The gap between rich and poor is by far the biggest issue facing New Zealand three weeks before election day, a new poll has found.
The Roy Morgan Research poll of 966 people in July and August shows that concerns about inequality and other social issues have increased dramatically as worries about jobs and the economy have waned in the past three years.
Almost a fifth of New Zealanders (18 per cent) now say poverty, the gap between rich and poor or the imbalance of wealth is now "the most important issue facing New Zealand", up from just 4 per cent in the equivalent poll just before the 2011 election.
Correspondingly, those who said the economy, financial crisis, recession, inflation or the exchange rate was the most important issue facing the country have dwindled from 23 per cent in 2011 to just 9 per cent - although that is still the second-highest bundle of issues named by voters.
Those who said the biggest issue was unemployment or job security also dropped, from 9 per cent in 2011 to 6 per cent in the latest poll, now the fourth-highest issue behind one described as "government/politicians/leadership/government spending" (7 per cent).
While most other mainstream polls have stopped asking voters about the issues that concern them most, the Morgan poll still asks two open-ended questions: "What do you think is the most important problem facing New Zealand today?" and "What do you think is the most important problem facing the world today?"
People could use their own words to nominate any problem that concerned them, and Morgan analysts then coded their answers into categories.
At the broadest level, it found that the proportions naming "economic issues" including poverty and inequality declined from 49 per cent in 2011 to 41 per cent this month, while those naming "social issues" rose from 18 per cent to 24 per cent.
"Environmental issues", including the Christchurch earthquake recovery, other natural disasters and the Rena oil spill, shrank from 19 per cent in 2011 to just 6 per cent, but concerns about "Government and public policy issues" rose from 4 per cent to 19 per cent. Polling was largely completed before publication of Nicky Hager's book on Dirty Politics.
If poverty and inequality are counted as "social" rather than "economic" issues, then concerns about all social issues almost doubled from 22 per cent in 2011 to 39 per cent, while concerns about more narrowly economic issues almost halved from 45 per cent to 26 per cent.
Other "social" issues of concern included "social apathy/lack of values/lack of empathy/intolerance" (up from 3 per cent in 2011 to 5 per cent), "child abuse/lack of care of children/bringing up children wrongly" (down from 5 per cent to 3 per cent), "crime/law and order" (also down from 5 per cent to 3 per cent) and "youth issues such as behaviour, pregnancy, crime, drinking, drugs and lack of discipline" (up from 2 per cent to 3 per cent).
Otago University political scientist Dr Bryce Edwards said the poll showed surprisingly little concern about the economy.
"We have all expected the economy to be the main election issue. That's certainly the main thing we've been talking about for the last three or four years, especially since the global financial crisis, yet there are few people picking the economy as the main issue going into the last three weeks of the campaign," he said.
"I guess that reflects the fact that to some extent the politicians are not talking about economic issues as much as I would have expected."
He said Labour and the Greens were also talking less about poverty and inequality during the campaign than they did over the past three years.
He said the Roy Morgan poll was generally more volatile in party support results than other polls. Its latest poll gave National 48 per cent, Labour 27.5 per cent, Greens 11.5 per cent, NZ First 6.5 per cent, Internet Mana 2.5 per cent and the Conservatives and Maori Party both 1 per cent.
"So yes, there is a bit of unreliability about individual polls from Roy Morgan because they jump around a bit, but I think they are still a serious agency," he said.
The telephone poll covered New Zealanders aged 14 or over and quotes a margin of error of between 1.4 per cent and 3.2 per cent.
Top issues facing NZ
1. Poverty/gap between rich and poor/imbalance of wealth: 18%
2. Economy/financial crisis/recession/inflation/exchange rate: 9%
3. Government/politicians/leadership/government spending: 7%
4. Unemployment/job security: 6%
5. Social apathy/lack of values/lack of empathy/intolerance: 5%
6= Cost of living/prices/financial hardship/debt: 4%
6= Education: 4%
6= Housing shortage/housing affordability: 4%
9= Child abuse/lack of care of children/bringing up children wrongly: 3%
9= Crime/law & order: 3%
9= Youth issues, e.g. behaviour, pregnancy, crime, drinking, drugs, lack of discipline: 3%
Source: Roy Morgan Research, Aug 2014