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John Armstrong opinion: National could emerge from 'one of the bleakest episodes in its long history' despite poll result

A bottle half empty? Or a bottle half full?

National leader Judith Collins. Source: 1 NEWS

Last Tuesday’s release of the findings of the latest 1 NEWS Colmar Brunton poll were somewhat overshadowed by the same evening’s live television debate between the leaders of the two major parties.

And more’s the pity.

There had been a seven-week gap between that poll and the previous such nationwide voter survey. At the time that prior poll was conducted, Judith Collins was barely 10 days into her leadership of the National Party.

A great deal has happened since then. But the results of the latest poll are such as to suggest that nothing has changed. Or has it?

It would seem most people glanced at the respective party ratings and noted backing for National had slipped from 32 to 31 per cent on the previous 1 NEWS poll. 

What amounts to a mediocre showing by one of the main parties would have confirmed the widespread view that National is out for the count in next month’s election.

That prognosis would have been reinforced by Labour meanwhile continuing to register support at a level which would enable the party to govern alone without being shackled to New Zealand First or the Greens.

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Jacinda Ardern visited a hospital, while Judith Collins went to a seafood factory. Source: 1 NEWS

There is another way of reading the poll’s findings, however.

The result could have been a lot worse for the major opposition party. Had backing for National slipped below 30 per cent in the 1 NEWS poll, that would have raised the prospect of the party plumbing the kind of depths akin to the level of that recorded by the party at the 2002 election when National’s share of the vote fell below 21 per cent. 

It could be thus argued that Collins has stemmed the vote-bleeding such that National could yet emerge from one of the bleakest episodes in its long history with a semi-respectable result on October 17.

Things are not as simple as that, however.

Back in 2002 — as in 2020 — the polls were unanimous: Bill English-led National had no chance of defeating Helen Clark’s Labour-led Government. 

Voters deserted National in the tens of thousands either for New Zealand First or Peter Dunne’s United Future. 

The intention of of those voters was to leave Clark no option but to have to cobble together a government that included at least one of those two centre parties which would consequently have the leverage to block or stall overtly left-wing policies promoted by Labour.

Voter backing for Dunne’s party jumped from less than one per cent to not far short of seven per cent during the final four weeks of that election campaign. 

Fast forward a couple of decades and history would appear to be repeating itself.

Well, not quite. Like 2002, no-one thinks National can win the election. Unlike 2002, there is no credible centre party to act as a fulcrum between left and right. 

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United Future is now a footnote to history.

New Zealand First looks headed for the knacker’s yard. A vote for Winston Peters risks being a wasted vote. 

The same applies to the swarm of arch-conservative parties which have mushroomed on the right of the political spectrum.

Some voters are clearly drifting from National to the likes of the New Conservatives and Advance New Zealand. The combined share of the vote of all the “outlier” parties currently stands at around five per cent. None of those parties has much chance of clearing the five per cent threshold on its own — thus adding to that pile of wasted ballot papers.

Which leaves ACT. That party has become the repository for the protest vote on the centre-right, registering seven per cent in this week’s 1 NEWS poll.

It would be a surprise if ACT does not reach double figures in subsequent polls.

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The 1 NEWS poll might be good news for National wrapped in bad news. 

ACT’s rise from the dead may be at National’s expense. But that shift in votes means they are retained by the centre-right.

Those National MPs of optimistic mind — and they would have to be insanely optimistic to think it could happen — can point to a scenario which, if the cards fall the right way, offers a glimmer of hope that National could yet return to power.

Only a glimmer mind you. No more than that.

Were backing for Labour to slide by a further five percentage points below the party’s current standing of 48 per cent in the latest poll and were all those votes to head National’s way and were both the Greens and New Zealand First to fail to clear the five per cent threshold, then things could get very dramatic. At that point, the possibility of a National-ACT coalition government looms into view.

Admittedly, there are a lot of “ifs” which need to come into fruition before such a scenario can even come close to happening.

One thing has definitely happened though. 

Beginning with last week’s promise of temporary tax cuts and then her victory in Tuesday’s debate, Collins has grabbed this somnolent election by the scruff of the neck and shaken it into life.

Collins won the first debate hands down. She has to win again next Wednesday in the second of the three scheduled television debates.

One thing’s for sure. Jacinda Ardern turned up for the first debate more in body than in mind.

She won’t be making that mistake again.