National and Labour leaders show just how close it is and how much is at stake, by upping the risk factor with new policy announcements live in the second leaders debate

Bill English has taken to calling this election a drag race between the two big parties, but that doesn't do justice to the twists and turns it's already taken. Today, those two main parties added significant risk to the campaign - they're taking those corners at high speed now, as we enter the final 18 days.

It started with Steven Joyce's claim of an $11.7b hole in Labour's fiscal plan. That's a bold claim. Either Labour are numpties of a very high order or National is making a desperate and cynical play. I've read Labour's fiscal plan, but anyone who knows my School C maths marks will know I'm in no position to give a definitive answer on whether it's a valid gotcha or not.

But I note two gents who have had a proper go at explaining it: Keith Ng at The Spinoff and Bernard Hickey on Newsroom. The respective conclusions: Ng says "Ultimately, there is no missing money. The money is accounted for" while Hickey says "The short answer is that Labour is mostly right and National is mostly wrong, although there is fault on both sides. The big picture is there's certainly no fiscal crater for voters to peer into."

Hickey goes onto explain that, essentially, while National has accused Labour of not allowing for new spending year after year, Labour just had recorded that on another budget line. It's worth noting economists BERL reiterated its endorsement (albeit as a paid client who assessed the plan before it was made public).

So as we stand this morning, if this was National's 2017 attempt at "show me the money" it has fallen flat. Will people only remember the "hole" quote and not the outcome? Or will people see this as the act of a desperate and failing government?

You'd have thought the leaders may have wanted a cup of tea and a lie down after that squabble, but it was only the entree to a risky night of live television at the TV3 leaders debate.

English rolled the dice again, announcing that National would be able to "have a crack" at bringing 100,000 children out of poverty in the next term. Pressed if this was a commitment, he said yes. 

The promise is remarkable for its scale and for its timing. Labour has for much of the last nine years pressed National to measure child poverty in New Zealand and thereby institute a target. National has long refused. 

As recently as last October, John Key told RNZ's Morning Report he wouldn't back a call by Chilidren's Commissioner Andrew Becroft to get a 5-10 percent reduction in the number of kids on the material deprivation index. That figure stood at 149,000 at the time. Key said we "do the best we can" but "I don't want to put a number on it".

Why? Because the issue is "complex", it was too hard to agree on a single measure of child poverty and "you could spend a long time agreeing on one particular target", but it was better to offer a range of initatives such as cheaper doctors' visits and breakfasts in schools.

It seems all those reservations and complexities have disappeared. A year ago a single measure was too hard. Now, 18 days from an election, a measure and a target can be discovered in a single election debate. And the target is vastly ambitious.

This could be the "something new" National has been looking for to show it's not a tired government that has lost its sense of purpose. Certainly, English out-passioned Ardern in the debate when it came to child poverty. He literally went up on his toes, his face came to life and he was fired up. Ardern meanwhile remained her measured self.

But it's risky because it's a move - clearly a calculated one - that could backfire. Voters may embrace the heart, or they could see it as deeply cynical. As too little, too late. Sometimes, it's worse to look tokenistic or late on such a profound issue than to do nothing at all. It could anger voters and feel like playing politics. So it's a punt.

His opponent had her own risky moments though. Jacinda Ardern promised to resign rather than raise the eligibility age for superannuation. English not unreasonably - if hypocritically - called that a betrayal of her generation. It's a cynical calculation from a party that at the last election was promising the exact opposite, with Ardern's support.

Ardern also threatened a rights war with Australia, if they kept taking rights off New Zealanders living there. Specifically, she said if they moved to lock New Zealanders out of tertiary education over there, we'd do the same to Australians here.

On any other day, a new poverty target and a slap down of Australia would be massive stories on their own. Today, they're competing for oxygen.

The other electric moment in the debate was over abortion. Catholic Bill English said he was happy with abortion law as it is; Ardern said she wanted it taken out of the Crimes Act. It's a clear symbolic line between the older man and the younger woman. Indeed, the young woman sitting across from us at the debate lit up at that moment.

It could be an issue that motivates turnout. But that too comes with risk. Labour's Pacific vote will be troubled by that stance, for example.

The best moments? English finished upbeat, but is best line was when asked why New Zealand should vote for him when they didn't back in 1992. What's changed? He said "I got back up again". That was a strong answer.

Ardern, asked why New Zealand should vote for her given she's never been in government, said because she stood for generational change and a vision for New Zealand. It was a well-worn line, but again, looking at the audience, you can see how it's working.

English's hardest job is shaking off the sense that, as Ardern said to him, it's time for him to hand over the reins. He's had his turn and a new approach is needed. She stands for that without saying a word, and that's hard for him to combat after nine years.

But hard as it may be, he's giving it a fair crack. He's rolled the dice and taken the risk. As Paddy Gower kept saying in the build-up to tonight's debate, there couldn't be more at stake. With big stakes, come big risks. And a very big campaign.

Comments (18)

by Tom Semmens on September 05, 2017
Tom Semmens

"...Certainly, English out-passioned Ardern in the debate when it came to child poverty. He literally went up on his toes, his face came to life and he was fired up..."

Funny, all I saw was a middle aged male doing a hectoring mansplaining to Jacinda on a subject he's had nine years to do something about.

 

by Ross on September 05, 2017
Ross

National would be able to "have a crack" at bringing 100,000 children out of poverty in the next term.

National has had 9 years to make inroads into child poverty. If you believe they'll make inroads over the next 3 years, you probably also believe in Father Xmas and the tooth fairy. 

English out-passioned Ardern in the debate when it came to child poverty

Kids sleeping in cars and motels will sleep much better knowing that Bill appears passionate.

by Andrew Geddis on September 05, 2017
Andrew Geddis

I've read Labour's fiscal plan, but anyone who knows my School C maths marks will know I'm in no position to give a definitive answer on whether it's a valid gotcha or not.

Is there anyone besides Steven Joyce/Bill English who says there actually is a 11-12 billion hole in Labour's figures? Because everything I've read by anyone who ought to know says there isn't. So is there any basis to report their claim as credible?

Put it this way - if Labour were to announce "National's policy will result in the Dead rising from their graves and eating the living", but everyone else says "no it won't", do we still report this with a shrug and "who really can tell?"

by Kat on September 05, 2017
Kat

"Put it this way - if Labour were to announce "National's policy will result in the Dead rising from their graves and eating the living", but everyone else says "no it won't", do we still report this with a shrug and "who really can tell?"


Good point Andrew, but this is the case with a lot of utterances from National. John Key got away with blatant lies for years. Look at the panel following the debate last night and the rediculous assertions of a known National Party hack and political commentator claiming Jacinda Ardern is not telling the truth when it comes to taxation and this must be "exposed" over the next few weeks.

The truth is National are very aware that should they lose this election Labour have in Ardern a leader that will easily make three terms, possibly four if she stays on. National are clearly in panic mode and will certainly up the ante with the lies and scaremongering.   

by Tim Watkin on September 05, 2017
Tim Watkin

Andrew, I'm not saying 'who can really tell?'. I'm saying I can't tell. As Ardern would say, "I'm being transparent"!

It's increasingly clear however from people who can tell that there's nothing to tell. That is, the 'no hole economists and economic journos' are as one.:

http://www.newshub.co.nz/home/election/2017/09/economist-consensus-there...

 

by Tim Watkin on September 05, 2017
Tim Watkin

Tom, I wanted to pick up on that, but ran out of time and words.

I like passionate advocacy, but I could see that a lot of people would see that as hectoring. I would have liked a bit more of that from Ardern, but it's not to everyone's taste. This is one of English's big problems now. He fires up and shows he's not bland, that he does care and have some passion, and he just comes across as man-splaining.

 

by Katharine Moody on September 05, 2017
Katharine Moody

The big 'light bulb' moment for me was in finding out that our PM couldn't think of a single cause that he'd be prepared to get out and march in the streets on. Sort of implies that there really isn't any 'passion' there aside from retaining a grip on power.

I thought the night was more about theatre than anything: a spectacle of 'policy on the hoof'.

by Andrew Geddis on September 05, 2017
Andrew Geddis

Andrew, I'm not saying 'who can really tell?'. I'm saying I can't tell. As Ardern would say, "I'm being transparent"!

Fully accepted. My comment was a general one, written in light of later developments, wondering how long the story would be presented in the "Joyce says/Robertson says/who can know?"  frame.

Glad to see it isn't.

by barry on September 05, 2017
barry

So Joyce (minister of Finance) has blown his economic credibility.  How can that not be fatal?  Why haven't the media noticed?

by Kat on September 05, 2017
Kat

Barry, the media have noticed, they are calling it "an own goal" which is another way of saying its accidental. You can be assured that if it were Labour making the assertion it would be fatal. This is just another example of the media hangover that Key left when he ran away.

by Ross on September 05, 2017
Ross

Andrew, I'm not saying 'who can really tell?'. I'm saying I can't tell.

Why not have an educated guess, Tim?

Joyce found it difficult to pass some rather basic university courses in economics. Did you seriously think he knew what he was talking about? 

https://cdn.thestandard.org.nz/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Joyce-Steven-academic-record-620×486.jpg?x35462

by Tim Watkin on September 05, 2017
Tim Watkin

barry, I'm not sure if you've seen websites all day and the main news bulletins tonight that either led with this story or included it in their lead story. There's been extensive coverage of stories saying Joyce was wrong, alone, and scoring an own goal.

Kat, I'm not sure how you conspire something out of that. An own goal is when you score against yourself, you seriously put your own team at risk of losing. 

Now it's up to voters.

Andrew, I take your point but in this fast news cycle world, journalists still need some time to gather facts and check sources on complicated stories. Now a cynic might say Joyce was trading on that and hoping for a day of headlines when things might then overtake the 'hole' story and people might just be left with a sense of doubt in Labour's fiscals. Maybe he still thinks that. It is usual for the rebuttal to be less reported than the accusation. But it would be irresponsible for journalists to jump to conclusions, even they were being exploited in the process. 

Happily, experts have been consulted and their analysis reported with as much prominence as the first story. I don't say that to take sides, just to say that's how fair reportage is meant to work. I too feared last night that with so much going on journalists may get manipulated, but as it stands I think the profession has done its job.

by Kat on September 06, 2017
Kat

Tim, an "own goal" is usually accidental. Joyce continued to score more own goals throughout the day and into the evening. Perhaps tomorrow it will be the goal posts fault for being in the wrong place.

by Ross on September 06, 2017
Ross

Kat,

I take your point. 

An honourable person would of course apologise for their mistake. In this case, Joyce has not apologised and seems to have no intention of doing so. I guess we should conclude that he isn't honourable and - given the size and timing of his blunder - is possibly not fit for office. 

by Tim Watkin on September 06, 2017
Tim Watkin

Kat, I really think you're over-thinking this one. If you watch Corin's comments, they're pretty critical.

by Kat on September 06, 2017
Kat

Tim, call this "over-thinking" if you like, call me suspicious even, but I think Joyce knew there was no $11b hole. If he didn’t, we’ve got a seriously illiterate Finance Minister. Either way some mud will have stuck just as in 2011 & 2014.

by william blake on September 07, 2017
william blake

Cry havoc.

http://www.radionz.co.nz/news/election-2017/338839/fiscal-hole-hit-the-havoc-button

by Kyle Matthews on September 07, 2017
Kyle Matthews

National's policy will result in the Dead rising from their graves and eating the living

To misquote Blackadder: "Excellent! Sensible policies, for a happier New Zealand!".

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