Thursday 5 April 2012

Clifton's Notes

John Key's Bodyguard? Jane Clifton's latest Listener column uses this week's One News/Colmar-Brunton poll to paint a picture of an electorate grown weary of big ideas and convinced that, in a world of economic woe, life under the National-led Government is about as good as it gets. Especially since none of the other parties could do any better. As spin goes - it's pretty good.

JANE CLIFTON’S ANALYSIS of the latest One News/Colmar-Brunton poll (The Listener, April 14-20, 2012, pp. 12-13) makes fascinating reading. Like me, The Listener’s political columnist is astonished that the National Government appears to have sustained no damage:

It’s as if the whole of this year, with its unending stream of mini-scandals and unpopular announcements, never happened.

But, rather than question the credibility of the poll, Ms Clifton questions us – the people.

The poll’s lack of responsiveness to such carry-on is a total mystery – unless you consider that people might be beginning to have a different relationship with both politicians and the media. As in, perhaps they are just filtering out the argy-bargy, and the strongest, bossiest prognostications, because they no longer trust any sort of absolutism.

Who would have thought that Jane (Wot, me an intellectual? Geddaway wif ya!) Clifton would end up putting such a smooth, post-modernist spin on her analysis? This is nothing less than Jean Francois Lyotard’s “incredulity towards meta-narratives” translated into Wadestown dinner-party-speak.

Thrown in for good measure is an impressive little riff on the political impact of globalisation:

[V]oters may now be viewing domestic political noise in the light of wider global realities, and this could be making them more sanguine about the brush fires.

Only a few years ago we were gazing longingly at Ireland’s economic prowess, and now we see the Celtic Tiger declawed and practically auctioning its stripes to stay afloat. That has to have an impact on how we view stringencies here.

Ms Clifton’s voter is nothing if not sophisticated. Grown incredulous of “absolutist” meta-narratives, she is reassessing her expectations of politics and politicians in the light of dramatically re-ordered global realities. This paragon of civic responsibility understands that:

Not just now, but for the foreseeable future, our normal economic reckoning has had to change, and perhaps it’s political noises about that stuff that we’re listening for, while screening out the rhetoric and theatre.

John Key is blessed indeed to have such a journalistic bodyguard. Because, if we carefully dig into Ms Clifton’s analysis, what we find is a core proposition of confidence and satisfaction. Apparently, Mr Key’s National Party-led administration is about as good as it gets these days:

Do we really think Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First would be able to govern without making similar or equivalent cuts and trade-offs?

Austerity, lowered expectations, a default cynicism towards anything smacking of “rhetoric and theatre”: this, according to Ms Clifton, is the new black of political discourse. Get used to it.

Democracy itself: the whole notion of an engaged citizenry holding their rulers to account, dissolves before our eyes in Ms Clifton’s clever prose:

It’s possible a lot of people now see politicians’ squabbles rather in the way they view Kim Kardashian’s bottom – as something to contemplate to pass the time in a supermarket checkout queue, but not as any useful pointer to character or competence.

Guy Debord, who gave us “The Society of the Spectacle” would no doubt feel vindicated by Ms Clifton’s description of the vacuity of contemporary political life. Way back in 1967 he observed: “The spectacle presents itself as a vast inaccessible reality that can never be questioned. Its sole message is: ‘What appears is good; what is good appears.’ The passive acceptance it demands is already effectively imposed by its monopoly of appearances, its manner of appearing without allowing any reply.”

And isn’t that the entire purpose behind Ms Clifton’s treatment of the One News/Colmar-Brunton poll? Our unquestioning acceptance of its findings is secured by making us collaborators in our own compliance. In the world Ms Clifton has constructed, Kiwis are no longer interested in big explanations or big solutions; because it’s a jungle out there, economically, and we’re doing better than most; and, anyway, nobody could run things any better; because all political parties are really the same; and that’s why more than half of us are sticking with the devil we know.

But let’s just examine that One News/Colmar-Brunton poll for a moment. As presented on people’s screens it is already a highly misleading document. For a start, where is the information about how many people were contacted by the pollster, and of those how many consented to being questioned? It’s not there. Nor is the number of respondents who said they didn’t know, or were uncertain, about who to vote for. Or, those who declared they wouldn’t vote at all. What we see on our screens are the rounded-up levels of support for each party after the “Undecideds” and “Won’t Votes” are dropped out.

We are told by Colmar-Brunton that their raw data is massaged to ensure it accurately reflects the gender, ethnic and residential contours of the population – presumably based on Census data that is now at least 6 years out-of-date. What we are not told is that Colmar-Brunton makes no allowance for the distribution of household income in New Zealand.

Turnout for the 2011 General Election, at 74.21 percent of registered voters, and 69.6 percent of eligible voters, was one of the lowest on record. Did Colmar-Brunton ever draw our attention to the possibility that between 25-30 percent of New Zealand voters might abstain from voting altogether? Did they draw any conclusions as to the likely impact of such a high abstention rate on the final result? No, they didn’t. And, apparently, TVNZ didn’t ask.

Only in the last line of her column does Ms Clifton draw attention to the fact that the polls are not always accurate predictors of electoral outcomes:

Or, as Jim Bolger said in 1993 when he unexpectedly almost lost the election. ‘Bugger the pollsters’.

And even here, she gives herself away. Because for those of us on the Left of New Zealand politics; those who’d been involved with the Alliance; those who’d watched the growth of New Zealand First; there was nothing unexpected about the closeness of the 1993 result. Indeed we were absolutely gobsmacked that any prime minister, after presiding over swingeing budget-cuts and spiralling unemployment figures, could possibly have given credence to opinion polls telling him he was going to win at a canter.

Far from existing in the best of all possible post-modernist worlds, New Zealand in 2012 is seething with anger and frustration. And by no means all of it is directed at John Key’s government. Many voters are just as fed up with the Labour Party and its seeming incapacity to either understand their aspirations, or articulate their rage. If any group has a 51 percent share at the moment it is surely the group that's crying: “A plague on all your houses!”

Ms Clifton will have none of that, however. And really, how could she? When was she last locked-out of her workplace? When did the bank last foreclose on her home? When was the last time she went hungry so her children could eat?

When the pollsters and the networks start asking those questions, Jane, write us another column. And, when you can answer them yourself, perhaps you’ll understand why so many of us remain sceptical of their “snap-shots”.

Not everybody lives in Wadestown.

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.


Tiger Mountain said...

Sad really, Jane has only ever noted the ‘squiggles’ of political life, widescreen not her thing. Sad too that the once mighty Listener went out with a whimper at least 5 or more years ago.

Anonymous said...

This is what democracy looks like, Chris.

I'd have to disagree about the reasons for voter indifference. It's not any sort of sophistication, but rather the opposite. They're all clueless about what is happening.

Victor said...

Polls have their limittations

Even so, there is some truth in the notion that NZ voters are more influenced than heretofore by international comparisons, global trends etc.

But there's one international comparison to which their attention is rarely drawn.

Last time I looked, our government debt to GDP ratio stood at just 29%, compared with 100% for the United States, 60% plus for the UK, 70% plus for France and, of course, 166% for Greece.

So why, on earth, are we destroying our governmental fabric, imposing hardship on the vulnerable and stymieing our export growth , when, by any reasonable comparison, we just don't have a government debt problem.

Time to retire the razor gang?

Nick said...

Jane writes for the Listener, who week after week run regular missives about "middle class" angst. These invariably raise the bogey of prior decades of command economies etc and use them to justify extreme neo lib solutions to any perceived threat to nice cosy "middle NZers" incomes / health / education etc. After years of getting the said (newly turned) neo Lib rag (Listener) I wrote to them, noted the revenue loss of 30 years worth of subscription, and said in terms they (as corporate business type)s would understan,) "you are fired"!

Pete said...

Of course, out comes the Roy Morgan poll today and it shows a definite swing to the left - particularly the Greens. I think the Colmar-Brunton was a rogue, but Shearer needs to land some hits on National this year to make the opposition look like a government in waiting.

Sanctuary said...

And on cue, Roy Morgan reports their poll - taken over the same timespan - as having National at 44% and the Greens at 17% - a whopping 7% and 6% different from Colmar Brunton. This is way out of whack. Collar-brunt on unusually did not publish undecided figures, and it seems to me that The most likely explanation of the difference in these polls is TVNZ commissioned a cheapskate poll using dodgy ( but cheap) methodologies then reported this flimsy polling dataassolemn writ.

Anonymous said...

Oh she of little faith. A beautiful morgan has dawned.


Anonymous said...

Hey lay off Wadestown.

Some really nice people live there.

Actually I lived there for many years and found as many "bolshie" lefties as "right wing Morons" occupied the same suburb, often as neighbours.

Mercure said...

Well, the Roy Morgan poll just out tonight (Thursday) may be more reflective of reality!
"The poll shows support for National fell 4.5 per cent, to 44 per cent, while support for Labour rose 0.5 per cent, to 30.5 per cent.

The Greens picked up 4.5 per cent, boosting its support to a record high of 17 per cent.

Support for the Maori Party rose 0.5. to 1.5 per cent, while support for New Zealand First was unchanged on five per cent."

"Roy Morgan executive chairman Gary Morgan said it was the first time since the 2008 election that support for the Labour and Green parties (47.5 per cent) was greater than support for National (44 per cent).

"Today's result shows that while National continues to enjoy a strong lead by itself, a combination of left-leaning parties could form Government if there was a shock election in the near future.''

Now, how will Ms Clifton spin this?!

Stephen L said...

Given the election was only 6 months ago, I suspect a natural denial among many people- especially those that voted National- that they got it wrong. Given the poll inevitably asked which party would you vote for today (or similar question); and not a gradient score like "Are you very happy, happy, or not very happy, with the government?", then it could well be that moderate supporters are at least questioning their opinions. Labour has not yet articulated a different vision- presumably Shearer, Bryan Gould, and David Cunliffe are working on something. So its not a surprise that the government's appearance of moderate incompetence and sleaze has not yet affected a simple yes/no poll; but they risk a very quick shift if Labour do come up with a half decent plan.

Kat said...

How dare you question right wing 'authority' let alone the 'polls'.

gnomic said...

Isn't this a case of strange bedfellows? An error so egregious as to make its perpetrator unworthy of any further serious consideration? Particularly as a political journalist? Imagine a Chinese wall with Muzza; provided your stomach doesn't turn at the thought of pillow talk. It certainly is too bad about the Listener.

Cactus Kate said...

Roy Morgan is a bullshit poll.
As is any poll showing ACT currently on .5% support. I am the only ACT voter left and they don't dial international numbers.

Francesca said...

Why pick on Wadestown? Why not Mt Eden? Or is that too closw to home

Anonymous said...

So the Roy Morgan poll shows that parties with little or no idea of what to do about our current problems are the most popular among the voters (the Greens are included now that they have become even more of a tiresome yuppie party).

Colour me surprised.

If only reality played some role in contemporary politics...

CAS said...

Yes Kate, look at all the votes that ACT got at the last election. Face it, the Roy Morgan poll is a fair reflection on that Chuckle Brothers party that your beloved ACT - as in has become. Also, I think your avatar is triggering my Antivirus software. I think there's a joke in there somewhere.

The Colmar Brunton poll did seem rather, ehem, suspect but I didn't expect it to report the exact opposite of what RM showed. I guess I was thinking "hmm, maybe National might some how get a 1, maybe 1.5% rise in support? Not really sure why though." And then I saw their findings.

Shona said...

Thanks Chris, I long ago tired of Ms Clifton's shallow, ignorant limited view of life. Like her I am a well educated middle class pakeha woman who lives in a wealthy culturally diverse part of NZ.
The difference is that the wittering overpaid prattlers of Wellington's leafy suburbs don't see my place of residence, the Far North, that way.Consequently there's a whole bunch of 21st century NZ that they will never understand.

Frank said...

As I posted under "Lies, Damn Lies, and Mainstream Media Polling", neither the Colmar Brunton poll nor the recent Roy Morgan Poll are even remotely reassuring for National.

In fact, they show quite the opposite. I'm surprised very few have picked up on the quite-obvious downward trend for National;

If I were a member of National's politburo, I would be viewing both polls with dismay.

The simple truth is, National IS going down in the polls. The hopelessness of this government is beginning to impact in the collective psyches of New Zealanders.

Expect another downward movement in the next poll.

Anonymous said...

The voters that support National (some-what begrudgingly at times) are forced to, as there are no real alternatives that don’t belong to the flat earth society and dance naked at the solstice. The western world’s love of borrowing for welfare has finally come home to roost. As long as Labour is stuck on tax and spend and borrow none of us are going to vote for them. I have not heard one tangible policy on how to reduce our debt as a nation just the opposite from Shearers’ apparatchiks -just more drivel on growing the pie for re-distribution. Key is the Teflon Don. If Shearer was prepared to show some balls and reverse working of families and interest on student loans costing 4 billion a year to service that we borrow I just might vote for him.

Victor said...

Anonymous @ 4.54

I think you're missing a whole series of points.

You accuse Labour of pursuing policies of tax, spend and borrow. But you ignore the fact that National has pursued a somewhat more profligate policy of reducing tax (for the better off) but nevertheless spending and

There is actually no alternative to spending as, somehow or other, the country needs to be governed. We might quarrel over areas of priority (BTW I half agree with you over "Working for Families"). But you can't live in New Zealand for a day without the inadequacies of our under-funded state becoming disturbingly apparent.

Nor is there anything inherently problematic about state expenditure, given our outstandingly good government debt to GDP ratio, the work of a series of very 'dry' Finance Ministers, including Michael Cullen.

As I wrote earlier on this thread, our debt to GDP ratio stands at just 29%, compared with 100% for the United States, 60% plus for the UK, 70% plus for France and, of course, 166% for Greece. It is not, in itself, a problem and could, if government saw fit, be further reduced by abandoning National's tax cuts.

But the gap between government revenue and expenditure does tend to exacerbate our much larger and more ominous external deficit.

What are the causes of this deficit?

To start with, we are still in love with real estate. This is a cultural 'meme' of New Zealand that persists in defiance of our incompetence as builders and renovators or our gullibility as purchasers.

As a result, capital that could be invested in restructuring our economy, gets spent on what, in most other OECD countries, is a much less dominant aspect of national expenditure.

At the same time, we need to borrow big to fund this obsession. Hence the iconic significance of all those parsimonious Japanese housewives, to whom we remain massively in debt.

Offering direct tax cuts to the comparatively wealthy whilst imposing indirect tax increases on the majority (viz. increased GST), further exacerbates the problem.

In good times (and all times are good to those with rose-tinted spectacles), the better off will be tempted to use their tax cuts to help fund property purchases. Normally, this will involve more imported capital and greater indebtedness.

In bad times, however, the better off will tend to sit on any increased income.

Either way, they are not doing New Zealand a great deal of good. In contrast, the comparatively less well off tend to use any additional funding on immediate consumption, which can at least add bouyancy to our domestic economy.

I could continue but I somehow doubt that you are open to this line of reasoning. It's a pity, because we're only going to be able to mend our economy if we give up our totally unwarranted obsession with reducing government expenditure.

At the very best, this obsession is a deflection from reasoned discourse over our real problems. At worst, it might yet lead us into national bankruptcy.

If that happened, dancing naked at the solstice might be the only diversion we have from an otherwise very grim and depleted existence.

Frank said...

Victor - well sussed. And with media headlines now becoming more common along the lines of "Key defends tax cuts in light of zero Budget" and "Government in $112b barney over accounting" - I think we can see where this is going.

Pretty much thye same way it went for Shipley & Co in 1999: not well.