Labour’s struggling campaign for re-election has endured fresh embarrassment with the party slumping further into the 20s in the latest public poll - its lowest performance in that poll since Andrew Little was leader six years ago.
Labour fell one point to just 27 per cent in the 1 News-Verian poll, well behind National which polled 37 per cent, falling two points. It puts even further pressure on leader Chris Hipkins to turn the ship around and cements the feeling that this may now be impossible.
Hipkins put on a brave face, saying the poll showed National was “coming down” having “previously peaked”.
He has less time than many think. The first votes will be cast in less than a week’s time when overseas voting opens on September 27. Voting opens to everyone else less than a week later on October 2. Each day of early voting locks in the gaping deficit between Labour and National, making a turnaround less and less possible.
STORY CONTINUES AFTER LIVE BLOG
If we continue to see large numbers of people cast ballots early, almost a quarter of votes could be cast in just a week of early voting. By the time the final of the four leaders’ debates rolls around on October 12, it’s possible more than half of all votes will have been cast.
Hipkins is staring down the barrel of a record defeat.
On current polling Labour would crash out of the Beehive with the worst result of an incumbent major party in the MMP era, worse than the current record holder, Jenny Shipley’s National government which took 30.5 per cent of the vote in 1999.
National has problems of its own. Its support is slipping, although the right bloc’s net support is unchanged with Act rising two points to 12 per cent.
Leader Christopher Luxon’s bigger problem comes in the form of NZ First’s Winston Peters, whose support in that poll was unchanged on 5 per cent of the vote.
The challenge is laid bare when the result is broken down to seats: National would get 45, Act would get another 15, giving the pair 61 seats - just enough to form a government.
But changes at the margins, particularly vote slipping away from National during the campaign could mean the right bloc’s vote slipping into the 50s and Luxon being forced to pick up the phone to Peters on the morning of October 15.
This is more likely than often thought. National’s support has fallen during the last five campaigns from its average polling at the campaign’s beginning.
Voters want Luxon to be clear about his intentions. Last night’s poll also asked voters whether parties should be “upfront about who they’re willing to go into coalition with prior to the election”. An overwhelming 82 per cent of those polled said “yes”.
But Luxon won’t even discuss the topic. For weeks now, Luxon’s answer to this question has been a variation of “I’m not worried about Winston Peters. He’s not in Parliament. He’s below the threshold. I’m focused on building a National Party vote”.
That excuse no longer stands.
NZ First is very clearly above the threshold in most polls. After a surge in August, only two of September’s polls have had Peters below 5 per cent - Taxpayers’ Union Curia on 3.9 per cent, and Newshub Reid Research on 4.6 per cent.
Peters is back - and he could be a problem for National and Act. Luxon must now answer for the NZ First’s eclectic policy positions, and what Peters might be like in government.
At meetings this week, Peters has been energising voters with a message that National and Act don’t have the guts to follow through on their promise to rip up co-governance arrangements for the likes of Three Waters and the Maori Health Authority. Peters entering a National-led formation could tilt a future National government too far to the right for Luxon’s more moderate tendencies.
But the even bigger problem for Luxon is Peters has come out swinging this week against his central promise: tax cuts.
Peters is himself running on a policy of making the first $14,000 earned tax-free, but said Treasury’s gloomy Prefu forecasts released this week meant it was unaffordable until 1 April 2026 at the earliest.
Worse still for Luxon, he trained his guns on National’s tax plan, blasting it as “voodoo economics”.
He said the plan was “not credible nor reconcilable with its spending commitments. No nation, nor household, can survive with far less money through the front door but spending rocketing up and out the side door”.
“Such is the deteriorated state of the nation’s books, no party can look voters in the eye and seriously say their tax cuts are affordable now,” Peters said.
Peters may have an unlikely ally on this front: Act’s David Seymour. Act is set to unveil its revised alternative budget today after Seymour put the original under review following Prefu to take into account the revised state of the books.
There are still good odds Seymour will be offering reduced tax cuts, but the state of the fiscals is that some voices on the right are calling for fiscal consolidation ahead of major tax reform.
Just what that looks like under National is unclear. Again, less than a week out from the first votes being cast, it is yet to release its own fiscal plan, setting out how it will afford its promises and what cuts those promises would require.
The delay is a cynical on the party of National. The longer the party waits to publish the plan, the less time it gives the opposition to find holes in the figures, should there be any.