The ODT recalls that in 1999 National slumped to 28% in an opinion poll. But the party led by Jenny Shipley slowly regained support while Labour lost it and was just able to form a minority coalition government on election night with the Alliance Party.
At times during the previous months, Labour’s polled support had led to speculation it would be able to govern alone; often, New Zealand First was cited as the crucial factor in the formation of any government.
The point of these reflections is that whatever opinion polls may indicate before an election, gaps between parties tend to close before the real poll – and the real poll is a long way off yet – and the coalition deal-making afterwards can have the major influence on the final determination.
The trend since 2002 has shown steadily increasing support for National and a similar decline for Labour, but what happens to support for the wee parties may determine the shape of the next Government.
Long-term trends in opinion polls of more recent vintage show that having enjoyed an average lead over National of 10 percentage points early in 2005, Labour is now 25 percentage points behind.
It is also seemingly out of favour in the community generally, at a time when economic conditions are biting some voters and their families quite hard.
This means Labour will go into the election with little to offer but its record of management, whereas a majority of people, indifferent to the record, may simply want to bid for a new manager as a form of punishment or an expression of their anger.
It won’t be the first time that voters have been motivated by anger.
Economic forecasts for the immediate future do not look likely to help Labour and its allies. The economy has contracted for the first time since 2005, led by the housing market. Interest rates are higher, as is inflation.
The outlook for our exports is also problematical in the short term, with rapidly rising fuel prices somewhat counteracting higher food prices. But this year’s drought has not helped export production in the agricultural sector.
In the first three months of the year, primary-sector output contracted by 4.1%, the worst result since the Clark Government was elected. The construction and manufacturing sectors have also declined, by 5.2% and 1.2% quarter on quarter respectively, reducing growth by half a percentage point between them.
Private consumption has fallen by 0.4%, for the first time since 2004, and the labour market is deteriorating, experiencing its steepest decline in the first three months of 2008 since the late 1980s. Investment is weak and so is the sharemarket, and to judge by the failures of numerous investment companies, confidence is not likely to improve in a hurry.
The appreciation of the New Zealand dollar in the past two years has added to the general woes and has not been helpful to our tourism sector. The opinion of the Reserve Bank that consumer price inflation will peak at 4.7% in the September quarter (from 3.4% in the quarter to March) means the Government has little prospect of directly improving the situation it faces, despite holding out the prospect of tax cuts which, in most households, will have long since been swallowed up in extra costs.
Then there’s the power crisis concern over the power supply, steep increases in the price of necessities and the many signs of third termitis plaguing Labour.
In medieval villages, the ringing of a bell prompted the curfew requiring people to extinguish fires and lights as night fell and, if we judge the country’s present mood and the pathetically juvenile conduct of its members in Parliament this week to represent one and the same thing, then the opinion polls are tolling a curfew of some kind.
It is increasingly hard to detect that this is a country with confident, optimistic people forging ahead. It is rather beginning to resemble a kindergarten where everyone is throwing a tantrum, including the supervisors.
If Parliament this week was a portent of the election campaign, then people in their present frame of mind will want nothing of it. And that will serve nothing for the betterment of our way of life and nation.
Surely, our politicians have noticed that in the United States election campaign, running parallel with ours, truth-telling politics that stands above party political bickering has been identified as the chief desire of the electorate and principal ambition of both Mr Obama and Mr McCain.
Negative politics at a time of considerable anxiety and strain on families is profoundly frustrating for voters, and debilitating for the country. It is time it ceased.
Mud sticks to the hand that throws it. If Labour continues with its personal attacks on John Key it will be the one that ends up covered in dirt.