Will public concerns about inequality and poverty have an impact on this year's election campaign?

Going on last night's TVNZ-Colmar Brunton poll, the answer seems to be "yes". Labour has dropped in support, but the Greens have surged from 11 to 15 per cent, no doubt reflecting Metiria Turei's bold benefit fraud confession - see Corin Dann's Labour slumps to its lowest level in more than 20 years in latest 1 News Colmar Brunton poll.

Turei's highly polarising "fraud bomb" has been the main political story of the last two weeks. More than any other statement by opposition politicians, it has powerfully put her on the side of the poor and those who seek to reduce the gap between the rich and poor. So, in an election where poverty and inequality are the main concerns of voters, Turei's gambit is paying off.

Tracy Watkins nicely sums this up: "the poll is a huge boost to the minor party after its calculated risk over co-leader Metiria Turei's admission that she ripped off the DPB when raising her daughter on her own. The admission has polarised public opinion but appears to have energised left wing voters, with the poll suggesting it has caused a defection of Labour voters to its minor party ally" - see: Labour bleeds while Greens profit from Metiria Turei's 'fraud bomb'.


Concerns about inequality driving voters

Opinion polling firm Roy Morgan has been publishing reports on how inequality and poverty are driving political concerns at the moment. Early last month, they published their polling which showed Poverty and the gap between rich and poor is the single biggest issue facing New Zealand.

And last week, they published further details, which showed that Green voters were most concerned about poverty and inequality (24 per cent of them), followed by Labour voters (20 per cent), then National voters (14 per cent), with only a tiny number of NZ First voters (3 per cent) nominating this as their biggest concern - see: Poverty, gap between rich and poor and housing affordability dominate discussion in lead-up to election.

Income issues are also highlighted in the latest Herald-ZB-Kantar TNS online survey. Claire Trevett reports that "The results indicate the election will be a battle to win voters' back pockets and come down to whether voters prefer National or Labour's packages for incomes" - see: Economy by far the top issue for voters: poll (http://bit.ly/2uK1dSV).

Hate for the Rich on the List

This year's annual NBR Rich List also came out last week, and gave further indication of the changing orientation towards inequality. You can see the NBR's coverage of this at: 2017 NBR Rich List.

The overall nature of the new list was best reported in Tamsyn Parker's Rich list wealth 500 times the average Kiwi household. She explains: "The average wealth of those on the NBR Rich List is more than 500 times greater than the household wealth of the average New Zealander. The NBR's annual Rich List was released today showing 208 Kiwis have amassed $80 billion in wealth. The median wealth on the list was $150 million, 519 times more than the median household wealth of New Zealanders of $289,000 in the year to June 30, 2015 - the latest Statistics New Zealand data available."

The chief executive of Oxfam New Zealand, Rachael Le Mesurier, is reported as welcoming the latest list: "Oxfam thinks it is great that we are able to access this information... being able to look at this extreme wealth opens up the debate." Le Mesurier points to the inequality highlighted by the list, stating that "wealth inequality was becoming more of a concern to New Zealand voters and as a result politicians were also talking about it more than ever before."

The reaction to the list shows the political climate is clearly more hostile to wealth than in the past. The NBR's Chris Keall wrote about the backlash: "What has been a surprise this year is the ferocity of critics and, more, the New Zealand Herald, Stuff, RadioLive and NewsTalk ZB enthusiastically providing a platform for the bashers" - see: NBR Rich List backlash the canary in the coal mine, pointing to an 'anti-wealth' election: commentator.
I'm quoted in this article saying that "Increasingly, the debate or concern about inequality is shifting from a focus on the problems of those at the bottom to a focus on the other end of the spectrum - the wealthy. So previously the problem was framed simply in 'the poor not having enough,' whereas now there's a greater discussion about 'the rich having too much'."

Furthermore, I say that this negative reaction to the 2017 NBR Rich List "might be seen as some sort of canary in the mine". I argue it may foreshadow greater anti-establishment feeling in the electorate that could yet have an impact on the election outcome. The rising fortunes of the Greens and New Zealand First - both of whom are radically positioning themselves as champions of the victims of the status quo - suggest this already.

One of the hardest critiques of the NBR's Rich List actually comes from business reporter Richard Meadows, who had some strong words to say about those at the top, and what you need to do to emulate them: "Lesson one: Choose your parents carefully. Lots of the one-percenters inherited their wealth, or at least got a leg-up in business from their loaded relatives... lesson two: Abandon your moral compass. Cutting dodgy deals, working in soulless industries, and scammy self-promotion will all help the cause" - see: What lessons can theRich-Listers teach the rest of us?.

Susan Edmunds also reported the criticisms of two Auckland academics in her article, Why the Rich List is 'unhealthy, disturbing'. Sociologist Ronald Kramer is reported as believing that "An obsession with capitalism drives Kiwis' 'unhealthy' interest in who has the most money in New Zealand". Marketing lecturer Sommer Kapitan put it down to a Protestant work ethic: "many of our cultural forefathers left England during the Protestant reformation, and it's buried in our psyche to seek for 'more' and to 'pull ourselves up by the bootstraps'."

Jessica Berentson-Shaw, who is head of research at the Morgan Foundation, suggests: "I would like us to consider if we are going to rate people on their wealth why don't we also tax them on that wealth? If people recognise that wealth matters then we should choose to recognise that wealth in our redistribution systems."

RadioLive broadcaster Alison Mau interviewed a defender and a critic of the Rich List and expressed her distaste for the list, asking: Is the NBR rich list past its use by date?. She pondered "how relevant is the list these days? Is it right to celebrate such wealth when so many are struggling?"

Vaimoana Tapaleao went to get reactions to the Rich List from the residents of McGehan Close, where John Key famously took a media crew in 2007 - see: Resident living on 'street of hopelessness' challenges 'rich listers'.

The Rich List did have its defenders, though. Former Act Party leader Rodney Hide defended capitalism as a system, and the wealthy as producing a public good - see his NBR column, Rich List critics blind to capitalism's creative power (paywalled).

Hide says: "Thanks to capitalism my lifestyle beats that of a king of just a hundred years ago. There's no doubt that, if we are allowed to flourish, the poor in a hundred years will look back to wonder how today's Rich Listers coped. No system other than capitalism can do that." And along similarly lines, Hide also defends New Zealand's highest paid broadcaster against attempts to shine a light on how much he gets paid - see: Mike Hosking right to keep pay secret.

But a more interesting examination of the Rich List is Chris Keall's attempt to find out if the rich and powerful generally come from elite schools. Here's his conclusion: "when you look around at the movers and shakers in New Zealand business and society, a good whack of them - including many of the NBR Rich Listers (and just, quietly, NBR's previous and current publishers) - went to meat-and-potatoes schools in working class suburbs like Mt Roskill and Mt Albert" - see: Old school ties.

And to get a picture of just how much wealth some of mega rich have, see Corazon Miller's Property the rich and wealthy can buy.

Are the rich getting richer, and the poor getting poorer?

The theme of rich and poor continued last week, when the the Ministry of Social Development published its 270-page Household Incomes Report - which is the authoritative take on inequality statistics in New Zealand. Wealth and inequality researcher Max Rashbrooke had an excellent analysis of it in his blog post, The State of poverty and inequality in 2017.

Although Rashbrooke is a strong critic of the current levels of inequality, he also wrote an interesting column about Why the attacks on National over poverty and inequality are unfounded - mostly. This again deals with the Household Incomes Report explaining that although levels of inequality are terrible, there's no evidence to suggest they are currently getting worse.

He has also published a very useful and succinct history of wealth, incomes and taxation - see: The use of 'common assets' in the building of individual wealth, and why those who gained an outsized benefit from them should share those gains with those who didn't ().

Similarly, Victoria University of Wellington's Lisa Marriott has carried out important research about how "the state is far more lenient on tax evasion than welfare fraud" - which becomes more salient in light of the renewed discussion about benefit fraud - see: The hypocrisy of NZ's approach to fraud. She also debates this with others on TV3's The Hui - see: Research shows state far more lenient on tax evasion than welfare fraud.

There's also an increased focus on, not just beneficiaries, but the working poor. And Bruce Munro has put together an excellent feature on "the precarious proletariat, aka, the precariat; the growing group of second-class citizens who struggle to get a decent job, a decent wage, a decent life" - see: Hours of work. He reminds us that although unemployment numbers are lower than in the past, you need to add in those people who have given up looking for work, as well as those part-time workers who need more hours. Therefore, there "are now 329,000 New Zealanders... who cannot get any or enough work. That is one person for every eight people in the total work force."

Finally, the rich are increasingly valued for their philanthropic activities, which leads satirist Andrew Gunn to ponder where this might end up - see: Government seeks more philanthropists to fund social services.