Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Trotter on polls

In his Independent column today (offline), Chris Trotter lambasts the media for treating the polls (and next year's election) as a two horse race and ignoring the vital role of minor parties in coalition formation. But while this is true of recent polls (which have shown National with enough support to govern alone and have therefore been cast as Labour having a lot of ground to make up), I don't think its true overall. Earlier polls (which were not nearly so decisive) certainly talked of the ease or difficulty of the leading party in putting together a coalition to get the necesary 61 seats in the House, though they tended to ignore the same prospect for the other major party. And I expect this discussion to resume when the polls tighten closer to the election.

As for Trotter's contention that polls should be reported in terms of right, left, and centre blocs, I think the parties would quite rightly reject being pigeonholed in such a fashion. While they definitely have inclinations (the Greens are almost certain to back Labour, and ACT National), formally they are keeping their options open, though this may change closer to the election. Then there would be the inevitable disputes about which bloc parties would belong in - is the Maori Party left or centre? Finally, such reporting would inevitably shape expectations and lead to claims of betrayal if a party didn't conform to the media's judgement of which bloc they "belonged" in - something we saw in 1996, when NZ First was widely expected to go with Labour and chose National instead. That was Winston's fault - he had clearly cultivated that impression - but he'd have every right to be annoyed if the media kept reporting his party as being likely to form certain political alliances despite all denials to the contrary. So simply out of fairness to the parties, the media should stick to reporting polls by party rather than "bloc".

And that said, Trotter does at the end make a good point: that the right to form a government belongs not to the largest party, but to the party or parties able to command a majority in the House, and that under MMP parties tend to need friends in order to govern. It would be good if the media reminded us of that fact more often, if only to prevent constitutional wrecking behaviour if a party finds itself outnegotiated at some stage in the future.