Last week, politics nerds in New Zealand erupted in psephological conniptions. On the same day, two major opinion polls appeared with headlines that were polls apart.
The Newshub-Reid Research poll had Labour with a crushing 50 per cent share of the vote, National collapsing into the high 30s and New Zealand First just over the MMP five per cent threshold. By stark contrast, the 1 NewsColmar Brunton survey had National surging to lead Labour 46-42, with Winston Peters set to be out of a job with New Zealand First on just 2.8 per cent. The Greens sat in both polls around 6 per cent.
In the Herald and elsewhere, there was a frenzy of hyperactive commentary. How could the two major opinion polls be so different? What does it mean? Is the government of Jacinda Ardern all-conquering or, despite the woes of National leader Simon Bridges, is Ardern somehow vulnerable to becoming a one-term wonder despite her commanding personal popularity and international superstardom?
Looking at it from the Australian side of the Ditch, however, there is just one thing to say: there could have been no better result for New Zealand politics.
In Australia, politics since even before John Howard was defeated in 2007 has been too heavily poll obsessed. The metronome of Australian political discourse is the Newspoll published fortnightly in the Australian newspaper, which for better or worse has become the main benchmark of a government's – and Prime Minister's – performance.
If Australia had New Zealand's more relaxed approach to polling, odds are we would have had two or three fewer prime ministers since 2007.
Much of the turmoil that has been Australia's revolving door prime ministership has been caused by Newspoll and lesser opinion polls. In 2010 Kevin Rudd was punted by Julia Gillard and a panicky Labor caucus when his poll ratings collapsed after giving up on his emissions trading crusade.
Notoriously, Malcolm Turnbull's grounds for his coup against Tony Abbott in 2015 was that Abbott "had lost 30 Newspolls in a row". Thus Turnbull himself was on borrowed time when he too passed his own 30 losing Newspoll benchmark in the first half of 2018.
Now there's May's Australian election result. The Coalition having lost every single major opinion poll since soon after the 2016 election, the election morning Newspoll predicted, correctly, a 52-48 result. The only problem was they called it for Bill Shorten and Labor, not Scott Morrison and the Liberal-National Coalition. The single measure that cost three Australian prime ministers their jobs and drove treachery and instability in both Labor and Liberal parties for a decade, was completely and ingloriously wrong when it truly mattered.
Contrast this with New Zealand, where for cost reasons if nothing else, major opinion polls are published only every few months. When they do appear, there is a media frenzy for a few days and underperforming leaders are put under scrutiny, but usually that's about it until next time. In the meantime, the business of government and opposition goes on without the permanent fear of a damaging opinion poll waiting to ambush parties and leaders next week.
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As for these current, diametrically opposed New Zealand polls, aren't they great? Instead of locking in a political narrative, they deny either side a resounding endorsement, yet don't write either off.
The message to Ardern is that she and Labour can't take the next election for granted, and must lift their game, particularly in the wake of the Government's second budget.
On the other hand, the message for National and Bridges is that, in spite of Ardern's unique brand of personality politics (or perhaps even because of it), and notwithstanding that first-term governments are more likely to be re-elected than not, there is still everything to play for if the party's leadership tensions are managed, the National caucus is stable and the Opposition shows some imaginative and innovative policy leadership in the year before the next election. Something – and nothing – for everyone!
In other words, last week's polls are not self-fulfilling prophecies setting the tone of the political discourse for months to come, locking in victory or defeat. Neither Labour nor National can take complacent satisfaction in them. That, and the simple fact that opinion polls are occasional affairs rather than fortnightly Swords of Damocles, is one of the reasons New Zealand's political culture is far less fraught, and so much more positive, than poll-obsessed and more adversarial cultures such as Australia's or the United Kingdom's.
If Australia had New Zealand's more relaxed approach to polling, odds are we would have had two or three fewer prime ministers since 2007, that either the Coalition or Labor might have governed with more focus on good and longer-term policy instead of poll numbers, and perhaps we would have been a happier and more confident country as a result.
New Zealanders are very fortunate that they, unlike Australia, don't have government by opinion poll. Politics-jaded Australians envy you.
• Terry Barnes is an Australian policy consultant and political commentator