How poll-driven is John Key and the Government? To an extent, but I think by how much is overstated. Probably substantially overstated.
It’s common to see suggestions and accusations that Key and the Government make on-the-hoof issue responses and policy decisions based on opinion polls and focus groups.
For example general insinuations like this from Heather du Plessis-Allan.
…John Key, the PM whose only firm belief is a country should be run like a policy popularity contest.
More specifically like this from Martin Thrupp:
Overall it does come back to the understanding and outlooks of the public, both because our political leaders are elected and because today’s governments are so poll-driven.
Tim Watkins in Cure for third-termitis? A dose of the polls:
The big lesson from this past year of politics is that National under John Key (and Joyce) is willing to turn on a dime and do as many u-turns as polling tells them are needed, to stay popular. More than ever in its third term, National will bend like a Len Lye sculpture to match public opinion, even if it makes them hypocrites.
Last September Bryce Edwards focussed on poll driven politics – Political roundup: A Government that listens too much:
A poll-driven government
Ex-Act leader Rodney Hide has a very thoughtful and damning critique, complaining that “Policy is now made by public feel. Every decision is open to review and reversal especially if the pushback is from middle voters” – see: It’s polls, not policies, that count in politics.
“The polls matter. They are all that matters. Middle voters by definition have no interest in political philosophy or principle. They have no interest in policy debate or argument. Their political support is fickle. Political power is decided by those who have the least interest and who are moved by the shallowest of reasons.”
On the left, there’s also an increasing awareness of just how poll-driven this government is. On The Standard, Greg Presland reflects on how the Government deals with problems: “When a crisis erupts National looks messy. It takes a few days for them to take soundings and work out what politically is the best line to take. This also describes National’s second problem. They look like they are opinion poll driven fruit loops. Everything seems to be on the table as long as it may be popular as opposed to right” – see: Twelve long months.
And then Green MP Gareth Hughes in his open speech in Parliament this year:
On Election night 2011 you first thanked your pollster.
You are our most poll-driven PM ever, yet after all these years we still don’t know what you stand for bar the jokes and three line slogans.
So is Key dictated to by the polls, or has it become a lazy diss. At other times there are claims Key is dictated to by the USA, and at other times again by world bankers. It can’t be all of them.
It came up again last week after Key had switched from claiming there was nothing to worry about and nothing to do about overseas trusts and tax avoidance to announcing an expert review of the issues being raised by the Panama papers.
Danyl at Dim-Post in Panama Papers thoughts said:
In terms of Key’s reversal from last week on whether our trusts need investigation, I wonder if National now have a formal process in which they respond to breaking stories like this.
- Phase one. Deny everything while blaming Labour.
- Stage two. Poll.
- Stage three. If the polling hits some pre-arranged benchmark then reverse your position and/or announce an inquiry.
But in this case the time frame raised doubts – Key was confronted by the Panama papers in Parliament on Tuesday two weeks ago, and had recruited tax expert John Shewan by the weekend and announced the tax review last Monday.
Polls must take time to organise, to carry out – generally polling is done over several days – and to analyse and report on.
The pollster Key thanked on election night was David Farrar. I asked him this:
There’s been the usual claims of flip flops, u turns and being poll driven over the trust and tax review.
Are you able to tell me whether Key reacts to issues that blow up with polls or focus groups that he then uses to decide how to deal with them?
It would seem to me that doing a useful sort of poll and then organising someone to run a significant review might take longer than a few days.
Can you give me any idea about whether reactive on-the-fly polling is done?
He wasn’t able to give me specific information but answered in general:
I can’t comment in detail except to say polls and focus groups take considerable time to arrange and do, and generally if you see any shift in position on an issue within say a week, it will not have had any formal research done on it.
That’s believable. It doesn’t take much thought to see that a credible poll can’t be run overnight. Online polls are done quickly at the whim of media but have no scientific basis to them and are highly unreliable. In any case private polling can’t be done that publicly without being noticed.
Farrar also commented:
People forget that most politicians are quite adept at working out the public mood, without formal research.
Key mixes with a lot of people. His office has a large staff, a number of whom are employed to research, and a number of others are employed to monitor media and public opinion. He and his Ministers also have access to many advisers in various departments, and collectively with all their MPs have contact with many people throughout the country.
Key also seems to have a good feel for which issues can be ignored or fobbed off without cause any damage, and which issues deserve attention and in some cases changes of approach to dealing with them. This being in tune with the political winds is one reason for his and National’s continued relative popularity.
So while internal polling seems to be an important part of Key’s success, important enough to publicly thank Farrar on election night, there are many other ways for Key to gauge both public opinion and expert opinion.
And expert opinion on things like foreign trusts and tax avoidance must be more useful to a Prime Minister than public opinion, whether sensed or measured by poll or focus group.
And, while polling is very unlikely to have figured in Key’s u turn on a trust/tax inquiry, in general is keeping tabs on public opinion a bad thing?
In response to Danyl’s dim post Tinakori commented:
My god, a government that often listens to public opinion and/or waits to see if there is substance in an issue. Is that weird or what? Surely you don’t expect a government to announce an inquiry into a subject the moment it becomes a news story or an issue in Parliament. The public sector would be engaged in nothing but inquiries if that were the case. Some issues resonate and some don’t. Some issues have substance and some don’t. Some issues have legs and others don’t…….
Prime Ministers and Governments will be damned if there’s a perception they are out of touch and ignoring the public.
And they will be damned if there’s any perception they waver in the wind of public opinion.
Key has probably had a poll done that has told him to ignore any unsubstantiated claims that he is poll-driven /sarc.
Listening to public opinion is hardly going to bring down a Government because it is become too out of touch.