Rebuilding Better: New poll reveals most important issue for New Zealanders

NZ Herald

A new Herald poll shows that cost of living is by the far the most important issue for New Zealanders right now, well ahead of climate change, crime and Covid-19.

But the polling also showed despite the increasing cost of essentials and two years of Covid-19, New Zealanders were largely optimistic about the coming 12 months.

The survey, conducted in mid-October, came amid turbulent times, including the death of the country's longest-reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. But they were not enough to sway the nation one way or the other on whether New Zealand should remain with the monarchy or split for republicanism.

Charities that work directly with some of the most disadvantaged and marginalised people say the rising cost of food, petrol and other basics has increased demand for their services while advocates say more needs to be done to help those in need.

Kidscan founder Julie Chapman said an additional 10,000 school students need food support compared with this time last year, the largest year-on-year increase on record.

"It was a real shock … it is completely connected [to the cost-of-living]."

Meanwhile, Natalie Vincent from microloan non-profit Ngā Tāngata Microfinance says for the first time, wage-earning and partial wage-earning clients outnumber beneficiaries.

"It's quite alarming."

The poll is part of a major new Herald series launched today, The New New Zealand: Rebuilding Better. The project will examine our long-standing social and economic issues and how, after more than two years of Covid-19 disruption, we can address them and begin rebuilding a better New Zealand.

The series will examine several issues, including economy, health and social division, through the lenses of equity and climate to ensure our plans for the future are sustainable and support all New Zealanders.

Researcher and writer Max Harris, who will be a contributor to the series, said we had an opportunity now to address long-standing issues in Aotearoa by applying the lessons learned during the Covid-19 outbreak.

"At the start of the Covid period, there was a willingness to ask big and probing questions about the economy and society … how much has actually changed in that two years and is there still a political and social willingness to ask and answer those questions?"

They were question like – have we valued essential and low-income workers enough in the economy? Is there more we could do to protect our collective public health and ensure the most marginalised people in our community are not most affected by future pandemics and crises?

"The early months of Covid did bring some encouraging, creative, generous public policy responses, like an effective wage subsidy scheme, good collective messaging around the team of five million, a strong public health response to keep the country Covid-free.

"But those interventions were short-term and we've now moved on without turning some of that creativity and generosity into permanent change."

Inflation is one of the issues impacting New Zealanders. Photo / Dean Purcell
Inflation is one of the issues impacting New Zealanders. Photo / Dean Purcell

Oliver Hartwich, chief executive of think-tank the NZ Initiative, takes a different view, arguing that even if we accept that New Zealand did well in its initial pandemic response it doesn't follow that this centralised, State-heavy approach is a blueprint for the future.

"it is the wrong prescription in peace-time," he said.

The Herald poll asked respondents what they thought was the most important issue facing New Zealand right now. Fifty six per cent said the cost-of-living, 12 per cent said climate change, 11 per cent said crime, eight per cent said the Covid pandemic and eight per cent said social division.

Higher proportions of women (65 per cent) than men (46 per cent) said the cost of living was the most important issue right now while men were more concerned about climate change (18 per cent) and Covid-19 (12 per cent) than women were (7 per cent and 5 per cent, respectively).

The second most pressing issue for women was crime, at 12 per cent.

The survey of 1000 people, including 480 men and 520 women, was conducted by Dynata for the Herald from October 13-16 and has a margin of error of 3.1 per cent.

It is important to note the cohort of women sampled are slightly lower earners and have less full-time work than the men sampled, and more younger men than younger women were included in the sample.

Harris said the poll findings supported the case for extending initiatives like half-price transport and the need for more relief for people struggling, such as increased income support, expansion of public housing or more affordable free core services, like dental care.

Auckland Action Against Poverty's Brooke Stanley Pao also said basic services like dental care, power and public transport needed to be free, while benefits needed to be increased. These tangible measures were the "bare minimum", she said, but there was also a need for overarching holistic societal change.

"It's moving away from believing our intrinsic worth is connected to our work when actually it's connected to our existence. If you put it in that way, then we are all equal. No one is more important than anyone else, but we are all important but it's not at the expense of each other or papatūānuku.

"It's beyond the political framework and the jargon. It's to do with … our humanity. What does that look like here in Aotearoa? Do we really believe these things are okay?"

In August, annual food prices shot up faster than at any other time in the previous 13 years with fruit and veges, for example, increasing by 4.1 per cent compared with the previous month. Inflation for the September quarter was 7.2 per cent, just below the 30-year-high of 7.3 per cent in the previous quarter.

Earlier in the year, finance minister Grant Robertson said there was no easy fix for the cost of living and the global inflation problem, but the Government was taking a range of actions to ease the pressure for families. That included a $350 relief payment, halving the cost of public transport and cutting the petrol excise duty and road user charges.

Research professor and acting director at the University of Otago's Centre for Sustainability Janet Stephenson was surprised 12 per cent of survey respondents ranked climate change as the most important issue right now despite rising costs.

However, if the question was phrased differently, such as omitting the term "right now", climate change may have ranked higher, she said.

"We do operate very much in the here and now in our everyday lives. Whatever is pressing on us right now is the thing that is going to get the most attention.

"Unfortunately, we have longer-term issues that may have hugely greater impacts on our lives in the years to come and the lives on our future generations."

Climate change and cost-of-living were linked and policies that addressed one – such as easier access to electric bikes or better insulation of New Zealand homes – would in turn address the other, she said.

The Herald polling aimed to provide a snapshot of how New Zealanders were feeling after two years of Covid and global upheaval, including the cost-of-living crisis, Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the death of Queen Elizabeth II.

Despite the unsettling events, New Zealanders were largely optimistic about the coming year.

Asked whether they believed their life would be better or worse in the next 12 months, 48 per cent responded optimistically to the question, 38 per cent said they expected no change and 15 per cent responded pessimistically.

Men were more optimistic than women with 56 per cent of males, compared with 39 per cent of females, expecting their life to be either "much better" or "better" in the next 12 months.

Optimism was highest among younger people with 93 per cent of 18-24-year-olds responding with neutrally or positively compared with around 78 per cent of 55-64-year-olds and 79 per cent of the 65-plus cohort.

In the month following the death of the Queen, respondents were also asked if now was the time to break from the British monarchy. Thirty-seven per cent answered yes, 41 per cent said no and 22 per cent did not know.

The polling showed the younger the age cohort, the higher the proportion of respondents who believed now was the time to split from the crown. Seventy four per cent of 18-24 compared with 23 per cent of those aged 65-plus answered yes.

Men and women were split on the issue with half or men compared with a quarter of women saying yes. On the other hand, just under half of women and a third of men said no.

Massey University sociologist Professor Paul Spoonley said he was surprised and unable to explain the gender split. However, there were various things that could be behind the age effect.

"The older generations are much more inclined to see Britain as being a homeland … Even though we had our own passports early last century, we actually remained members of the British empire up until the 1970s.

"The history of being a British colony was still quite powerful until 60s and 70s. There is a lot of cultural baggage which was part of who we were but that … changed quite dramatically through the 80s and 90s."

Spoonley said there was still no clear majority to move away from having the member of the Royal family as head of New Zealand but the question was: when will that moment come?