Heather du Plessis-Allan: Don’t underestimate ‘pissy’ middle NZ voters


Earlier this week, Labour’s polling guru made an astonishing admission on the radio. He didn’t think the government expected the blowback they’re getting over the Auckland cycle-bridge decision.

Stephen Mills’ company UMR runs focus groups and polls for Labour. To him, the reaction seemed “right over the top in lots of ways”, led by “Fox News equivalents in Auckland radio”.

Could he be any more out of touch? Could the government be any more out of touch?
Of course ordinary voters were going to hate the Boomer Bike Bridge to Birkenhead. You’d struggle to find a project that does a better job of screaming “middle class indulgence” to people struggling to make ends meet.

When you’re stuck in congestion for close to two hours driving into the city from Pōkeno every morning because that’s the only place you could afford to buy a house, that bridge looks like an indulgence.

When the median price of a house in your suburb is $875,000, you are going to resent paying for a bridge that connects Takapuna to Herne Bay with its $3m median price.

When you’re in one of the 170,000 cars on the Harbour Bridge each day and the Government won’t build another harbour crossing for cars to free up congestion, you are going to be pissy at it building a bridge for 3000 cyclists a day to use.

When you’re in Ashburton and you’ve been begging for a second bridge for years so that your town doesn’t get cut in half like it did last week during the rain storms, you are going to resent being told no, while the Government spends 21 times that money on a luxury bike lane.

When you’re a nurse striking for a pay rise that won’t even match you to your Australian peers you are going to feel angry at the Government saying there’s no money left, only days after promising cyclists close to a billion dollars.

Which of these groups of people is being “right over the top” in their reactions?

The fact that Labour is surprised at our outrage tells me they don’t understand Middle New Zealand voters.

They badly misjudged how much we would object to this spend and how much we would hate the pay freeze just a few weeks ago. They don’t know what we prioritise.

After years of living in a Wellington politics bubble or a university bubble or a union bubble they’ve stopped bumping into normal people. They are relying on focus groups to try to understand us, but focus groups have limits. Focus groups measure people through a series of questions. People are more complicated than that.

To Labour, Middle New Zealanders are a curiosity they occasionally venture out to study like a zoologist heading out to watch a pack of passing giraffes.

But worse than that, there is a hint of class-war snobbery in what Mills said. A certain set of Wellington lefties love to sneer at Auckland-based talkback radio and people who listen to it. They abhor the hosts’ and callers’ opinions. To them, talkback radio is a landscape of uninformed noise.

It is, of course, the complete opposite. Talkback callers are among the most engaged voters in the country. They consume news all day long, hold informed opinions, and care deeply enough to share those opinions. It’s just that their opinions — often based on real experience, not theories — offend intellectual snobs.

To dismiss them — and to dismiss the radio hosts who lead those conversations — is to make a huge mistake. According to this newspaper, NewstalkZB at last count had more listeners than its closest competitor Radio New Zealand for the first time in history. That’s a huge chunk of voters to dismiss and fail to understand.

It’s tempting to believe Labour shares Mills’ attitude, given the PM now refuses to appear on NewstalkZB’s Mike Hosking Breakfast Show weekly. Not worth the effort, apparently. Again, a huge chunk of voters to forgo.

If Labour doesn’t understand these voters and couldn’t predict how deeply we’d resent them prioritising wealthy cyclists over nurses, they’ll struggle to hold on to Middle New Zealand voters for long.

Luckily for them there’s no credible alternative in National at the moment. But they’d be wise to ask their polling guy to start measuring how much of their huge support is rock solid, and how much is soft but staying with Labour because there is nowhere else for pissy Middle New Zealand voters to take their “right over the top” reactions.

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