The Voting Reality - Hopeless

“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

So said Winston Churchill and little has changed. We just commissioned market research to determine what makes New Zealand voters tick and the answers are depressing.

One of the line of questions asked of a poll of 1,000 voters was designed to  determine the factors that contribute to their views on policy. It went like this;

  • Respondents were presented with three electoral options and asked to choose their preferred option (or none of these.)
  • Each option includes a party banner, a policy, a statement of ‘where the money comes from’ and an underlying description of the tax system being promoted: how fair is it?
  • Respondents do the exercise 10 times – each time being presented with different alternatives. They might be a diehard National supporter, but even then, some policies or tax schemes may prove untenable. In other words tax may trump party allegiance.

By studying the collective choices made, 10,000 of them, we can determine the decision architecture of the voter – and also compare the attractiveness of the competing policies, parties, etc. This is how it turned out:


This is where it gets depressing. When the average voter is confronted by a question on policy their primary question is, “is this policy fair on me?”.  That contributes 39% to their decision. Now of course, this is not a question on whether it’s fair on the people of New Zealand but rather – is it fair on me. Do I consider that it’s fair that I should have to pay rather than benefit from this policy? And you can imagine it really means, do I benefit or not. How depressing is that, that when it comes down to it, self-interest predominates – and we wonder why our politicians focus mainly on delivering us candy, and never tell us which taxpayers specifically will be paying for it. Are we really such children?

Next – contributing 31% to our decision – we ask ourselves who is promoting this policy. The importance of this factor reflects the well-known tribalism of NZ politics that sees only 30% of voters ever changing the party they vote for. In other words I support my party whether it’s right or wrong – through thick and thin. Again how childish is that – where a coherent and beneficial policy is rejected because it’s been promoted by a politician of the wrong hue. We recently saw this with Andrew Little rejecting Bill English’s raising of the age of eligibility for NZ Super to 67, even though Labour had previously promoted precisely that policy. This is not unusual in NZ politics – politicians from the”wrong” party cannot possibly have sensible ideas apparently to many voters. Again, pathetic.

The issue of third most concern to the average voter confronted with a new policy is who is going to pay for it.  What we like most of all is seeing those people or those practices we don’t like for whatever reason being hit up to pay the cost. So we love sin taxes, pollution taxes, taxes on rapacious landlords, capitalists, anyone we are jealous of – being the target to fund a policy. So long as it’s not us of course - that type of issue contributes 24% to our decision process.

Which leaves just 6% of the decision-making from the average voter on a policy, left for whether the policy benefits the well-being of New Zealanders as a whole. That consideration is last and certainly least of how we determine our support for a policy being mooted.

When you look at this is there really any chance of New Zealand ever breaking out of the same old, same old Establishment party duopoly with their emphasis on disturbing as little as possible, rather than doing what is good for New Zealanders, current and future. You’d have to doubt it given that voters don’t want anything that doesn’t benefit them directly, want their preferred party to stay in power forever and want someone else to pay for everything. 

That is realpolitik in New Zealand, the land of  entrenched social and economic conservatism. We pity those at the wrong end of the gaping inequality divide, but there is no chance we will be proactive in helping them.


Showing 24 reactions

  • Adrian Tyler
    commented 2017-06-11 20:26:28 +1200
    We are over 70 years from the last great global crisis – Hiltler’s Fascism. My Grandparents generation emerged from it with a sense of vision and collective action – at this time they accepted the Keynesian prescription of higher taxes and nation building. Unfortunately they raised my parents generation, the baby boomers, to feel that the whole world was theirs and no inconvenience should be suffered. That lot has (forgive my generalisation) coasted on the infrastructure built for them and not done much more – we still have one harbour bridge – built in the 50s! It saddens me but historically it appears humans need great crisis to ignite compassion and solidarity. But I think people will respond to the message of solidarity and responding as a whole community if that message is well crafted, there is great tiredness of the extreme narcissism all of our social media has been generating – climaxing in the great Trump!

    However there is also an insight in this that maybe isn’t so bad – as a sociologist and a teacher I long ago noted that all human activity is self interested – even Mother Theresa, Ghandi, and the like. Certainly children learn with incentives better than with an imposed expectation that they should just want to. The same is true of us all. In fact only those with the luxury of relatively extreme affluence have the the spare time and energy to act in purely moral, unself-interested ways. The trick is to notice that self interest and the best case outcomes ARE NOT mutually exclusive. So if TOP can provide policies that better NZ but make life for kiwis easier then it will be onto a winner – often this will be a case of how it is communicated.

    I will finish with an example: When National crows on about its tax cuts no one has challenged that appeal to selfishness with the COST of those tax cuts to Kiwis. If I get $20 dollars a week back in tax cuts but the cost of that is: A catastrophically underfunded DoC and more natives going extinct, exacerbated public health waiting lists, more stress for those on the lowest incomes, less protection of our waterways etc I am going to feel that perhaps it would be better spent elsewhere and collectively to achieve greater and more important outcomes than a few more coffees for me.
  • Rhys Goodwin
    commented 2017-05-06 11:13:06 +1200
    I think voting-for-self is really just a symptom of a lack of engagement. I.e. there is nothing else to vote for. Without visionary leadership to paint a clear picture of where NZ could head over the next 10-50 years, voting-for-self is the obvious last resort.

    If people understand the ‘why’ and are inspired by truly visionary leadership then they will put aside their self-interest in order to contribute to a much larger vision. If they’re not willing to set aside self-interest then it simply speaks to the lack of good leadership.

    But imagine being inspired by a leader or politician who absolutely MUST reject a policy or idea simply because it came from a different party!?? This tribalism is incredibly immature and unproductive. Real caveman stuff. We need a step-change in political maturity, a leadership who can rise above this tribalism and genuinely inspire people.

    The tough part now is that disengagement and disillusionment are well entrenched as a result of decades of gutless ‘leadership’ and status quo. The TOP policies are great but that’s only half the picture, we need a radical new model of engagement where evidence and transparency are king.
  • James Maunder
    commented 2017-04-09 05:55:39 +1200
    It was disheartening to read this post, and then encouraging to read some of the intelligent comment. Particularly Alexei Drummond, who I must thank for articulating my views better than I could have done myself, and even questioning the prevailing anthropocentric world view. The only thing I would add is that with the advent of TOP, at last there is a wholesome political choice for us. I can only hope that these small ripples of sense propagate outward and will grow to have a much larger and ultimately tangible effect on our society.
  • Vincent Jamie McLeod
    commented 2017-04-08 19:53:54 +1200
    I don’t think these results are depressing because I don’t believe that people of other countries vote in different ways. People always put themselves first – altruism is an illusion. This is human nature, unless you meant that human nature was depressing.

    Curious though – the article mentions that the issue of third most concern is who will pay for it, and that people like to see people they don’t like pay for it. Does the equation change in the case where a policy would save money? For instance, cannabis law reform would save New Zealand $400,000,000 a year (according to Treasury figures) – how do people feel about who “pays” for this?

    It seems to me that the percentages would change considerably if the policy under consideration saved the country money across the board.

    I appreciate the genuine effort your party is making to communicate democratically with the voters. The literature you are producing shows that the values of party members are successfully informing the party rhetoric – which is in stark contrast to the Establishment parties.
  • Gary Walls-Renwick
    commented 2017-04-08 09:26:57 +1200
    Lets not get too depressed over these results.I believe most people(esp incl Kiwi) are good natured,intelligent and want a fairer world and society. People are use to the status quo and get sucked in to make quick and easy decisions and choices (sometimes without a lot of thought)- the system encourages this.Also if you are at the bottom of the heap, then you will vote for a party that will give you the most benefit. TOP is changing the conversation and helping refocus issues and choices, based on research not party policy or history.
  • Oliver Krollmann
    commented 2017-04-06 17:39:25 +1200
    During the run-up to the local government elections last year I met voters who wouldn’t vote for a candidate because of his or her body posture, or because of his facial hair, or because he or she was too young. These voters didn’t give a hoot about policy or statements or taxes or rates or who would pay for what or what is fair – they simply disregarded candidates because of their looks or behaviours or age. This means that there are also discriminating elements at work that the above study didn’t include. 
    Unfortunately there’s no way to identify votes that are cast for the wrong reasons, and eliminate these.
    I kind of like the idea of the Swiss-style referenda. Presenting specific questions and alternative solutions (independent of a particular person or party, if possible) to voters might turn their attention more to the topic, and away from people or parties. Combined with a fast, efficient and secure online voting system we could get decisions on current issues and proposals in days or weeks, and keep the public engaged and provide them with the feeling that they’ve been heard. I know that I would like it much more to be able to have my say on various topics and individual policies, rather than having to buy a whole package every three years by ticking a box for a person, and another one for a party.
    Still, that doesn’t address that so many voters will only vote for what appears to be in their self-interest.
  • Oliver Krollmann
    followed this page 2017-04-06 16:04:02 +1200
  • Rusty Kane
    commented 2017-04-04 15:10:02 +1200
    You forget the non-voter who are the largest group .. no doubt a reason why a large percentage don’t vote ..
  • Steve Cox
    commented 2017-04-04 14:35:21 +1200
    I’ve said before that 60% odd of the voters are wedded to the party. They’ll vote Labour or National no matter what. And that makes up most of the 39% “what’s in it for me” and the 31% party first mentioned from the poll.

    The poll picks the primary decider, not how dominant it is. So some-one who’ll vote for “tax cuts for me” may have always voted National and even if there are no tax cuts this election time they’ll probably still vote National even if TOP is offering an 8% tax cut. Because TOP is going to bring in new taxes. New taxes – ooo, evil, evil people.

    How to change all this? Dunno. There is no single answer (which is the politicians’ default setting). Compulsory voting, a tax credit only given to those that vote, term limits, change the voting threshold, Swiss style referenda as Janet mentioned, let 16 year old’s vote, cut the vote off at 70 years, etc. One, some, all?
  • Janet Hyde
    commented 2017-04-04 11:00:31 +1200
    Being always a “swinging voter” I must be one of the 6%.
    We need a more democratic system like the Swiss who 3 or 4 times every year hold public binding referendums covering two or three topics at a time. This engages the public more. It stimulates discussion and debate.
    Our democracy is stymied. The newspapers, the first step in creating a discussion or a debate, are printing more and more opinionated pieces rather than unbiased reported articles or investigative articles. These opinionated articles are usually not offering the facility to immediately “comment” these days, and have you noticed they are printing less “comments,” especially The NZ Herald.
    People need to be prodded, encouraged, motivated to think a bit about where this country is going and there needs to be an immediate easy way to flick thoughts and ideas about. A huge unbiased online public forum!
    People are working long and hard in this country and many do not have the time or energy left to think too much let alone research or write to The Editors!
  • Peter Daily
    commented 2017-04-04 10:35:50 +1200
    With the news media in NZ being right wing, (Following Ruperts orders.) we are fed mainly one partys policies, so not knowing other policies we are compelled to have a selfish vote. hence the majority of selfish votes wins.
  • Kevin FitzGerald
    commented 2017-04-04 10:00:59 +1200
    Sad but true. However the challenge is not to give way to bitterness but to figure out how to grow altruism and collective concern within our society. Winston Churchill was an arrogant member of England’s ruling elite. He wouldn’t have known democracy if it bit him on his fat arse. Condemning the electorate is not going to win TOP any friends.
  • Alexander Gee
    commented 2017-04-04 09:13:46 +1200
    You mean “envious of”. So is this even a vaguely surprising finding? If people didn’t act in these ways would the current political situation exist? However it is nice to have data so thanks for going out and collecting it.
  • John George
    commented 2017-04-04 06:53:51 +1200
    I suppose calling the majority of voters childish and pathetic is a particularly interesting brand of persuasion, even if you are right. As someone pointed out, this survey result is no surprise. We should just rotate major parties reign every 3 years andcdisoensecwithvekections all together. Save us a truckload of money and time. Besides the only realistic alternative in such a small nation as us is a benevolent dictatorship.

    In response to Aleixi’s calling the 5% threshold undemocratic, isn’t that exactly the point of having a threshold by preventing the tail wagging the dog due to MMP. if we didn’t have that threshold wouldn’t that also be undemocratic by holding the majority to ransom by radical minority demands?
  • Angus Wall
    commented 2017-04-03 21:56:18 +1200
    Thanks Alexei. I also think in the short term we need to find a way to awaken the electorate and stimulate critical analysis based on evidence and fact. Unfortunately our media doesn’t provide enough depth or limits the amount of time due to commercial constraints. That’s why I’m a fan of the Democracy Reset policy to sell off TVNZ to invest in public interest investigative journalism.
  • Alexei Drummond
    commented 2017-04-03 21:34:39 +1200
    Angus – I agree that a better educated society is a worthy long-term goal.
  • Angus Wall
    commented 2017-04-03 21:29:40 +1200
    Perhaps if we educated our kids as to the importance of politics and honestly explored the shortcomings of our system we could create generations of better informed voters who wouldn’t have to rely on tribalism or self interest as their guiding principles.
  • Alexei Gladkikh
    commented 2017-04-03 20:30:12 +1200
    What is this obsession of screwing next generation? Studies now showing that generation coming to pension age will have smaller life expectancy then previous one, but every party promote raise of retirement age. And no one talking that we simple need to forget of neoliberal kiwi saver which only provide profits to financial sector and simple return to pay as you go system. No reason to screw up pensions now for hypothetical crisis which may never come. You actually can not sink pay as you go system. In addition, any policy that make eligibility hurder is ridiculous. Everyone who is in country legal resident should have access to pension. We should not create underclass of desperate people.
  • Alexei Drummond
    commented 2017-04-03 18:12:29 +1200
    Being a scientist, I applaud your collection of data. But I am genuinely amused you find any of these results surprising. Of course it is depressing, but surely you noticed all this by living in society as an adult for several decades? There are a small number of people that genuinely care about voting for the common good even when it hurts them (and some of us even go beyond the human species when considering the common good!) I regularly vote for parties proposing higher income taxes on the wealthiest even though my salary is predominantly in the top tax bracket. But the group of people that consistently consider the common good above their own concerns will be a minority for the foreseeable future. Tribalism is a core behaviour of humans and beyond that party allegiance is a shortcut to avoid having to think hard about policy details. Most people lead busy lives and apply rather little thought to politics. It is easier to rely on a trusted party to determine policies for you. Most modern democracies involve delegating the annoying details to politicians and civil servants you hope are acting in a trustworthy fashion. Beyond broad brushstroke goals must voters are not going to be as interested in the details as you or I am. Look how Trump won. He hammered a few popular bite-sized policies over and over and over. If you want a large following you will need to find some very neat bite-sized messages that distinguish you from the rest. It will be hard for you to break into parliament with the un-democratic 5% threshold we have but I really hope you do! We need the kinds of ideas you have in parliament. My ultimate policy platform would be determinedly evidence-based, egalitarian and have a broad view of the goal that would go beyond just the human species and consider the well-being of the global ecosystem we rely on and which increasingly relies on us. It would not encourage me-thinking nor massive accumulation of wealth in a small number of individuals.
  • LIsa Wall
    commented 2017-04-03 17:31:48 +1200
    Neo-liberalism has brought in the ‘me’ mentality rather than a ‘we’ society. Many do not understand that by not creating a compassionate collective society, that we end up paying for it anyway. For example, currently many are living in state housing (or garages, cars etc) there is ‘blame’ placed on these people as it is thought they are at fault for not working hard enough or lazy so deserve what they get. The ‘why should my taxes pay for these people when I work so hard’. Yet what is missed is that, often these living environments are cold and damp, which ends up making people sick. The consequence then is admissions to our hospital wards, when well people are then discharged back to the very environment that made them sick in the beginning, the cycle then repeats. This costs us all in health dollars, meaning that many cannot get the operations that they require, so your parents don’t get their hip ops, or others surgeries of this ilk. There are so many examples of this type of thinking. We have to understand that we all pay one way or another. We are continually the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, we need to change our thinking to being the support crew for all kiwi’s – it benefits us all massively in the long run.
  • Robbie Siataga/Kavanagh
    commented 2017-04-03 15:00:11 +1200
    Irrespective of policy, until we get some firm of online voting, don’t expect any real change.

    As long as the established parties campaign to the largest demographic of voters, baby boomers, the status quo remains in force
  • Mike Howson
    commented 2017-04-03 14:36:52 +1200
    You might struggle to change minds by calling people childish and pathetic.
  • Frank Swinney
    commented 2017-04-03 14:23:23 +1200
    Depressing! Did anything stand out in the age bands?
  • Duncan Stuart
    commented 2017-04-03 13:54:54 +1200
    Good Summary Gareth. It explains also why so many American members of the public, keen to repeal Obamacare, changed their minds when they realised they would have less health care as a result. Your research suggests that our primary critieria for judging policy is: Does it work for people like me?/Does it cost me extra?

    The misfortune for society is that concepts such as ‘justice’ and ‘wellbeing’ get judged in dollar terms. Society has eroded the value of such thoughts.