It’s polls, not policies, that count in politics

Policy is now made by public feel.   Rodney Hide discusses his latest column on NBR Radio and on demand on MyNBR Radio.

Policy is now made by public feel. Every decision is open to review and reversal especially if the pushback is from middle voters.

And it works. Prime Minister John Key remains wildly popular and National is well ahead in the polls.

There was a time when government was idealised as rational, with the aim to deliver the best policy backed by a political resolve not to blink and with the benefits to be achieved, or at least understood, by the time of the next election.  

It was never such but that was the ideal aspired to. It was what public servants were taught if not what they practised. And it was what politicians admired even if they themselves never quite possessed the needed intellectual grunt to grasp policy options and implications or the necessary political fortitude to stand and argue for sound policy. They nonetheless admired the ideal and followed it when there was political leadership.

That was back a time. This is now.

We have never had a better demonstration of policy by public feel than with Mr Key.

There are no bottom lines. There are no decisions that can’t be overturned. There are no guiding policy principles or political philosophy.

It’s policy management, not policy reform.

It’s a recipe for the status quo and stagnation. There are no thrills and, more importantly, no spills. There is no achievement or lifting of the country’s sights of what could be. The political virtue is all in the “steady as she goes” rather than the use of political power to improve the country’s lot.  

The arbiter of the country’s direction are middle voters. They switch their vote election to election. They determine who governs. The very fact they switch their vote between, say, National and Labour is what gives them power. They have to be wooed, won and then kept.

The polling between elections now matters. The middle voters can’t be lost and then won back because a government’s legitimacy is now judged by public polls. The polls matter. They are all that matters.

Middle voters by definition have no interest in political philosophy or principle. They have no interest in policy debate or argument. Their political support is fickle. Political power is decided by those who have the least interest and who are moved by the shallowest of reasons.

Middle voters are spooked by change. If it’s explained to them we have policy A and the government is proposing B, they will oppose B. If you tell them it’s B and the government is proposing A, they will oppose A. They like certainty and security. Change frightens them.

The two policies that stand out with Mr Key’s name attached are the national cycleway and the flag referendum. This is smart politics. It’s hard even for middle voters to feel at risk with these two policies. Mr Key’s resistance to policy change and debate has meant his opponents have failed utterly to demonise him despite their best efforts.

His political style and instinct is not that of a Margaret Thatcher, a Ronald Reagan or a Roger Douglas. Mr Key’s skill and instinct is in not rocking the boat and being able and willing to review and reverse any decision.

We have seen it with the taking of extra Syrian refugees. We are seeing it with the push for the Red Peak flag. Mr Key is having to gauge public feeling and open up to the possibility of allowing Red Peak on the ballot. It won’t take much. A few middle voters changing their minds on the whim is all that’s needed.

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