Ardern’s popularity stumbles on New Zealand’s slow road to vaccination
Polls this week suggest the glacial speed of the Covid vaccine rollout is starting to affect Labour’s support, even as PM remains personally popular
An unbeatable leader in times of crisis, New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern’s soaring popularity has teetered on the country’s slow road to vaccination.
This week, polling in New Zealand indicated some of the gloss may be fading from the Ardern government’s second term, which has enjoyed soaringly high popularity over the past year. The poll, conducted by Newshub/Reid Research, put Labour at 43%, down 9.7 percentage points. The results followed a similar trend line polling by TVNZ from May.
In the last election, and for much of the year that followed, Labour had been holding a large enough majority to rule alone – highly unusual in New Zealand’s typically coalition-based, MMP electoral system.
The news of Labour’s drop also came as New Zealand slipped behind Australia on its vaccine rollout progress: as of 2 August, New Zealand had about 18% of its population fully vaccinated, with about 29% having had a first dose. Previously, Australia had been trailing New Zealand on the “fully vaccinated” metric – partly because AstraZeneca has a longer advised wait-time between doses. But this week, driven by outbreaks in-country, Australia overtook New Zealand: now about 19% are fully vaccinated, and about 41% have had one dose. New Zealand’s pace puts it as one of the slower vaccine rollouts in the OECD.
“There’s only one issue in the country and that’s the virus or the absence of the virus – and tied up with its absence is the speed and the depth of the vaccine rollout,” political analyst and Māori politics writer Morgan Godfery said.
“I think it’s obvious that some people are unhappy with the vaccine rollout failing to hit the high gear,” Godfery says. “People are quite highly engaged with that and there have been things in the past month or so to criticise … But at the same time I think most people understand that the rollout is going to take time and it’s never been at risk of stalling.”
Despite Labour’s drop, New Zealand’s left bloc is still extremely strong. While they could not govern alone at the current numbers, Labour would still hold a healthy majority alongside traditional coalition partners the Greens, which rose 1.4 points to 8.5%.
From ‘consoler in chief’ to business-as-usual
Political commentator Ben Thomas says the polls indicated that “there are laws of political gravity”, even for Ardern. “It shows that being the Covid saviours won’t be enough to keep their polling in the stratosphere, as it’s previously been for the last year or so.
“There have been two stretches where Labour has really polled over 50%,” Thomas says. “That was, I think, immediately following the Christchurch terror attacks and the response to Covid.”
Thomas and Godfery reflected that the easing of Ardern’s popularity also followed the country’s shift from crisis responses to more business-as-usual. Political scientists have written about how, over time, voters’ expectations of leaders have expanded from the day-to-day work of economic management, providing security and services, to figureheads offering comfort and empathy after disasters: the “consoler in chief”.
Few play this role as well as Ardern, who tends to be at her best in a time of crisis – highly empathic, humane, decisive. “One of the roles I never anticipated having, and hoped never to have, is to voice the grief of a nation,” she told parliament in the wake of the March attacks. “At this time, it has been second only to securing the care of those affected and the safety of everyone.”
Her approach to the Covid-19 crisis has been similar. Speaking to the country throughout its lockdowns, she would often begin statements with reflections on the hard work, struggle and sacrifice of New Zealand’s “team of 5 million”. Her leadership and disaster management through Covid-19 has been hailed as among the best in the world.
Dr Lara Greaves, University of Auckland lecturer and associate director of the Public Policy Institute, said political scientists “certainly would never have expected to see a single-party majority government under MMP”.
“It was partly because we were in the middle of a crisis, and voters tend to cling to the status quo in a crisis – but also because Labour did an excellent job. There is no real way of disputing that,” she said. “We saw this huge high for Labour and the polls now probably represent that wearing off a little bit.”
But as some of those crises fade from front of mind – New Zealand’s last community-transmitted case of Covid was in February – longer-term problems come back into focus. In some areas, Labour’s performance is strong. On Wednesday, new data showed unemployment had dropped to 4%, well under projections, and average hourly wages had risen 4% to $34.76 an hour, keeping ahead of inflation. But on other social issues, Ardern’s government has struggled to make progress. The housing affordability crisis has continued unabated despite government reforms, mental health statistics have barely budged, despite significant investment, and the vaccine rollout – while keeping up with government projections – has remained one of the slowest in the OECD.
“Labour is still a reasonably popular government, but it’s not in this ‘all-conquering’ position that it was previously,” Thomas says. “Basically, they are susceptible to the reality of politics again.”
And even if the drops for Labour hold, Labour currently faces little in the way of threat from its traditional opposition, National, which has been mired in low polling and unpopular leadership. Labour’s loss was not National’s gain – the party’s vote lifted just 1.7%, to 28.7%. The libertarian ACT party saw its vote lift 4.2 points to 11.1% – a huge jump for a minor party.
In the preferred-prime-minister stakes, Ardern was still light-years ahead: dropping slightly to 45%, where opposition leader Judith Collins was on a bleak 8.2%.
Godfrey says the drop in support for Labour is significant but the party is still on very safe ground. “Jacinda Ardern is still far and away the most popular prime minister in recent memory. Far and away the Labour party is more popular than has been at any point in the last 50 years.”