Election 2017: It's 'game on' for Jacinda vs Bill


There are 36 days to go until the election on September 23. Winston 'Kingmaker' Peters has said he will decide which side will form Government by October 12. Montage by Lynn Grieveson.

36 DAYS TO GO: The 'Jacinda effect' and the implosion of support for the Greens has transformed the election campaign, according to a fresh poll. The resurgence of Labour at the expense of the Green Party and a small fall for National means the election is 'game on' with a real chance of the Greens falling out of Parliament and a change to a Labour-New Zealand First Government. Bernard Hickey reports.

The shift in the landscape was reinforced in a spirited final debate before the adjournment of the 51st session of Parliament on Thursday and the effective start of the election campaign. Jacinda Ardern declared the contest was "game on" in a relentlessly aspirational final speech telling the Government to get out of the way so a Labour-led Government could do a better job.

The chances of that change of Government effectively increased with the results of a TVNZ Colmar Brunton poll released on Thursday evening showing Labour up 13 percentage points to 37 percent and National down three points to 44 percent. New Zealand First fell one point to 10 percent, while support for the Greens crashed 11 points to four percent, which is below the five percent threshold needed under MMP for a party to be in Parliament without an electorate MP. Unless Labour somehow 'gift' an electorate to the Greens, that level of support would see the Greens collapse out of Parliament for the first time since 1996.

The poll taken over the last five days also showed Ardern's support as preferred Prime Minister jumping 24 points to 30 percent, which put her on the same support level as Bill English, who rose two points. Winston Peters fell three points to seven percent.

Ardern's elevation to the leadership just 17 days ago has electrified the contest, along with Metiria Turei's decision last week to step down as Green Party Co-Leader after a divisive and potentially fatal decision by her party to use her own experience of welfare fraud to launch a debate about welfare reform.

There is now a prospect of Winston Peters choosing Labour as a coalition partner without needing the Greens, a situation he is seen as much preferring. National's ebbing poll support and the anemic position of its support partners leaves it in danger of falling just short of being able to govern with its support partners in the same arrangement it has had for the last nine years. National would need to come cap in hand for support from Peters to win a fourth term with the support levels seen in the TVNZ poll.

The sense of a shifting momentum was evident on the final day in Parliament, where a clearly ebullient set of Labour MPs cheered and gave a standing ovation to Ardern's adjournment speech. She gave a fluent and direct performance in responding to the Government's first speaker, Foreign Affairs Minister Gerry Brownlee, who focused his speech on Labour's tax policies, rather than the Government's record.

Perhaps surprisingly, given Bill English had been in Wellington earlier in the afternoon, National chose not put its leader up for the final clash in the debating chamber with Ardern. There will be at least four televised head-to-head debates between Ardern and English before the election (August 31 September 20 on TVNZ), September 4 on TV3 and September 7 in Christchurch for The Press and Stuff) and this adjournment debate was the first chance to see them debate at length face to face. English did not front.

'If you don't do it, I will'

Ardern gave a taste of her approach in question time, calling on the absent Prime Minister to adopt Labour's proposal to fund an extra 80 mental health workers to deal with traumatised children in Christchurch.

"If he wants this to be a truly great country for children, as we can be, will he commit the resources needed to help kids and give them a chance for a better future? Because if he will not, I will," she said to applause from behind her.

Finance Minister Steven Joyce, who was standing in for English, said the Government had already acted on mental health in Christchurch.

"The way we are doing exactly that is by having a strong economy so that we can afford to provide the services. If the member wants to get into Government and tax the heck out of the productive economy, then she will find she has a lot fewer services she can fund, compared with today," Joyce said.

Brownlee gave a taste of the Government's attack lines over the next five weeks, focusing on Labour's plans for a regional fuel tax, water levies and a potential capital gains tax.

In one of the first sharp attacks on Ardern by a senior Government figure, Brownlee said that "apart from the new smiley face, nothing has changed at all—nothing has changed at all."

An agitated and at times breathless Brownlee said Ardern was stuck between the rock of her own caucus and the hard place of the Government's economic record.

"We are going to get a speech shortly, and I will bet the economy does not feature, other than to have a look at it with a bit of a squinted eye, from a bit of a distance, and to simply say: "We could do it better," he said.

"When Labour members have to explain that their $18.8 billion worth of promises, so far, will be paid for from higher taxes, from higher mortgage rates, and from higher costs on all New Zealand families, simply saying "We can do it better, so just do it with us.", is not going to work."

Brownlee called on Ardern to be clearer about Labour's plans for water royalties and a capital gains tax, which she has said she is open to in a first term if a Tax Working Group recommended it.

"I would suggest to Jacinda Ardern that she should today tell the House the terms of reference that she will give to that bunch of left-wing economists to work out the tax system," he said.

Ardern didn't shy away from the economy in her speech and gave an early indication of how she would respond to the focus by National on its economic achievements.

She said a stronger economy had to mean people felt they were better off, which meant the Government had to focus on productivity.

"Currently having two-thirds of people in work, with wage packets that are not keeping pace with inflation, is unacceptable to the Labour Party. A strong economy is not just measured by GDP, it is measured by how people fare. And if you ask New Zealanders whether or not they feel better off and whether they are going forwards or backwards, I can predict the answer that they will give you," she said.

"If you want to talk about the economy this election, then "game on"—"game on". On the Labour side, we actually have an intention to lift our economic sights and, Mr Brownlee, that starts by talking about productivity. In fact, the Governor of the Reserve Bank, Brian Fallow, and Bernard Doyle from JBWere, just in the last week, have all raised the fact that productivity in New Zealand is hugely problematic, and this Government has done nothing about it—absolutely nothing about it. This is where our weakness and our vulnerability lie. Where is the investment in lifting the skills of our workers?"

'This is our moment'

Ardern described Brownlee's speech about her as "some kind of awkward flattery" and repeated a previous line about beginning the "campaign of our lives."

"Campaigns are about change. They are about what is possible, and 23 September marks opportunity, and the 24th of September marks the beginning. They say in politics that campaigns are lost by those Governments that are in charge, but this time this election will be won by us because this is our moment," Ardern said.

"This is our moment to show that even if the odd New Zealander feels OK or even if they feel indifferent we can be better. This Government has achieved what it came to do, and now it is time to do things differently. That means we do not have to accept having the highest homelessness in the OECD. We do not need to accept that. We do not have to accept declining homeownership, as the Government has done. We do not have to accept that it will be a given that children, particularly in winter, will do their homework in a car by torchlight," she said.

"We also do not have to accept that there will be families who are now at Te Puea Marae. In particular, a mother of nine, who thinks it is her fault that she has lost her rental accommodation. That is a family in work who cannot find housing. That—we do not have to accept. We do not have to accept the highest teen suicide rates in the OECD or children not being able find mental health care, and we certainly do not accept 70,000 young people not being in employment, education, or training. It will never be a given for this party that 60 percent of our rivers will be degraded and unswimmable. That will never, ever be acceptable on our watch.

"We believe things can be better, and under Labour they will be better. "

Ardern finished with a warning to voters about National scaremongering about Labour's policy.

"You will hear policies that do not even exist being thrown around this House and thrown around this debate," she said.

Popular in Porirua

Earlier, English visited Mana College and an employment expo in Porirua. He then went on to an enthusiastic welcome while visiting the Porirua shopping centre.

He was asked for numerous selfies and was greeted warmly by both shoppers and workers in the mall.

English has yet to reach the heights of John Key's selfie-fests during mall visits, but the response from voters was warmer than some had expected and he was at ease with the locals. He lives in Wellington and his wife Mary is a GP in the Porirua area.

Coming up...

Both party leaders now head to the key election battleground of Auckland on Friday. English is expected to open a new road and Ardern is due to put up some billboards in her Mt Albert electorate. Peters will be campaigning in Tauranga and then host an event for the local Indian community in Auckland in the evening.

Ardern is set to launch Labour's election campaign in Auckland on Sunday.

Stay tuned for our regularly updated Election 2017 articles. We will produce a fresh one each day with the events of the day as we count down to the vote on September 23 and Winston Peters' self-imposed deadline for deciding who will be in Government of October 12, when the writs are returned with the final election result.