The coronavirus pandemic has helped to boost the popularity of many governments. In France, the popularity of President Emmanuel Macron has greatly improved during the crisis. Even in Italy, which has been very heavily hit by the coronavirus pandemic, there has been a significant  increase in support among the public for PM Giuseppe Conte and his government. In Australia the popularity of Prime Minister Scott Morrison has surged. But at the height of the recent bushfires, he was in danger of sinking without a trace. In New Zealand Jacinda Ardern and her Labour-led government are enjoying a similar boost in popularity. But will it last?

IN THE AFTERMATH of the March 2019 Christchurch terrorist attack, Labour climbed to its highest poll number since February 2018. An April Colmar Brunton poll saw Labour rising three percentage points to 48 percent with National dropping three points to 40 percent - its lowest poll number since September 2017. Jacinda Ardern peaked with a 51 percent approval rating.

But in the months after the attack Labour's support began to slowly ebb away as electoral politics returned to 'normal'. A February 2020 Colmar Brunton poll saw National leaping ahead of Labour at 46 percent with Labour at 41 percent. Although Labour increased its support by two points, it was the first increase in the polls Labour had enjoyed in months. In November 2019 its support had dropped to 39 percent.

Responding to the poll political commentator Bryce Edwards said:

'Delivery has been the biggest issue for this government. They have failed on delivering on their big promises of inequality and housing. Labour may struggle to mobilise their fanbase come the next election; people are beginning to suspect this government is more interested in style over substance. And the gloss has definitely come off Ardern.'

I think this observation remains largely true but the coronavirus has turned parliamentary politics upside down. With New Zealand going into a severe lockdown on March 25 and only cautiously emerging from it now, Labour has surged into a huge lead over National with 56 percent support. National is well back on 30 percent.

The new polling numbers though are hardly surprising given that Jacinda Ardern has effectively been  the only game in town over the past several weeks. All the failures of her government and the many broken promises have been temporarily forgotten about.

In times of crisis - and there's never been bigger crisis than the coronavirus pandemic in the modern era - the media mainly focus their attention on the incumbent government and the measures they are taking. With Jacinda Ardern enjoying extensive media attention she would not have received in normal circumstances, the fight against the pandemic soon became identified with Ardern with most of her ministers in her government fading into the background. And there aren't any political leaders who have ever enjoyed the opportunity to address the nation each day at 1pm on both TVNZ and TV3 for weeks on end.

In these exceptional circumstances, Simon Bridges and the National Party were left largely watching from the sidelines, offering the occasional criticism. And even that, in some quarters at least, was interpreted as being an attempt to 'undermine' the fight against the pandemic. Bridges, as an opposition leader, has found himself in uncharted territory and its unlikely anyone else would have done any better.

But opinion polls can only offer a snapshot of the moment and this is especially so in the highly volatile times we are living. Unless the coronavirus begins to spread again, the lead that Labour presently holds over National will inevitably narrow. National will be hoping that the anger and discontent that will be generated by the deepening economic recession, which is looking more like a depression by the day, will translate into much better polling numbers.

While the opinion polls give us all something to talk in the social media, we should not be distracted from the fact that, even in these uncertain times, we're still going to end up with a market-led government in September, regardless of who wins. Neoliberalism has yet to be laid to rest and the jostling for position between Labour and National only goes to highlight the absence of a truly progressive party on the New Zealand political landscape. Nothing that is happening now is likely to convince the some 700,000 plus folk who no longer vote to return to the polling booths in September. 


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