ACT leader David Seymour has put Treaty issues at the top of the agenda. Photo / Michael Cunningham
Seven per cent of voters think the Treaty of Waitangi is the “most important issue” influencing their vote, seven times the number claiming “education” the top issue.
The most recent Taxpayers
Union-Curia poll asked voters what was the most important issue influencing their vote. The poll found the Treaty tied for third place, equal with “health” and “law and order”.
The cost of living remained the most important issue, polling 24 per cent. The economy was the second most important issue at 11 per cent.
That’s the lede, as they say in the business.
Treaty issues, so long dormant, have become a top-tier political issue. Up there with health, and ahead of the likes of housing (5 per cent), the environment (4 per cent), tax (3 per cent), poverty (3 per cent), and employment (2 per cent).
What’s going on?
Well, let’s put the caveats up front. This is one poll, and it was taken over one of the most fractious Waitangi periods in recent political history. Every political year begins with celebrations and commemorations at Rātana Pā and Waitangi (this year added the hui-ā-motu), which naturally means the focus is on Maori issues. These also occur during a period when Parliament isn’t sitting, which means Māori issues aren’t just on the agenda – they’re the only issue on the agenda until Parliament cranks into gear in February.
One poll isn’t a trend, it’s a single data point. But it is an interesting data point nonetheless, and it’s one worth jotting down. It might be nothing. The electorate may move on to other, more conventional political issues, or it may be the start of a trend that sees a relitigation of the Treaty become a bigger part of our day-to-day politics.
Treaty issues tend to be top of mind for about 3 per cent of voters in this poll, so 7 per cent is, indeed, very high.
Act is keen to keep the Treaty on the agenda, and eventually win support for its Treaty Principles Bill. National has decided to say, fairly explicitly, that it won’t be backing that bill. That is almost helpful to Act, whose fortunes seem to improve the more the bill is talked about.
It’s still hard, from the vantage point of February 2024, to see Treaty issues become so significant National is forced into backflipping and granting Act its referendum, but then again, issues such as UK’s Brexit referendum bubbled away in the fringes of politics for decades before suddenly becoming mainstream.
The Treaty is a similar issue, in that it cuts across so much of what the Government does. Grumpy about the state of education? Three Waters? Health? The economy? All can be blamed on the Treaty, if you so choose.
Another interesting poll trend is easier to draw conclusions from. The poll asks voters whether they think Labour of National is best at grappling with particular policy areas. National is convincingly ahead of Labour on all of them.
National even leads Labour when it comes to which party would be best at dealing with the issue of “equality” – this at a time when the Government is rolling back property taxes and pursuing a policy agenda that could hardly be said to be focused on boosting equality.
It’s also winning on key Labour issues such as health and education.
National has been clawing back ground in this poll since Christopher Luxon became leader in 2021. Labour needs to have a serious think about how it turns those numbers around.
While National will look at that Treaty number and be quietly concerned that it might have unleashed a political issue it does not understand and cannot control, it will take comfort from these other numbers that show Labour isn’t currently a part of the national political conversation.
Thomas Coughlan is Deputy Political Editor and covers politics from Parliament. He has worked for the Herald since 2021 and has worked in the press gallery since 2018.