The kneecapping of United Future?

Much has been said about the influence of polls and media leading up to an election. Did a single shaky poll and one negative article kneecap United Future in the 2011 election?

The 2011 election was always going to be a tough task for United Future. Peter Dunne had been one of the busiest MPs, with ministerial, party leadership, sole MP and electorate responsibilities. And as usual for coalition partners United Future operated under the large shadow of the National Party. It was going to take a lot of effort and good luck to improve on 2008’s result.

There are a significant number of floating voters who make late decisions, having a big influence on the final make-up of parliament. In 2002 United Future was the beneficiary of fortuitous circumstances – and a worm. But it wasn’t the worm that turned the election for UF, it was the publicity the resulting media attention gave them.

The 2011 election swung strongly New Zealand First’s way in the last few weeks, influenced in part by the cup of tea debacle (credit is also due Winston Peters and his efforts throught the year).

And United Future support shrunk some more. There are a number of reasons for this, but one poll and article may have been the two nails that fixed the party’s fate.

The poll

A “Fairfax Media-Research International mini poll” was released two weeks before the election – this is the time when the undecideds start to make up their minds. The results:

  • Peter Dunne 37.4%
  • Charles Chauvel 35.6%
  • Katrina Shanks 19%
  • Gareth Hughes 1.4%

That comes to 93.4%, they didn’t say anything about the remaining 6.6%. But there were other very significant facts:

  • Undecided 34.6%
  • Margin of error 7%
  • Number of people polled 163
  • conducted on Wednesday night

That’s a small sample for a poll, conducted on one evening of one day. There’s questions about some of the calculations based on the numbers given. And the huge number of undecideds render it impossible to determine any accuracy. The poll really doesn’t give an accurate forecast of what might happen.

The article

An article accompanied the release of the poll  results on stuff and in newspapers. Comments included:

  • Headline: Dunne’s hold on Ohariu shaky – poll
  • Peter Dunne is facing the fight of his political life with a new poll showing he is holding on to the Ohariu electorate by the skin of his teeth.
  • …shows the UnitedFuture leader…could be ousted by Labour’s Charles Chauvel.
  • It put Mr Dunne on 37.4 per cent, less than two points ahead of Labour’s Charles Chauvel on 35.6.
  • Prime Minister leader John Key has urged National voters in Ohariu to back Dunne; he even attended UnitedFuture’s annual conference in August to extol the virtues the Government’s stable support partner.
  • However, Mrs Shanks has been campaigning hard, hitting the malls and building her support.
  • The poll shows voters like her and many are refusing to accept the deal National struck with UnitedFuture in a bid to guarantee it coalition partner after the election.
  • Of those who are going to give their party vote to National, 40 per cent said they would vote for Mrs Shanks.
    ‘What that is saying is that her strength in the electorate is undermining Peter Dunne’s likelihood of retaining the seat,” Mr Epplett said.
  • Mr Dunne had a noteworthy resurgence during the 2002 election campaign…Mr Dunne has struggled to find a winning formula and his popularity has fallen every election; from a giddy 12,500-vote majority in 2002, to 7700 in 2005 and plummeting to 1000 after the 2008 election.
  • it appears voters are becoming irritated with deals done over electorates.
  • At a heated candidates’ debate in Wellington suburb Ngaio this week, Mr Dunne was accused of being a ”fence sitter” who changes his allegiances when voters change the government.
  • The fact that Mr Dunne remains popular in the electorate can be partly attributed to the lifeline National has thrown him.
  • Even the ever popular Mr Key seems unable to convince Ohariu voters to back Mr Dunne.

Balanced against all the negative comments about Dunne and United Future and being reliant on National was one positive:

  • UnitedFuture represents a solid partner which hasn’t faced the dramas that have befallen ACT and the Maori Party over the past term and led to MPs quitting their parties.

And there were two comments about the uncertainty:

  • A massive 34.6 per cent of voters were undecided.
  • Research International spokesman Paul Epplett said that means the race for Ohariu is too close to call.
    ”There are a lot of people who are going to stand in the ballot box and make up their mind at that point in time.”

The media

Those are headline examples, there were other items talking up the electorate “dirty deals” (notably Patrick Gower on TV3) and dismissal of United Future’s chances – a Firstline item on the small parties discussed all the other small parties and flippantly tossed United Future off the end of their report.

The uncertainty seed sown

Obviously there was a degree of uncertainty in Ohariu. Some of this uncertainty was logical. But most of it was based on one small poll that was very uncertain.

Looking at the wider picture it looked more than likely Dunne would prevail. Act succeeded against poll predictions election after election in Epsom. The polls backed Dunne, albeit narrowishly.

The result

It’s obviously impossible to know what caused voters to make up their minds. But it is widely thought that swinging voters are influenced by the chances of success of small parties. If they thing the chance of a party getting into parliament is slim they will look elsewhere so they won’t ‘waste” their vote.

The only result we can be certain of is the election numbers:

  • Peter Dunne 37.4%
  • Charles Chauvel 34.84%
  • Katrina Shanks 18.56%
  • Gareth Hughes 5.8%
  • Other 2.32%

Those results aren’t that far away from the Fairfax poll, a slight widening of the Dunne/Chauvel gap, and a significant jump for Hughes (maybe Greens had another engagement on the evening of the poll).

And Dunne actually increased his majority, to 1392.

What else is known? The 2008 result:

  • Peter Dunne 32.61%
  • Charles Chauvel 29.95%
  • Katrina Shanks 26.53%
  • Gareth Hughes 7.06%

That suggests a shift in tactical voting but no significant change.

After the election Stuff reported in Ohariu: Dunne back for 10th term

Labour’s own polling put Mr Chauvel at 31 per cent, with Mr Dunne on 29 per cent.

Chauvel made a numbr of questionable claims during the campaign – was this actual poll results? It would be good if Chauvel coukld confirm this.

Other polling always indicated Dunne was likely to retain his seat:


 Our three Ignite Polls since March 2010 have shown the following results:

Candidate                                           Range                                   Average

Dunne                                                  31% to 34%                         32.3%

Shanks                                                  19% to 27%                         22.6%

Chauvel                                                21% to 24%                         22%

Hughes                                                 5% to 7%                              6.3%

Don’t Knows                                      12% to 13%                         12%

Lead                                                      4% to 12%                           8%

I understand these results were shown to some media during the campaign, and Dunne publilcy commented on having confidence he would be returned in Ohariu.

The power of polls

There’s been a lot of discussion about the misuse of polls be parties and media.

Jane Clifton wrote on this in the Listener:

The Conservative Party: Creative creationists?

The “polls” that catapulted the Conservatives into prominence barely deserve the name.

The source of the word about the poll? The Conservative Party, which had its eye on Act’s voters – such as they were by then. Then word got around of another poll, showing Craig ahead in the Rodney electorate. Source of the poll? Again, the Conservative Party. Well, good news should be shared, shouldn’t it?

In the rush of the election campaign, the provenance of the polls was never examined by the media.

And it’s well known how easy it is to manipulate online opinion polls and purported serious polls like Horizon and iPredict.

Yet polls are run and reported on by media like they are newsmakers. Like one small poll run by Fairfax in Ohariu, that possibly had a major impact on a party, and on the makeup of the balance of power in parliament.

The conclusion

This is obviously viewed from a United Future perspective but similar applies to all parties.

All parties (and small parties in particular) can stand or fall on the whim of media and polls, and there’s probably not much they can do about it. Media have a lot of electoral power, and there’s little that can be done to effectively contest them or hold them to account.

Is this good for our democracy?

There’s a lot of uncertainty and “ifs” in politics, but should it be a lottery with some people having the power to stack the balls?

Leave a comment


  1. Richard

     /  29th May 2012

    Get over it, he’s yesterday’s man.

    • There’s more important principles involved than one man. Or one party. Accountability, including of media, is important for a democracy.

  2. Yep, you could pretty much get a poll to say whatever you wanted, except the hardest thing to get a poll to say would be that UF are remotely popular.

  3. Steven Wilkinson

     /  30th May 2012

    Peter Dunne is a lier or conspires to hide the truth from the New Zealand public.
    He should stand down immediately in shame. He is basically a lobbyist for the tobacco industry, and alcohol industry.

    • Steven – do you have any facts to back up you claims? I haven’t seen anything supporting those rumours. A few years ago an MP had to apologise for unsubstantiated accusations like that.

      Madam SPEAKER

      In your letter you invited me to send… an unqualified apology to the House and to make an unqualified apology to Mr Dunne through my email newsletter or a similar vehicle.

      The apologies were in relation to comments about Peter Dunne’s voting record on tobacco and alcohol issues in my newsletter Robson-On-Politics in the 1 November 2006 issue.

      I have issued such an apology to Peter Dunne in my Robson-On-Politics in the last issue dated 19 February 2007.

      I now send an unqualified apology to the House of Representatives, through you as Speaker, for the remarks about Peter Dunne and his voting record that were made in my Robson-On-Politics of 1 November 2006.

      Yours sincerely,

      Matt Robson


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