Most New Zealanders feel society has become more divided in the past few years, new polling conducted for the Herald found.
The exclusive polling on a range of key issues asked Kiwis whether these had divided or unified the country, and how they felt about the issue.
A sense of social division is currently more prominent in New Zealand. The Herald wanted to understand whether this sense of division was affecting New Zealand’s social cohesion.
In an informal survey of Herald readers, social division was by far the most requested topic for the next segment of our editorial project, The New New Zealand: Rebuilding Better, which will explore the drivers behind social division and how we can strengthen our sense of cohesiveness.
For four topical issues, more New Zealanders considered them divisive than unifying, but their assessments of these issues themselves were more aligned.
The findings were gathered across two Herald-commissioned polls conducted by Dynata, which ran between November 17-28.
In the first, 1000 people across the country were asked whether they believed certain issues had united or divided New Zealanders.
Sixty-four per cent believed New Zealand as a society had become more divided in the last few years, confirming the sense that division is currently more prominent in New Zealand. And 16 per cent felt the nation had become more united while 20 per cent said it had remained about the same.
Division related to the Covid response has been widely discussed. However, Kiwis identified more division resulting from the access to housing and the distribution of wealth.
Asked if they thought New Zealand’s Covid-19 response had brought us closer together or pushed us further apart, 51 per cent said it had divided us and 37 per cent said it was unifying.
Kiwis responded to the issues of access to housing and wealth distribution comparably: a large majority of Kiwis felt these two issues were divisive but their assessments of the issue were consistent.
Seventy per cent said access to housing – and 74 per cent said the distribution of wealth – had pushed us further apart.
Meanwhile, 37 per cent said a farming-based economy had driven us further apart.
The Herald wanted to understand whether, while many of us can see a prominent issue like New Zealand’s response to Covid had been divisive, this perception affected our views on the issue itself?
The second poll sampled another 1000 people and asked how much they agreed with or disagreed with statements about the same set of issues. Respondents were given a spectrum of five answers, ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree.
When asked how they felt about the statement “our response to Covid has been well-judged and appropriate”, 57 per cent agreed.
Only 21 per cent agreed with the statement “our access to housing is fair and good for the country” while 24 per cent agreed “our distribution of wealth is fair and good for the country”.
Meanwhile, most respondents (70 per cent) agreed that “a farming-based economy is good for the future of the country”.
While the perception of social division after two turbulent years was perhaps unsurprising, academics said the poll results also indicated a sense of cohesion among New Zealanders.
‘A significant worry’: Challenge to social cohesion
Research fellow at The Disinformation Project, Sanjana Hattotuwa, who studies mis- and disinformation, and hateful and violent rhetoric on social media, thought the percentage of Kiwis who felt society had become more divided would have been higher than 64 per cent.
“I’m, in a way, glad it’s not as high as I would’ve thought, which I think is a testimony to the residual social glue that binds the country together, loosely captured by what the [Prime Minister] said and the ‘team of five million’.
“Even if you don’t take the PM’s word for it, I think [that] is what makes Aotearoa so special.”
However, he said that “glue” or social cohesion was “not just being increasingly tested, it is eroding at pace”.
“That is a significant worry.”
After the terrorist attack in Christchurch on March 15, 2019, Hattotuwa studied representations of the attack on Twitter as part of his doctoral research.
He found people had united. Twitter was defined by “social binds and bonds” that made for an eye-watering story demonstrating how a country can and should respond after a mass casualty terrorist event, Hattotuwa said.
Since then, Covid-19 happened and mis- and disinformation grew inexorably.
“The long and short of it is that I can’t recognise our Aotearoa from what I studied then. There is no link. It’s chalk and cheese.”
Kiwis’ ability to access a house in New Zealand has been a longstanding issue and 60 per cent did not think access to housing was fair and good.
Senior research fellow with the University of Otago’s He Kāinga Oranga Housing and Health Research Programme, Dr Lucy Telfar-Barnard, said this result in itself showed a degree of cohesiveness among Kiwis.
“Even though we may agree that as a population, our access to housing is not equally distributed, the majority of people don’t think that’s fair and that is a cohesiveness on its own.
“Those core values are still good and strong.”
Kiwibank economist Mary Jo Vergara said much of New Zealanders’ wealth was tied up in property and the wealth gap between those who own a home, and those who don’t, had widened.
Vergara was surprised by the seeming inconsistency of the wealth distribution polling results, expecting the two polls to yield similar responses.
“With house price gains reaching 30 per cent at the height of the housing market boom, but home-ownership rates at 70-year lows, it’s fair to say that the wealth gap has widened between New Zealanders who own houses and those who do not.”
Federated Farmers national president Andrew Hoggard was pleased with the 70 per cent proportion of Kiwis who backed a farming-based economy as “good for the future” and unsurprised 37 per cent believed the issue had divided us.
“If you look at that discourse nationwide, then yes, all of the rules that the Government is trying to impose on farming, if you hear the loud voices either side you would think that is splitting us up.”