Newsroom Pro's 8 things at 8: English commits to cutting child poverty by 100k; There is no $11.7b fiscal hole in Labour's plans

Jacinda Ardern and Bill English prepare to debate. Photo: Newshub

In today's email we dig into a black hole that wasn't - and analyse the winners, losers and spectacle of last night's big debate

1. The fiscal black hole that wasn't

Just before lunchtime yesterday, and 18 days before the election, Steven Joyce announced he had found a smoking hole worth$11.7 billion in Labour's fiscal plan.

He said Labour had made a basic error by not cumulating its operating allowances. Labour denied it made a mistake. So I spent the rest of the day in a fiscal version of a 'he said, she said' argument and found no hole. There was just a political argument about future cost inflation rates and spending priorities.

Joyce brandished his spreadsheets and declared in his seventh floor Beehive office that he and a small pack of National party staffers had found a smoking hole in Labour's fiscal plans. He made clear he had not used any Treasury resources. This was even clearer in retrospect.

Labour hit back almost immediately with claims that Joyce had mistakenly made the wrong assumption about Labour's accounting treatment and was desperately lashing out. So who's right? 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. In essence, it was a debate about whether accounting for the usual cost pressures from inflation and population growth is 'above the line' (as in Labour's plans) or 'below the line' as in the operating allowances accounted for by National.

The longer answer is there's a more interesting debate here about which types of spending a Government should choose and whether there should be an independent arbiter that costs political parties' policies before elections. This neutral budget 'referee' would give voters a clear steer every three years so they don't have to consult their own spreadsheets or a fiscal accounting partner (cheap at $600/hr) before deciding which party's box to tick.

The final conclusion to be drawn from yesterday's budget scuffle: voters need a officially independent adviser to decide these arguments.

Here's the longer version of my analysis published on Newsroom Pro.

2. Finally, a poverty target

Last night's leader's debate on TV3 was a cracker and clearly superior to the strangely bloodless and tame first one on TVNZ on Thursday night.

Newsroom's Sam Sachdeva covered the multitude of news angles that came out the debate, including:
After years of refusing to pick a child poverty target and committing to reduce it, Bill English committed to reducing child poverty by 100,000 within three years.
English prevaricated about trust and and whether truth had a 'sliding scale' when asked about the Todd Barclay scandal, saying it was a difficult situation for two people he knew well.
Repeating a pledge made by John Key, Jacinda Ardern said she would resign rather increase the age of eligibility for New Zealand Superannuation from 65.
Ardern said she would change the law so was not part of the Crimes Act.
Ardern threatened retaliation against Australia over any further reductions to Kiwi expats’ rights, saying: "If they lock us out of tertiary education, we will lock them out of it here."
Asked what he would march for, English said he would march to re-earn the right to govern. Ardern said she would march for child poverty. As a postscript, she said this morning she would also commit Labour to lifting 100,000 out of child poverty by 2020.

3. Quotes of the debate:

Here's a few of the key quotes of the night:

Ardern when talking about National's motel buying spree over the last year: "You’ve had nine years, it’s time to hand over to someone who has a vision and a plan.”

English when asked what was different between now and his failed attempt in 2002 to win as National leader: "I got up again."

Asked what she offered that English didn't, Ardern said: "Generational change and a future for the vision of New Zealand."

English said of Ardern's pledge to resign if the NZ Super eligibility age was raised from 65: "You're letting down your generation."

Ardern on migration: "“You’ve let all these people in and you didn't have a plan did you?...We would not be having this conversation if there was a plan.”

English described 3,700 pre-fabricated classrooms as "modern learning environments."

In response, Ardern said: "That's a jazzy name for a pre-fab."

4. My verdict: they both won

My impression was that Jacinda Ardern ditched her nerves and tentativeness from the TVNZ debate and came out all guns blazing.

But so did English. Any reluctance he might have had to interrupt and speak aggressively and passionately about his plans and priorities were gone last night. He was fluent, direct and clearly enjoying himself by the end.

It was the best political debate I can recall in my time covering politics over the last five elections. Overall, my impression was Ardern proved in the crucible of a heated debate against a tough opponent that she could be Prime Minister. Meanwhile, Bill English showed the New Zealand public what a capable and substantial politician he is. They both won, in my view.

And TV3 and Paddy Gower (no one will ever call him Patrick again) clearly thumped TVNZ and Mike Hosking as a debate/moderator team.

There were no knockout blows and Ardern will march on to the third debate in Christchurch on Thursday with growing confidence. But English is far from out of the game. The polls are locked around 40 percent for good reason.

5. The Jennings view on the debate

Newsroom Co-Editors Mark Jennings and Tim Murphy also watched the debate closely.

Mark was there in the Manukau studio and could be seen in the background over Ardern's right shoulder.

He looked at it from the point of view of a veteran producer of live news programmes and as a spectacle, which it definitely was.

"There were some early clues that they were taking this seriously.
The host, Newshub’s political editor, Patrick (Paddy) Gower had hardly been sighted on the news in the past week. Gower has been in a sort of boot camp, training for 'fight night'.

"An audience of 250 'undecided' voters had been drawn from the broadcaster’s data bases and invited to the Vodafone Pacific Events Centre in Manukau," Mark wrote.

"Newshub’s best producers were given a decent budget and plenty of cameras to go make a show. Still, it doesn’t take much to 'balls up' a live debate programme that is only put together every three years.

"For Gower, the Network’s 'enfant terrible', this was a critical moment in his career. A political equivalent of a Rugby World Cup final.
Stuff this up and you won’t be playing in the next one."

Mark's summary of the night is excellent, and can be read in full over at Newsroom.

He agreed with Lisa Owen's view that English came out on top narrowly. That sounds about right, but not enough to really shift voters. There are two more debates to go for that.

6. 'Move over old man'

Tim Murphy rightly starts off with: 'Now that's a debate.'

"Three-quarters of the way through the second leaders debate, National's Bill English felt like he was laughing all the way back to the Treasury benches," Tim wrote.

"He snorted and momentarily lost it over a question from moderator Patrick Gower about cannabis decriminalisation. Gower mentioned having as little as 40 grams of the drug - "about the size of a muesli bar" - could make people a criminal.

"English reacted like he was high. Loud guffawing, something in Gower's word picture setting him off, and throwing what had been a relentless debate off balance. His opponent, Labour's Jacinda Ardern, had to join in, quipping about Paddy's cannabis bar: 'Would you eat it?'

"The laughter from the incumbent Prime Minister might have been relief. Or it could have been him sniffing he'd done enough to edge Ardern for the second time in four nights.

"Edge. Not embarrass or overwhelm. Ardern was more combative than last Thursday and delivered some of her best lines on National's time being up. Hand over the keys, old man."

Tim rightly picked on a key exchange over child poverty.

"Here was flinty English of the nine years of neglect suddenly claiming to take action on child poverty.

"My entire reason for being in politics", she exclaimed "is to rid this country of child poverty."

English wasn't giving up. "What actions will be taken, what actions will you do?"

Ardern: "Bill, do you mind?"

"Then, to another English interjection of 'We're already doing it', she gave a command worthy of a Prime Minister at a cabinet table: 'Wait!'

"She listed off Labour's changes to Working for Families, its Best Start programme and $60 a week more for families most in need. Ardern worked her way back into the argument. 'After nine years we still have child poverty. We've tried your ideas.' Ouch.

"It was an example of this debate's spirited exchanges that made the parallel interviews of TVNZ's effort look staid in comparison. As English tried to undermine Labour's planned axing of National's tax cut package, Ardern was confident enough to say to Gower: 'Let him keep talking, please.'

He concludes: "This debate was a step up by all concerned. Gower's clever questioning, wit and pace made it work as both an event and a way to make the leaders engage and answer. Ardern, while less relentlessly positive, was forceful even when on the defensive.
Last week I had merrily predicted English couldn't improve on that performance, but he did. He looked comfortable in his own skin and despite his klutzy moments, could afford that laugh."

See Tim's full piece on the debate on Newsroom.

7. Where in the world is Andrew Little?

Newsroom's Shane Cowlishaw spoke this week with Andrew Little to find out what he's up to in the wake of a dramatic month out of Labour's top job.

Little told Shane that while he was out and about (in Tauranga this week and a Chinese community event in Auckland on the weekend) he was keeping his head low. It had been difficult stepping down from the leadership, something he was still adjusting to.

“Look, there’s an emotional hump you have to get over and I think I’m working my way through that, a shift in ambition and outlook," Little said.

“I don’t take any of that sort of stuff personally, whatever personal feelings I have about the change is about me. In the end this has always been about getting Labour in a position to win the election so I’ll do my bit and it’s going to be not quite off the radar, but below the radar."

Shane's full article is over on Newsroom Pro, where it was first published yesterday.

8. One fun thing

There was plenty of fun on the twitter sphere yesterday over the budget black hole and during the debate.

Kilbernie Sanders: "RT if you want the next debate to be moderated by Kim Hill with a taser #decision17."

ThomedySci: "I'm calling it. The winner of this debate? Weed dealers now realising they can smuggle their product in muesli bar wrappers."

Beehive Letters: Steven Joyce to Bill English RE: Checking Labour's Spreadsheet.

Steve Braunias: "Ardern draws gasps from audience as she brings in a suitcase, unzips it, and reveals $11b in fresh notes."

The Civilian: "Nation deeply divided whether to put expected operating spending in categorised expenses or operation allowances."

And this GIF will make you laugh. Worth a click.

Bruce Buckman: "Steven Joyce prepares to ambush Labour with the awesome power of his accounting ..."

Have a great day. Phew. And there's still 18 days to go...