The New Zealand Election Survey (NZES) has been running since 1990
NZES’s main source of data are questionnaires which are posted to randomly selected registered electors across the country immediately following each election.
Some of the questions stay the same but others reflect some mix of the issues of the day and researchers’ interests. There usually seem to be quite a range of economic and social policy questions. They achieve quite a large sample (in the 2014 survey they had 2835 responses) and the reported responses are weighted to, as far as possible, reflect the demographic characteristics of the population (age, sex, race, qualifications and party support)..
I haven’t seen any media coverage of the results of the 2014 survey, but reading through the responses to the policy questions over the weekend I thought some were worth highlighting.
Perhaps the responses that most caught my eye were those around government spending. These were the first set:
|Should there be more or less public spending on:|
|More||Same||Less||Net (more- less)|
|Police and law enforcement||42.8||45.3||5.2||37.6|
|Business and Industry||29.7||47.8||9.7||20|
In most categories, more people favoured keeping expenditure at current levels than favoured either raising it or lowering it, but, equally, for most categories the net balance of respondents were much more in favour of raising public spending than of lowering it. The only area in which respondents favoured cuts in public spending were “welfare benefits” and especially “unemployment benefits” (while by similar margins they favour spending more on superannuation).
I was a little surprised. There are areas where I would favour increased government spending (eg statistics and legal aid), but I’m pretty sure that if faced with this survey I’d not have answered “more” to any of these questions.
Despite the answer on superannuation, respondents narrowly favoured raising the NZS eligibility age to 67 (as they did when the same question was asked of an overlapping sample in 2011)
|Raise NZS age to 67 between 2020 and 2033||42.2||38.3|
That left me wondering why people wanted to increase public spending on superannuation. Perhaps they want fewer people getting superannuation, but for each superannuitant to get more? But as we have one of the lowest rates of poverty among the elderly of any OECD country that would be a surprising stance. Perhaps it is just that people are more hard-headed faced with a more specific question?
The survey also had a few questions about whether some types of government spending is good or bad (ie not asking whether the current level should be raised or lowered). I found those responses a bit eye-opening as well.
|Should government give financial help to|
|Companies for research and development||66.7||11.8|
|Companies to help them develop products for export markets||61.3||14.3|
|Sportspeople to allow them to compete internationally||56.6||19|
|Film makers to encourage filmmaking in NZ||50.7||18.6|
|Banks to help them in time of economic crisis||26.2||40.9|
I’m not sure how I’d have answered the banks question – there wasn’t an “it depends” option. I’d like to think I’ve have answered “no”, but revealed preferences matter and in Treasury in 2008 I argued strongly for the use of guarantees and, on balance, still think that was the right advice.
In fairness to respondents, there are no questions in the survey about how they would propose that the country should pay for this spending. The presence of a budget constraint – even a hypothetical one in a survey – might have changed how some respondents answered. But perhaps not by that much.
There was one tax question in the survey, in which respondents narrowly opposed a capital gains tax. In principle the question was ambiguous – asked if we needed a “capital gains tax excluding the family home”, some respondents might have objected to the exclusion of the family home, but would have favoured a more textbook comprehensive CGT. But I don’t suppose there were many such respondents.
Overall, I’m not quite sure what to make of the results. One person I showed them to suggested that “ACT should read them and give up”. They were suggestive of a New Zealand with attitudes perhaps not much different than similar surveys might have found 50 years ago. There is quite a strong suspicion of (non-superannuation) welfare in these and other questions in the survey, but also a quite striking degree of belief in a role for a fairly large and active government.
Then again, for better or worse, although government spending in New Zealand is very large – central and local government current spending totalled 37.1 per cent of GDP last year – there were only three OECD countries where current government spending now accounts for a smaller share of GDP than in New Zealand. And in all but a handful of countries the government spending share of GDP has risen somewhat over the last decade or so (as it has in New Zealand). Korea is at the low end of this chart, with current government spending of 28.6 per cent of GDP last year, but as recently as 2002 that share was only 22.0 per cent. Between rising government spending and the continuing encroachments of the regulatory state, whatever ails the world economy at present doesn’t look to have been an outbreak of small government.