By Peter Dunne*
It would be unwise to read to too much into this week's TVNZ Colmar Brunton political poll.
Polls, after all, are but a snapshot in time, and the timing of the poll coincided with one of the most unusual weeks in New Zealand politics in a very long while. It actually showed very little movement - Labour up three points and National down two (quite remarkable in itself given the Nats' last week), while there was barely any movement for the other parties. And it certainly is no guide - either way - to the outcome of the next election in two years' time.
A better guide might be what appears to be an emerging behaviour pattern within the three government parties, and how that will play out over time. Over recent weeks, the government has started to appear a little more organised and focused than it has over the last six to nine chaotic months, although it still has a very long way to go to show genuine progress on its policy agenda. For their parts, both New Zealand First and the Greens have started to focus on promoting some of their own core policies, rather than just focus on being good supportive members of the governing coalition.
That helps explain New Zealand First initiatives like the proposed "Kiwi Values" legislation to test whether new migrants fit into our country, and the plan to restrict access to New Zealand Superannuation to people with 20 years' residency. Both are consistent with New Zealand First's anti-foreigner stance, and will play well with the party faithful, even if the support of other parties is unlikely.
Similarly, with the Greens. Labour's fumbling over what to do with the Green's recreational cannabis referendum has left the field open for the Greens to take up the drug reform mantra in the way they have always wanted to. Also, the Greens have been able to burnish their anti-free trade credentials by being the only party in Parliament to vote against the Trans Pacific Partnership legislation when it came before the House.
Both parties have obviously come to realise that just being a good government partner will not be enough for them, come the next election. As well as achieving specific policy wins, they have to give their respective supporters a fresh reason to vote for them next time. So it is not unhelpful for either to be seen to be pursuing policies that no-one else is, while still ensuring stable government carries on.
But it is also not an entirely risk free strategy. In the short term, putting up policies which other parties reject is good branding, but over the next two years, party supporters are likely to tire of seeing their party's pet policies being put up and either ignored or knocked over, and will start to put pressure on both parties to extract more from Labour to be more sympathetic. In turn, that will become a problem for Labour, already clearly struggling to get most of its agenda through before the election, if it is now expected to be even more accommodating to their wants, than it is already. Labour cannot afford to surrender too much of its brand space to its partners.
The next year will be critical in this regard. The election die is likely to be largely cast by the end of next year, with 2020 being the year of consolidation and battening down the electoral hatches.
In the grand scheme of things, this week's opinion poll will probably not amount to all that much. More likely to be of lasting impact are the moves by New Zealand First and the Greens to promote their brands a little more vigorously. In the same way Labour cannot be seen to give too much away to its partners, New Zealand First and the Greens cannot either be seen to be too unreasonable in their demands, while not being too acquiescent at the same time. It will be a delicate balancing game for all to play, and will be fascinating to observe.
Either way, the next twelve months, not one opinion poll, will determine the government's fate.
*Peter Dunne is the former leader of UnitedFuture, an ex-Labour Party MP, and a former cabinet minister. This article first ran here and is used with permission.