With 33 days to go until the election, United Future leader and Ohariu MP Peter Dunne has pulled his nomination, clearing the way for National to win the electorate after Dunne realised he was likely to lose to Labour's Greg O'Connor.
In the third shock leadership change of the campaign, Dunne said it was time for him to stand aside after poor poll results in his electorate. The resignation is another blow for National's hope of forming a Government in its own right with minor parties. It strengthens the hand of Winston Peters, who is now likely to be needed by National (or Labour) to form a Government.
"The current political environment is extremely volatile and unpredictable. However, I have concluded, based on recent polling, and other soundings I have been taking over the last few weeks, that, the volatility and uncertainty notwithstanding, there is now a mood amongst Ohariu voters for a change of MP, which is unlikely to alter," Dunne said.
"While I am naturally extremely disappointed after 33 years of service at this apparent change of feeling, I recognise and understand it, and respect absolutely the electorate's prerogative to feel that way," he said.
“I have therefore decided that it is time for me to stand aside, so the people of Ohariu can elect a new electorate MP. Consequently, after much consideration and discussion with those closest to me, I am announcing today that I will not be putting forward my nomination for election to the next Parliament. I do so with considerable reluctance, but I have always understood that holding public office is a temporary privilege granted by the people, and can never be taken for granted.
“But good things cannot last forever. Now it is time for me to put all that behind me, take the election hoardings down, say goodbye to Parliament without bitterness or regret, and get on with life."
Dunne gave his best wishes and thanks to National's candidate for Ohariu, Brett Hudson, who until this morning had pledged to vote for Dunne.
'It's a drag race'
National Leader and Prime Minister Bill English also thanked Dunne for his contribution, adding that Ohariu voters now had a clear choice between the Labour and National candidates.
"Looking ahead from here, it is clear that with these developments and those that have occurred among the Opposition parties, that the election is a drag race between those who support New Zealand going in the right direction and building on it, and the Opposition parties who represent a pretty ill-defined alternative."
English said Dunne had told him of his decision to resign earlier in the morning. At the National health policy announcement this morning at a medical centre in the Ohariu electorate, which Dunne as local MP and support partner could have been expected to attend, both English and deputy Paula Bennett seemed subdued.
English said neither he, nor anyone else in National, had given Dunne advice.
"No, nothing at all. No," he said. "I mean, we have been working with him on a day to day basis and he has made his own decision. Look, he makes his own decision. He didn’t raise it with us, he’s decided to step down and that’s a matter for him.
"That decision’s made now and our candidate will be up and running, he will be well-organised, and we welcome the campaign over the next four or five weeks in this, a pretty well-defined race. New Zealand is doing well, going in the right direction: - build on that, or some pretty ill-defined alternative. And in that context, this is just one small change in the environment."
That candidate, Hudson, recently sent a letter to voters in the electorate asking them not to vote for him, but instead to give their electorate vote to Dunne. English denied it was embarrassing for him to now be facing sending out a second letter rescinding that advice.
"It’ll be a lot simpler than two big parties having to change all their billboards. It’s one letter in one electorate so, no, not a circus. Peter Dunne’s made an unexpected decision, Brett Hudson is a well-known candidate, well-known MP, he will be fighting hard to win that seat."
"If you added Peter Dunne’s vote and Brett Hudson’s vote, he would get there."
Asked if he was worried that it was the effect of Jacinda Ardern revitalising the Labour party which was behind the "change of mood" among voters noted by Dunne, English said: "Not particularly."
"It’s been the case three or four weeks ago if you look at the votes of the other parties, they could potentially change the Government, so in that sense our task hasn’t changed.
"He’s been the longest serving MP by quite some years so he has maybe picked up a mood. I was out with him at a function last weekend - a very successful function in his electorate - and he seemed to have broad support, but he has fought a lot of elections."
Labour leader Jacinda Ardern, speaking to media in Tauranga, offered a tribute to Dunne for his time in Parliament.
“Any MP who’s given such a long time and so much service to the New Zealand public I think should be thanked, and so that’s the message I’d send back to Peter - thank you for your service to Parliament.”
Ardern said the resignation meant the race for Ohariu “just got very interesting”, and did not believe the voters who backed Dunne would necessarily switch their support to Hudson as a result.
“Greg is working incredibly hard, earning every single vote and we still have aspirations to take that seat on election day...
“For us, we were always focussed on trying to win that seat but earning it, it’s a seat that really demands good local representation and service and Peter obviously has worked very hard in the past to provide that.”
ACT leader David Seymour offered a mixed tribute, praising Dunne’s undoubted commitment to Parliament, but describing him as “a symbol and an enabler of the way our major parties drift along with no real agenda”.
"Dunne could have fit in either major party, exemplifying the way National and Labour are indistinguishable in office.”
Dunne had more years as a minister than anyone in living history but had done “little to advance meaningful principles”, Seymour said.
"Finally, he has been swept out by the tidal change against do-nothing politics.”
The other news
Elsewhere, National has promised to expand access to cheap doctors visits, while Labour said it would introduce passenger rail services to Hamilton and Tauranga and expand funding for regional roads.
Prime Minister Bill English and Health Minister Jonathan Coleman visited a doctor's surgery in Johnsonville in Wellington to make the announcement on extending coverage for cheaper doctor's visits to 600,000 people on low incomes.
Labour Leader Jacinda and Transport spokesman Michael Wood announced in Tauranga they they would spend $20 million to trial rapid rail services between Auckland, Tauranga and Hamilton, and would double Government funding for regional roading projects to around $210 million a year.
$18 visits to the doctor
Picking up on the electoral success of its surprise announcement of free doctor's visits for under 13s in Budget 2014, the Government has announced plans to fund doctor's visits at a capped cost of $18 each to an extra 600,000 people on low incomes. It also said it would extend access to the Community Services Card to everyone receiving an Income Related Rent Subsidy or Accommodation Supplement -- an extra 350,000 people.
Coleman and English said the expansions of the schemes would cost an extra $380 million over four years and was included in the operating allowance announced in Budget 2017.
“We want to support more low income New Zealanders to access the healthcare they need, when they need it,” Dr Coleman said.
“We’ve already made sure all children under 13 have free GP visits and prescriptions. Around 1.4 million New Zealanders also have the cost of visiting their GP capped at $18 through the Very Low Cost Access scheme. National will build on this by introducing an $18 cap on GP visits for all Community Services Card holders," he said.
“National will make it easier for 600,000 low-income New Zealanders to visit their GP before a condition deteriorates. This in turn will help further reduce the numbers turning up at busy emergency departments with issues a GP could have resolved," he said.
A family of three earning up to $60,000 per year would be able to access the $18 GP visits.
“As well as getting access to cheap GP visits, 350,000 more New Zealanders with lower incomes and high housing costs will receive cheap prescriptions, free emergency dental care and free glasses for children through their new Community Service Cards," Coleman said.
The policy would apply from July 1, 2018.
Passenger rail to Tauranga
Labour announced it would commit to spend $20 million on the first trial stage of establishing passenger rail services between Auckland, Hamilton and Tauranga. If successful and demand justified an expansion, Labour would look at investing in stages two and three of the recently proposed Regional Rapid Rail Plan. This plan was costed at more than $1.5 billion.
“The ‘Golden Triangle’ of Auckland, Hamilton, and Tauranga contains half our population and economy. In the next 25 years, it is projected to gain another 800,000 people (three-quarters of national population growth). It’s time this growing region had a modern, rapid rail service,” Ardern said.
Labour would also double the funding range for regional transport in the Government’s Policy Statement for the Land Transport Fund, which is paid for from road user charges and petrol taxes.
The funding for regional projects would increase from a range of $70m to $140m a year to $140-$280m a year.
“Our regions are growing rapidly – and our roads are struggling to cope with increased heavy traffic and tourist vehicles,” she said, adding Labour would hold an roading summit with councils on how to accelerate projects that would otherwise be delayed or never built.
$3 mln for extra Auckland teachers
Meanwhile, Education Minister Nikki Kaye announced the National-led Government would spend an extra $3 million to increase teacher numbers, particularly in Auckland,
National would spend an extra $1 million to double the capacity of the Auckland Beginner Teacher Project to 80 teachers and $2 million over two years to help fund the relocation costs of 200 New Zealand-trained teachers or overseas-trained teachers.
“I’ve looked closely at teacher supply and listened to what principals and teachers have told me about growing pressure, particularly in Auckland,” Kaye said.
Teachers eligible for relocation grants would be able to use tax-free grants of up to $7,000, depending on whether they are New Zealand or overseas-trained. Schools employing a teacher through this scheme may also receive a finder’s fee of up to $3000. The grants would be payable in 2018 and 2019 and targeted at long term roles in hard to fill areas, subjects or schools.
Kaye said a previous International Relocation Grant was in place between 2000 and 2015 but was discontinued due to an oversupply of teachers.
“However, given the current supply pressures, it’s appropriate to reinstate the grant and increase its maximum value, to reflect rising costs,” she said.
Kaye said she would also ask the Ministry of Education to review the Voluntary Bonding Scheme, which provided lump sum payments to beginning teachers after three years of continuous employment in eligible schools.
“I want the Ministry to consider how the scheme might better respond to current teacher supply pressures, so that schools with hard-to-fill vacancies are better able to attract the teachers they need,” she said.
“We know the workforce is changing in Auckland and across the country, so it’s important we have a range of options in place to respond to demand.”
The Greens plan to announce a transport policy in Auckland early in the afternoon.
August 23 - The next big set piece on the trail is Treasury's Pre Election Fiscal Update (PREFU) on Wednesday. It will be released at midday and is expected to give both Labour and National around $1.5 billion extra to spend. That will be a key moment. Ardern has signalled extra tertiary education spending, while Joyce has suggested extra Auckland infrastructure spending.
August 23 - The final day for people to enrol to vote regularly. Anyone enrolling after August 23 will have to cast a special declaration vote.
August 31 - The first leaders debate on TVNZ.
September 4 - Then TV3 has its leaders on September 4. The leaders then travel from Auckland to Christchurch for the Press/Stuff debate on September 7.
September 7 - The Press/Stuff leaders debate will be held in Christchurch
September 11 - Polling booths open for early voting.
September 20 - The final leaders debate on TVNZ.
September 23 - The General Election.
October 12 - Winston Peters has said he will make a decision about which party he 'crowns' to be in Government by October 12, which is when the writs with the final election results are returned.