All the major polls are narrowing, with National and Act tracking towards parity with Labour and the Greens.
While Jacinda Ardern remains comfortably ahead as preferred Prime Minister, she is increasingly polarising. When both their positive and negative ratings are taken into account, the 1News-Kantar poll showed Ardern's all-important net approval rating below Christopher Luxon's.
Worse, recent polls won't yet take into account the full impact of the DJ Dimension scandal, the Government not taking Omicron seriously and going on holiday, revelations DHBs have only 108 ICU beds for Covid, the debacle over rapid antigen tests, the Soundsplash outbreak, the worst inflation since 1990, and the shameful discovery that 65 pregnant New Zealand citizens have been refused entry to give birth back home.
Add in incumbents being in trouble all around the world and Luxon is at least even-stevens to become Prime Minister in 600 days. He can take encouragement from Ardern's declaration yesterday of a timetable to the new normal, "where the weather can once again take its rightful place as our primary topic of conversation," as she put it. That means the 2023 election will be fought on conventional issues, not who has the coolest brand.
Luxon might be tempted to find a big, divisive issue to differentiate himself, the way Don Brash did over race relations. Or he might want to run as the best economic manager, like John Key. Yet the issue that matters most to New Zealand — and which should define a Luxon prime ministership — is rebuilding social cohesion.
New Zealand is more divided than ever before. At its most extreme, this manifests on social media, where Ardern is denounced as a modern-day Hitler by one bunch of fanatics, while another viciously attacks even her mildest critics.
It's unhealthy for people to hate or love a politician to this degree, not seen in New Zealand since Robert Muldoon. But, like those about him, inflamed passions about Ardern are surely temporary and will pass when she leaves the stage.
More alarming are divisions which every prime ministerial candidate has promised to address since David Lange pledged in 1984 to "bring New Zealand together" and Jim Bolger vowed six years later to "bring New Zealand together again".
New divisions have emerged since the internet and social media led people to withdraw into bespoke tribes.
New Zealand was never anything close to egalitarian, as Māori and South Pacific immigrants could attest. There was always an underclass and, when adjusted into 2022 dollars, billionaire families. But the middle class was more cohesive.
Income inequality rose between 1987 and 1993 after some were faster to take advantage of the open economy and more flexible labour market, but has stayed fairly stable since. Helen Clark's Working for Families caused a small but temporary improvement.
It's asset inequality that has accelerated since 1996, mainly because of land. Clark, Key and Ardern were all elected on promises to fix it. All failed, and the wealth gap between the middle class and the upper middle class has grown ever wider.
Most notoriously, Ardern has overseen the greatest transfer of wealth from the poor and young to the rich and old in New Zealand's history. High inflation will make it worse.
Grant Robertson's proposed income insurance scheme, plus his 2017 policy of one year of free tertiary education, will certainly help people transition from declining to growing industries.
But it will also create a two-tier welfare system that will further widen the gap between the middle class, getting 80 per cent of their incomes when on the dole, and the underclass getting much less.
The divisions are not just economic. Māori aspirations to exercise full sovereignty or at least share power in 50:50 co-governance models are well beyond what tauiwi will accept.
Unless narrowed in one or the other direction, or preferably both, that gap will lead to political violence. Rural and provincial New Zealanders think those in the cities undervalue both their economic contribution and the environmental improvements they have made.
They think their thriving agricultural communities are being turned into permanent forest sinks so that James Shaw can balance his climate-change books.
With the long four-month lockdown, Aucklanders have had a different experience of Covid than the rest of the country and think their sacrifices were taken for granted by the rest.
The Wellington bureaucracy has never been more out of touch from the people it is meant to serve.
In 1999, Clark ran against Jenny Shipley's Nanny State. Since then Wellington's intrusions into everyday life have exploded. Big business can cope with Wellington diktats but small business can't, creating a divide between the executive class and the self-employed.
It isn't true that 1 million New Zealanders have been locked out of their own country by Ardern's elimination pipedream. More than 200,000 people have gone through MIQ.
Others weren't ready to return anyway. But many hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders have been prevented for two years from exercising their citizenship rights and will never forgive those who so zealously kept them out. No one could have imagined a week ago that pregnant New Zealanders would be locked out.
The All Blacks sometimes still provide something like a cultural touchstone, but are probably the last. With on-demand and social media, we are split into tribes in terms of the news, entertainment, sport and political views we experience.
Both Trumpism and weaponised wokeness have been imported from the US. The unvaccinated may be a tiny minority but feel no less aggrieved than Kiwis stuck overseas, left effectively stateless.
Ardern's speech yesterday was the launch of her 2023 campaign. She emphasised economics and a full resumption of business, which are undoubtedly important, but also tried to reconcile our warring factions.
Everyone should wish her luck but her supporters and detractors are now almost certainly too polarised for her to succeed.
Luxon may think his potential prime ministership will be about Key's promised economic "step change". It couldn't hurt. But needed much more is a leader to give genuine meaning to Ardern's now widely mocked ideas of kindness and the Team of Five Million, which must again be Six. That will be Luxon's job.
- Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based public relations consultant.