hours a fortnight to earn $60,000 a year to pay the mortgage on a $500,000 house at Whangaparaoa and doesn't plan to vote at all.

"My wife works too, we can't afford to have children - how can you?" he asks. "I could sell my house, knock her up, she could go on the DPB and get a rental property. That would be fine because the Government would assist, but ethically I won't do it."

The main Opposition party, Labour, seems to be struggling to reach either this marginalised minority or the relieved and cautiously optimistic majority.

It has taken some extraordinary policy gambles to attract attention - raising the pension age, compulsory saving, a new capital gains tax, and raising the top tax rate from 33 per cent back to 39 per cent.

It has embraced popular causes that it resisted for years in office, such as raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, taking GST off fresh fruit and vegetables, scrapping tax on the first $5000 of income, and stopping state asset sales - although to be fair it is now more than 20 years since the party carried out the first privatisations in the 1980s and in its most recent term in office it bought some enterprises back.

Some of these moves are helping to shore up its core working-class and middling voters.

"Labour because of the minimum wage $15," says Toetuu Fatai, 39, who migrated from Tonga to Glen Innes this year and is waiting to start work for a caterer.

Teira Lambert, 21, working on a boat at Timaru, is voting Labour "because I want to start at $15 an hour".

Morrinsville meatworks knife hand Phil Hill, 35, didn't vote last time but says he is "more with Labour" this time. "The biggest thing they have got me on is taking GST off fresh fruit and vegetables."

Manukau dental technician Richard Neal, 31, voted Labour last time and is unsure this time but says: "I'll probably end up being Labour, I'm not keen on partial asset sales."

Its policy gambles have also won it crossover support from some long-term National voters such as Newmarket e-book publisher Martin Taylor, 53, and Wellington trader and sculptor Gerard McCabe, 54, sharing drinks at the cafe at Auckland's Regional Botanic Gardens.

Epsom voter Taylor, who gave his electorate vote to Act's Rodney Hide and his party vote to National last time, says National and Act have "lost the plot".

"The specific areas that the Labour Party has zeroed in on are exactly what's needed," he says. "The compulsory Kiwisaver, I'd go for that."

McCabe adds: "They have taken a stand which is more likely to engender a longer-term vision - their retirement age policy. While I may not like it, it is rational. They are biting the bullet. National appear to be saying and doing anything they think will engender votes now and 'I don't give a f--- about where the cards fall'. Holding power is their dominant aim."

Surprisingly only a handful of people, such as Hamilton teacher Steve Wood, 51, express any opposition to what might be Labour's most unpopular initiative, a capital gains tax.

"I'm a Labour Party supporter for 20 years but I'm not even sure I want to vote for them," Wood says. "We already have a capital gains tax in this country. It's the lowest form of politicking because it's the politics of envy."

But more worryingly for Labour, the general silence on its big policy gambles does not mean that they have paid off.

It simply means that, in the first week after the rugby, most people still hadn't heard of them or focused on them. This may have begun to change after the party unveiled its pension and Kiwisaver policies late in the survey period.

Many still see no difference between the two main parties.

"Labour and National pretty much believe in the same. I don't know, they are too similar," says Manukau artist and youth pastor Benjamin Work, 32.

"I'm a traditional Labourite but actually I'm thinking Labour or National, I think politically they are pretty close," echoes Remuera communications specialist Alistair Kwun, 36.

Even if they have heard of Labour's new policies, and like them, many are still not voting for them. Asked how he's leaning, Kawerau logger Charlie James, 29, replies: "National, because I voted for them for the last six or seven years, but Labour's got some good billboards out there - 'No GST on fresh fruit and vegetables."'

New Plymouth solo mother Julie Haskell, 46, has moved off the domestic purposes benefit (DPB) on to a student allowance and says "every day is an absolute nightmare" financially.

"Minimum wages need to go up, I think people need to earn between $15 and $20. I think GST needs to come off food, healthy food should be cheaper," she says. But she is still voting National.

Jan Hansen, 62, a Rotorua personal assistant, says: "I like some of the Labour Party policies so far. I think we do need to think about the savings, especially of young people... but I don't think the Labour Party leader is strong enough." She's voting National too.

Like Bill English in 2002, this is just not Goff's year.

"I probably would vote National but I don't like Bill English, I think he's too weak," said Christchurch sales assistant Mrs D. McMillan nine years ago.

This time very few voters even mention Goff, and if they do, not one has anything positive to say about him.

New Plymouth computer technician Brent Hall, 47, has voted Labour but is now going Green: "Phil Goff reminds me of Bill Rowling, he hasn't got enough oomph. Okay, he's organised, but he doesn't seem to be able to get his message across."

Carolyn, 67, of Dunedin: "I always vote Labour but I don't think Phil Goff has got any charisma. "

Instead, the only hope for the left in this election is that, like Hall, many Labour supporters may switch to the Greens rather than National, just as many National supporters did in 2002.

This is a fairly slim hope. True, 14 per cent of our sample are voting Green, but this number is inflated by the fact that our sample has more young people and fewer elderly than their actual numbers in the population. Our three previous street surveys consistently put Green support between 1.5 and 4.5 per cent higher than in the subsequent elections.

This survey does not have full information on how people voted in 2008. But only 10 out of 39 people who say they are switching from Labour to something else are going Green, compared with 12 switching to National, three each to Mana and NZ First, two to the Maori Party, two to other minor parties and seven still undecided or not voting.

On the other hand, Labour is picking up almost half (22 out of 50) of newly eligible voters and others who didn't vote in 2008 and intend to this time, and another seven of these are voting Green. Fifteen are supporting National.

National may lose 21 of its 2008 voters, but 12 of these are undecided or not voting and only four each are going to Labour and the Greens.

In net terms, the switchers and new voters put the Greens up 18 votes, National and Mana up 10 each and NZ First up three. Labour is down nine and the Maori Party down seven. These figures suggest similar net gains for both left (Labour/Green) and right (National), offset by uncounted deaths and departures.

The figures are also unreliable. Act, for example, registers a net gain of one vote from switchers and new voters, but that is because only three people (0.6 per cent) disclosed giving it their party votes last time, when it actually won 3.7 per cent of the vote.

Of course this survey also misses voters who have left the country in a net outflow across the Tasman that has numbered above 10,000 a year in every year since 1995, regardless of election outcomes.

Some of the most poignant voices we heard are from those who are thinking of following them.

Auckland nurse Penelope Wood, 59, will be there by election day.

"I'm off to Australia for three months because my profession doesn't pay so well here. I'll get at least twice what I get here, maybe 2.5 times," she says.

Joe Kaimanu, 53, of New Lynn, has been on the dole since he was made redundant as a machine operator and digger in 2008 and rates the state of the country as "awful".

"The main thing is the unemployment. That's why the people are going to Australia, because of the jobs," he says.

Nyomie Butler, 34, has brought her children home to her Rotorua whanau "to be with my grandparents and give them some culture". But her husband is still working in Australia.

"We need to buy a house, so the sacrifice is that we are apart and he doesn't get to be with his family 100 per cent," she says.

She expects it will take "maybe a year" for him to come home with enough for a deposit.

And down near Timaru, mine blaster Mark Cowan, 48, is just back from working in Australia and rates the state of New Zealand as "poor".

"The minimum wage is really low," he says. "My advice for a lot of people around Timaru is to get qualified and then get the hell out [of New Zealand].

"It's a shame, really."

- The Aucklander

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