Scary future gradually overtaking sympathy for the government

Peter Dunne

Wellington, May 28, 2020

Recent public opinion polls have revealed some very interesting, if somewhat contradictory, insights into New Zealanders’ current thinking about the Covid19 crisis and the national response.

The most recent 1News Colmar Brunton poll reported that 92% of those surveyed considered that the government “had responded appropriately to the coronavirus outbreak” – up from 62% when the same question had been asked in February.

To a second question, 86% rated the “government’s response to the economic impacts of the coronavirus outbreak” as good or better.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has had the highest rating thus far

Financial hardships

Yet, at virtually the same time, the Commission for Financial Capability was reporting its own survey data showing that already one in ten households had missed a mortgage or rent payment because of the Covid19 emergency, and that 34% of households had already experienced some financial difficulty, and a further nearly 40% felt on the brink of doing so.

A similar recent survey by Research New Zealand reported that 75% of respondents were concerned about the impact the crisis was having on their children.

That survey also reported that there have been significant increases in the level of concern about losing one’s job (67%), being able to pay the mortgage (59%) and being able to pay the rent (61%).

Worrying trends in New Zealand

So, while at a more global level, New Zealanders are happy with the way the government has responded to date, they are becoming increasingly concerned about the longer terms impacts on their families, the future of their jobs, and their capacity to meet their weekly outgoings.

And evidence is mounting every day of the serious impact on employment and business – this week alone has seen Air New Zealand confirm 1300 job losses, the Millennium and Copthorne Hotels chain say over 900 of its jobs are at risk, and the long-established southern department store H&J Smith foreshadow around 175 potential job losses as it looks to downsize to survive.

Taxi company Green Cabs has gone into liquidation, costing 160 jobs.

SMEs hit

As more and more small to medium sized businesses resume after the lockdowns, the more likely it is that these numbers will escalate considerably as the stark reality of how difficult business and trading conditions are going to become hits home.

Moreover, for the first time since probably the 1930s Depression, the job losses and business failures will start to hit those who have never previously had reason to even consider such a possibility would affect them.

Treasury estimates that unemployment will peak at 9.8% by September this year, and start to fall back after that have been dismissed as “wildly optimistic” by analysts such as Infometrics, with most other commentators predicting unemployment to rise to well above 10% by September and fall only slowly after that.

Jobseekers benefit

Already, the numbers on the Jobseeker benefit have risen around 27% to just over 184,000 in just five weeks between the move to Alert Level 4 from late March and the beginning of May.

The government’s announcement this week of a new temporary tax-free payment to help those who have lost their jobs because of Covid19 confirms its recognition of the severity of the situation we are now facing.

The worry for the government now must be that at some point not too far away, the two apparently contradictory strands of public opinion will crossover.

Public concern about the social and economic impact of Covid19, already sharply on the rise, will overtake support for the approach the government has taken so far.

Political distancing begins

Throw in a general election in just over three months and it becomes especially challenging.

Already the Greens and New Zealand First, the government’s support partners, both polling below the 5% threshold in the most recent Colmar Brunton Poll, are starting to actively distance themselves from the Labour Party, just in case.

The Greens have been critical of this week’s emergency relief package as introducing a two tier welfare system, too narrowly focused on what they describe as the middle classes, while New Zealand First has taken more direct aim at the Prime Minister claiming somewhat incongruously that she agrees with them that the country is taking too long to move to Alert Level 1.

Neither of these reactions is about policy – both are much more about struggling smaller parties sensing that public disgruntlement will rise and stellar support for the government fall as more and more households and businesses are directly impacted.

Quite understandably, they want to be on the right side of public opinion when the crossover occurs. 

Rising stature of PM

Labour’s response has to be built around the ever-increasing stature of the Prime Minister, as it hopes to be able to keep enough wind in its sails to hold an increasingly fracturing government on course in the lead-up to the election and maintain the momentum it has established so far.

It cannot afford to be side-tracked by crew members scrapping openly on the foredeck about which sails to hoist for the run home, while the previously wallowing National Party has started to look for more favourable airs.

The uncertainty of this and the contradictions in public opinion, and where they might all head, have added even more to the fascination of what is already shaping up as New Zealand’s most dramatic and unusual election ever.        

Peter Dunne was a Minister of the Crown under Labour and National-led governments from November 1999 to September 2017. He lives in Wellington.

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