Election 2017 Live: Previewing Ardern vs English (round one); National

Updated

Jacinda Ardern and Bill English square-off tonight in the first leader's debate. Montage by Lynn Grieveson

Voter support for Labour has overtaken National in an explosive Colmar Brunton poll on the eve of the first election debate. Bernard Hickey, Tim Murphy and Shane Cowlishaw report from the campaign trail.

Labour's poll rating under Jacinda Ardern has risen six percentage points to 43 percent, while support for National had fallen three points to 41 percent - its lowest level since 2005, TVNZ reported at 6pm tonight.

The poll was taken over the last week and found support for New Zealand First had fallen two points to 8 percent, while support for the Greens rose one point to 5 percent. The Opportunities Party fell one point to one percent.

Ardern's 30-day leadership has transformed Labour's prospects for the election.

Her support as preferred Prime Minister had risen four points to 34 percent, which put her ahead of Prime Minister Bill English on 33 percent, although he was up three points. Support for New Zealand First leader Winston Peters fell four points to 3 percentage points.

Now the debate

The shock result made the first debate between the National and Labour Party leaders even more crucial.

The debate began with moderator Mike Hosking asking Bill English why he was losing, referring to the Colmar Brunton poll.

English said National's own polling showed National was a "bit better" than the 41 percent indicated in the poll.

Ardern began tentatively, while English was clear in his delivery and immediately hit his stride.

English also scored some points when Ardern talked about her tax plans being driven by her values.

"You can't go shopping with your values," he said, pointing out that removing National's tax cuts would cost taxpayers without children around $1,000 per year.

Ardern responded by arguing her values included wanting her generation to be able to afford to buy a home. She challenged English to say whether there was a housing crisis or not.

She also told English that having to save a $150,000 for a house deposit was not acceptable.

After a break, Ardern was again asked why she could not give more certainty about a potential capital gains tax. She said she was being open about having a Tax Working Group, while National had kept its plans secret before the 2008 election for a Tax Working Group that eventually increased the GST.

"I will not let this housing crisis continue and affect the next generation," she said.

English pointed to a recent moderation of house prices.

"Speculation has been beaten by getting 10,000 houses a year built," he said.

Debating productivity

Later on during a discussion about the economy, English was challenged about a recent JB Were report from economist Bernard Doyle about productivity, which showed a recession over the last four years.

"JB Were are just wrong. They are way over-stating the case," he said.

Ardern said productivity had had flat lined at best and she wanted to invest in people and skills through education to improve productivity.

Here are the charts published by Doyle showing what has happened to GDP overall, GDP per person and GDP per hour worked.
Chart from Bernard Doyle of JB Were in a report titled: 'Working harder not smarter'
Chart from Bernard Doyle of JB Were in a report titled: 'Working harder not smarter'

And the verdict?

The overall impression was that English came across as clear, concise and more energised that he can appear in such situations. He targeted Adern on a lack of clarity on taxes and was solid without landing any killer blows.

Ardern was more subdued than some expected and did not butt in to rebut English's claims or those of Hosking as much as she could have. She appeared tentative and slightly nervous early in the debate. She also didn't land any killer blows, although she delivered a few body shots around housing affordability and contested English's water attacks well.

Ardern didn't focus as much on child poverty or the problems with unhealthy housing as much as expected, and even conceded to English that the economy was strong, even if it was not delivering for all New Zealanders.

After the debate, Ardern said she was always self-critical and would reflect on where she could have improved. English said he was happy with the debate and noted Ardern's concession on strong economic growth.

If I (Bernard) had to give it a score, I'd give it to English on points, although the poll shock overwhelmed any of the news out of the debate. It essentially sucked the air out of the room.

Ardern also appeared slightly subdued after the debate and said she was surprised by the poll result. She warned the polls could rise and fall in the remaining three weeks.

Earlier in the day

Elsewhere on the trail, Ardern had only one morning event before focusing on debate preparation.

English announced this morning that the Government would give the Auckland City Mission $27 million to build an 80 unit housing complex for the CBD's homeless. It is part of an expanded 'Housing First' programme, which prioritises giving homeless a permanent home before the dealing with addiction and mental health issues. He later visited a mall in New Lynn.

Winston Peters said he would insist on a new Government passing legislation to shift Auckland's container port to Northport by 2027 to free up Auckland's waterfront for a cruise ship terminal. He said he also wanted special economic zones near Northport and in Southland that were GST-free and tax-free to encourage the development of manufacturing and re-exporting jobs.

The Greens proposed spending $315 million over three years to improve special education services, including introducing a one 'childrens' champion' for every 400 children and doubling funding for ongoing special needs support.

There are 22 days to go until the election.

Will the 'Jacinda effect' survive the debate?

The debate was the first chance to see if Ardern can stay as disciplined and 'relentlessly positive' as she has been since her elevation to the Labour leadership just 30 days ago.

Ardern hadn't put too many feet wrong in her few tests so far. She had batted back most questions without getting too bogged down or tied up by the detail.

But this was her first full one-on-one leaders debate against English. There were a few chances in Parliament during Question Time to see them up against each other in the debating chamber and Ardern acquitted herself well.

But English is steeped in the world of policy and has plenty of attack lines to run, particularly since Ardern has left herself open on a few areas where Labour's policy is not fully fleshed out.

English and his campaign manager Steven Joyce have already tried out some of those attack lines on the campaign trail, mostly around tax. The potential for a capital gains tax in Labour's first term will be a particular target.

Other than repeatedly ruling out a tax on the family home, Ardern has repeatedly said she does not want to get into the detail of what such a tax might look like, preferring instead to point to the potential recommendations of a Tax Working Group she would set up once in Government.

English was likely to challenge Ardern on the possible structure and exemptions and push Ardern to rule out the potential for a capital gains tax to turn into a death duty.

John Key's needling of David Cunliffe in the debates in 2014 on exactly what a Capital Gains Tax might look like was effective, partly because the then-Labour leader was unable to nail down issues around family trusts and what might happen in the event of inheritances.

Ardern was careful to rule out the prospect of a new higher tax rate on those on high incomes after last week's PREFU in an effort to shut down National's momentum on the issue of 'Jacinda's list of new taxes'.

The questions around the Capital Gains Tax and water royalties will be crucial moments. Labour's water royalties idea is also not vacuum packed and tight enough to avoid infection with detail introduced by National.

English may also push Ardern on Labour's migration policies, which haven't featured much on the campaign trail. They were laid out by Andrew Little in June. He was familiar with the detail and had been driving the migration story hard. Ardern has been noticeably less prominent on the issue and softened the edges of the rhetoric. English may try to insert a wedge between her and the policy of cutting net migration by 20,000 to 30,000 a year. She will also have to be right across the detail, which is tricky on migration at the best of times.

But aside from the policy, the optics of the night will be important. The contrast between English and Ardern will be under the spotlight in the studio.

Ardern cannot help but be a fresh face and a big smile for the television cameras, while English is a familiar and well worn one for people who have watched him as Finance Minister for more than eight of the last nine years.

Will voters want a face for change, or a face for stability?

I'll be in the TVNZ studios in Auckland to cover the debate from 7 pm to 8 pm and will be running live coverage on Newsroom Pro and Newsroom. I'll also be there for the 'after match' interviews with the leaders and the media scrum. Newsroom's Tim Murphy will also be writing his impressions on the night for Newsroom.

Housing the homeless first

In Auckland, English revealed that the City Mission would be given $27 million to build an 80-unit complex in the heart of the city to provide shelter for vulnerable people.

An expansion of the Housing First programme was also announced, a pilot programme that aims to get homeless people into stable accommodation and then provide wrap-around services to address problems such as addiction or mental health issues.

Homelessness has been a vulnerable point for the Government and English made the announcement flanked by Minister for Social Housing Amy Adams, Education Minister Nikki Kaye, and Associate Social Housing Minister Alfred Ngaro.

Adams said the Auckland City Mission accommodation project, which will cost $75m all up and refit its central city premises, was important to ensure all New Zealanders had somewhere warm and safe to stay.

Construction will start next year and will be completed by mid-2020, with the Government then providing ongoing operation funding through the income-related rent subsidy, expected to take Government contributions to around $78m over five years.

The Housing First programme, an international initiative, has been trialled in Auckland and Hamilton and will now be rolled out to other cities.

A further 100 places will be added in Auckland, with up to 100 places introduced in Christchurch and Tauranga and up to 150 in Wellington and Lower Hutt.

Funding for the expansion, $16.5m, was announced in the Budget.

"Many of our chronically homeless are grappling with complex problems, such as mental health issues or addiction to drugs or alcohol," Adams said.

"Housing First quickly moves rough sleepers into appropriate housing then immediately provides tailored wrap-around services to address the issues that led to their homelessness."

Winston's Northport plan

Meanwhile in Wellington, New Zealand First Leader Winston Peters announced in a speech to the Economic Development Agencies conference that he would insist a new Government pass legislation to move the Ports of Auckland's container operations to Northport by 2027. This would require improved road and rail links between Northland and Auckland, he said.

The port move would free up the waterfront for Aucklanders and allow the creation of a cruise ship terminal, he said.

"The days of the Ports of Auckland as a container port and as a car yard are numbered," Peters said.

“Aucklanders want their harbour back while Northlanders want the jobs and opportunity that would come from Northport’s transformation," he said.

"The benefits for Aucklanders of getting 77-hectares of their waterfront back in the 2020’s is incalculable. For Northland, the port’s expansion would spark Northland’s economic renaissance with an unprecedented innovation for New Zealand exporting."

He said New Zealand First also wanted to create Special Economic Zones that were GST-free and tax free near Northport and in Southland to encourage the development of manufacturing exporters and re-exporters.

Green plan for special education

The Greens announced a plan to increase funding for special needs education by $315 million over three years.

The policies included:

  • including paying for a full time 'children's champion' for every 400 children to coordinate support for high needs children ($70 million over three years),

    • funding a $5 million annual school camp for children with extra learning needs,
    • doubling funding for the Ongoing Resourcing Scheme (ORS) and the Early Intervention Service ($215 million over three years), and,
    • spending $25 million over three years on targeted learning support professional development for teachers.

Education spokeswoman Catherine Delahunty said all children benefit when schools are inclusive.

“Less stress on teachers means happier kids who are more confident in their learning, and more creative strategies in the classroom creates a better learning environment," she said.

“Thousands of children and their families have struggled to access the support services that they need, and our children’s education is too important to stuff up."

Coming up...

September 4 - TV3 has its leaders debate.

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.

Updated: 7.20 pm