National’s purpose renewed as NZ First struggles

National’s revival in the polls under Todd Muller still leaves it with a huge mountain to climb before September 19, but the party now has renewed viability - a precious commodity ebbing away from New Zealand First, Sam Sachdeva writes

Mullermania? Not quite.

But the latest 1 News/Colmar Brunton poll showing National on 38 percent under new leader Todd Muller - a marked improvement from its sub-30 showing in the dying days of Simon Bridges’ reign - at least gives the party’s voters some confidence it remains a going concern.

In truth, the figures represent a return to something more closely resembling reality, after Labour’s numbers were inflated by the sense of unity during the heat of the Covid-19 response.

Add in the damage done to the Government by its border management mishaps, and it is no surprise National has rebounded from what was an artificially low result.

Even Bridges would surely have benefited from the recent cock-ups, and he could have some cause for feeling vindicated in claiming that the party’s fortunes would eventually turn.

But those behind Muller’s coup can in turn point to their new leader’s 13 percent rating in the preferred Prime Minister stakes - higher than Bridges ever managed, in any public poll, during his two years in the job.

Kiwis may not love Muller, but they are at least willing to hear him out - something that could not be said of Bridges by the end.

A mountain to climb

He has surely been helped by the series of full tosses delivered up by the Government on its isolation facilities and testing processes, putting him at the top of the broadcast bulletins and in the headlines with little more to do than point out the obvious shortcomings in the Government response.

There is no reason for Jacinda Ardern and her team to panic, but nor does it suggest they will be able to cruise to victory against an inept opposition.

Muller and National still have a monumental task ahead of them: after all, the 1 News poll still has Labour able to govern alone on 50 percent, while Ardern’s nine-point fall as preferred Prime Minister puts her on a hardly miserly 54 percent.

Add in the Greens on six percent (more on New Zealand First soon) and the left-wing parties have a 15-point lead on a National-ACT pairing, coupled with the benefit of incumbency at a time of crisis.

National has steadied the ship, but Muller seems unlikely to sprinkle the sort of stardust that led to Labour’s surge under Ardern in 2017.

The party’s prognosis may be mixed, but the news is all bad for New Zealand First - down to 1.8 percent, exactly a quarter of the 7.2 percent it registered at the 2017 election and a continuation of its downwards trend.

Predictably, Winston Peters harrumphed about the party’s poor showing, telling 1 News: “Your polls are crap...your polls as rubbish.”

Winston Peters has long held an antipathy towards political polling, but the trend line for New Zealand First seems undeniable. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

But while New Zealand First has shown a capacity to surge during election campaigns, it is hard to avoid the feeling there is too much ground to make up.

At a comparable stage of the election cycle in 2008, the party was between 2.5 and 3 percent in the polls; while it rose to just over four percent on polling day, that was not enough to save it from the wilderness.

As in 2008, there is no insurance in the form of an electorate seat already held, confident as Shane Jones may be that he can wrest Northland from National’s Matt King after King unseated Peters last election.

And lest we forget, the Serious Fraud Office is still expected to complete its investigation into the mysterious New Zealand First Foundation before September 19.

Exactly what the SFO has uncovered so far remains a secret, and Peters himself would seem unlikely to be personally incriminated - but anything short of an utter exoneration for New Zealand First will serve as - at the very least - a distraction from the party’s messaging to prospective voters.

National’s renewed viability in turn diminishes New Zealand First’s, at least to right-wing Kiwis who abhor the idea of an unfettered Labour-Green government.

New Zealand First at present seems defined more by what it is against than what it is for - and nobody likes a handbrake that is left on too long.

Peters’ argument that his party could serve as a vital handbrake on the excesses of the coalition was made more compelling by a sense the blue car was not just stalled, but sitting on cinder blocks with Bridges forlornly trying to figure out where he had left the keys.

Now Muller has shown the engine is still running, soft National voters may be more inclined to shoot for a head-to-head drag race and hope for the best.

Coalition government is hard for minor parties, who have often struggled to maintain their identities while respecting the need for unity.

Peters and his party are not overly bothered about the latter point, as evidenced by their recent flailing around to block what policy and legislation they still can before Parliament rises for the election in early August.

But while the Greens’ clear ideological bent gives the party some certainty that its floor sits above the five percent threshold, New Zealand First at present seems defined more by what it is against than what it is for - and nobody likes a handbrake that is left on too long.

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