Newsroom Pro's 9 things at 9: Tolley threatens to halve benefits of youth on drugs; Ardern rules out tax on family home land

Jacinda Ardern has firmly shut the door on a land tax affecting family homes. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

In today's email we report from the campaign trail and preview another poll promising to be 'explosive'.

1. Another poll and debate combo

The election campaign reaches another 'moment of truth' at 6 pm this evening when TVNZ releases a fresh Colmar Brunton poll -- already touted as 'explosive' -- and Jacinda Ardern and Bill English clash for the third time in the Stuff leaders debate in Christchurch.

Last Thursday's debate and poll combo electrified the campaign when Colmar Brunton put Labour at 43 percent and National at 41 percent -- the first time in over a decade Labour had led National in the poll.

That poll
was taken between Saturday August 26 and Wednesday August 30. The Reid Research poll published on Sunday, which showed Labour at 39.4 percent and National at 43.3 percent, was taken from August 22 to August 30, so is seen as slightly less up-to-date than the Colmar Brunton poll.

The poll for TVNZ was more heavily weighted to the beginning of last week, which included the controversy around Winston Peters' pension repayment. It showed New Zealand First support down two percentage points to eight percent, while the Reid Research poll showed New Zealand First down 2.6 percent to 6.6 percent.

The key interest will be on how the 'Jacinda Effect' has held up after the debates and whether New Zealand First's slide has continued towards the five percent threshold. The Green vote will also be closely watched. It fell 2.2 percent to 6.1 percent in the Reid Research poll and was up one point to five percent in the Colmar Brunton poll.

Tonight's poll will be the first to include voters' reaction to the first two debates, the second of which on Monday night was seen by over one million people.

2. A debate that creates key moments

The public debate tonight in Christchurch being live-streamed on Stuff and moderated by Stuff's Tracy Watkins and Press Editor Joanna Norris could be crucial.

These debates, which can be rowdy but often create moments of truth, stood out in the last two elections. In 2011, John Key thumped Phil Goff with his 'show me the money' comment and in 2014 he embarrassed David Cunliffe over Labour's Capital Gains Tax policy.

Newsroom's Sam Sachdeva (who is from Christchurch) is in Christchurch today and tonight for the debate.

He cites Norris' view of why the Stuff debate seems to get the best and worst out of the candidates.

“It’s often a really rowdy, robust audience which is not dissimilar to the types of environments that they would face in the House, so they need to think really quickly on their feet, they need to respond to often quickfire questions as well as that real energy and vibe you get in front of a live, local audience,” she told Sam.

“We describe it as moderating but with a gentle hand on the tiller, and that’s deliberately so, because in the House you don’t have the moderation other than through the Speaker, and so this is a chance for them to really show their political mettle and their ability to respond in what is essentially a crisis situation and that’s what we require of our leaders.”

Norris says another advantage is the live audience, with about 700 people expected to attend.

The debate starts at 6 pm and will be rowdy, but could be crucial.

He has written a preview of the event, which was published first on Newsroom Pro.

3. 'We will not tax land under the home'

Jacinda Ardern opened up a chink of light in Labour's view on a land tax on the family home in an interview with Guyon Espiner on Monday morning. In later interviews she also left open the prospect that the land under the home could be taxed.

Bill English leapt in later on Monday morning to try to pry that gap open and allege that Labour could impose a land tax on the family home, particularly of pensioner voters with fixed incomes.

Clearly sensing the risks, Ardern moved yesterday to shut the door completely on any prospect that a Tax Working Group would look at a land tax that affected the family home.

"My message will be very clear to them - do not bring me any recommendation that includes the family home or the land that a family home sits on," Ardern told RNZ.

"That will not be up for consideration. It's completely off the table," she said.

Ardern has now ruled out a new top income tax rate and an increase in the age of eligibility for New Zealand superannuation, but has not ruled out a capital gains tax beyond the family home.

4. Going after NZ First voters

Bill English was in Southland yesterday and used a visit to the Southern Institute of Technology to announce with Anne Tolley that National would halve the benefits of those with drug problems who refuse treatment or a job.

Clearly playing to its base and appealing to New Zealand First voters who believe young beneficiaries can't get jobs because they're on drugs, English and Tolley announced the 'stick' along with the 'carrot' of extra funding for rehabilitation, one-on-one mentoring and budgeting advice.

Tolley pointed to an anecdotal survey done by Work and Income that said one in five jobseekers under the age of 25 had said their drug taking had prevented them from taking a job. She said 95 percent of jobseekers met their obligations within four weeks of being warned.

A spokesman for Tolley later told Newsroom that the one in five figure had come from an anecdotal survey by WINZ of unemployed people in Northland, Bay of Plenty, the East Coast and Nelson over a four week period. She would not say what the sample size of the survey was or when it was taken.

"Job seekers without children who refuse work experience or training or recreational drug rehabilitation will lose 50 per cent of their benefit entitlement after four weeks of not meeting their obligations, with further reductions if that continues," Tolley said.

That would reduce the income for a single job-seeker under 25 to $88.50 per week after tax.

"This will also apply to those who continue to fail recreational drug tests, where these are requested by prospective employers," she said.

Tolley said the lower benefit payments would only be able to be used for essential needs such as rent and food. Currently Work and Income already provided a money management programme for 16-19 year olds.

5. 'A punitive, anecdote based policy'

Labour social development spokeswoman Carmel Sepuloni said National's proposal was punitive and made assumptions without evidence.

"It's very punitive and deficit based. It's making assumptions about people, rather than seeing them as people to be invested in. They're already assuming they're failing to comply with the rules and regulations," Sepuloni told me.

"I can't see how repeating the same strategies is going to improve people's situations," she said, referring to the 74,000 people who were Not in Education, Employment or Training (NEETs) in the June quarter.

"They're reverting back to old language. They want to be seen to be getting tough on beneficiaries, despite there being no evidence to support some of the shifts that they're making."

Sepuloni referred to information provided by MSD via a written parliamentary question on May 9 this year showing that over the last year there had been 170 'obligation failures' over the year to the end of March where beneficiaries applying for jobs requiring a drug test had either failed a drug test and failed to take it. That was out of 39,271 job referrals over that period and represented a failure rate of less than 0.4 percent.

Greens inequality spokeswoman Marama Davidson said the announcement was cynical and designed to distract from the pressing issue of poverty.

“National’s latest cynical announcement ignores the evidence of how to properly treat drug addiction and will punish already vulnerable people,“ Davidson said in a statement.

“We know that sanctions are expensive to administer and push people further into poverty. If you believe that people deserve help to overcome drug addiction, why would you turn around and push them under the poverty line if they struggle to overcome those habits?," she said.

Tolley said there were 16,000 people on the jobseeker benefit who were under 25 and had been on a benefit for over six months.

Given the 0.4 percent failure rate for drug tests for job-seekers over the last year, the policy would apply to 64 people a year, assuming they did not change their minds about future drug tests and job interviews.

Tommy Wilson, of Te Tuinga Whanau Support Services Trust, told Newstalkzb the policy lacks compassion.

"What's a person going to do with half a benefit when they're facing a house problem or an addiction to drugs? Fix them up first and they'll be able to hold down a job," Wilson said.

"If we continue to focus on penalising people, the same outcomes will happen. I think New Zealand's moved on from these draconian ways."

Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell said the policy risked unintended consequences.

"Drug testing can encourage people to move away from using easy to detect drugs like cannabis, to harder to detect drugs like methamphetamine," he told RNZ.

Bell argued the policy didn't take into account the risk of relapses.

"Drug dependency is a chronic and relapsing condition, so people might be in recovery, but they might slip - they might fall off the wagon. Is the government going to sanction them for something that seems to be a natural part of the drug recovery process?"

Bill English has repeatedly extolled the virtues of using big data and targeted investment to make evidence based policy decisions. This announcement used a scientifically invalid anecdotal survey of an indeterminate number of beneficiaries in only four areas.

RNZ's Susie Ferguson gave Anne Tolley a tough time on this issue in an interview this morning.

“Let’s talk about facts rather than anecdotes, minister," Ferguson said at one point.

Further to the welfare reform issue, here's an excellent round-up from Newsroom's Lynn Grieveson of the various parties' views on welfare reform with a focus on disabilities in particular.

Lynn's piece focused on Labour's plan to restructure Work and Income. It was published first yesterday on Newsroom Pro.

6. A battle for Wairarapa is brewing

Newsroom's Shane Cowlishaw went to the Wairarapa electorate on Tuesday to meet the candidates and get a feel of the mood on the ground in what would normally be a very safe National seat for its incumbent, Alastair Scott.

But Shane found Scott is in a real fight with Labour's Kieran McAnulty and New Zealand First's Ron Mark.

Last week Labour released the results of a survey it commissioned of more than 2000 people (the validity of which was questioned by other candidates) that suggested the race would indeed be close.

It put Scott at 33.6 percent, McAnulty at 29.9, and the third horse Ron Mark at 18.5. The automated phone survey of 2,051 people used touch tone responses to get its results, which included 10 percent who said they were unsure and 4.2 percent who nominated other unspecified candidates, according to the Times Age.

Backing up the sentiment has been the tone of the Wairarapa Times-Age, which has run several columns criticising Scott’s maiden performance.

Shane's deeply reported piece is well worth a read to get a sense of National's vulnerability in the regions and how one National MP hasn't performed as some had hoped. It was first published on Newsroom Pro.

Scott has put his foot in it a few times. Newsroom's Lynn Grieveson reported in July that Scott upset a disability rights audience by saying that disabled people who lose their benefits when they marry an able-bodied person should know that: "Love has consequences."

National's Wellington Central candidate Nicola Willis had to apologise for Scott's words to another disabilities rights panel debate in Wellington this week, as Lynn reported yesterday on Newsroom Pro.

"With all respect to Alastair I think that was a very unfortunate choice of words," Willis told the group.

But then she put her own foot in it later on, appearing out of touch when she said: : "We do, across all benefit support, income test for family circumstances and the reason for that is so that if someone is in a living arrangement with someone that is earning $500,000 a year, we don’t think they are someone that we should be targeting government support at. And then that principle is applied across the system."

7. Nitrate tax a clever idea? Or too clever for its own good?

Newsroom's Lynn Grieveson was also busy this week looking at the Greens' proposal for a nitrates tax.

Lynn took a deep dive into the pros and cons and found the idea didn't work when attempted in the Netherlands. It would also be very dependent on the controversial Overseer software system that models nitrogen loss.

There are potential unintended consequences and competing interests aplenty.

See Lynn's full piece here on Newsroom Pro, where it was published first yesterday.

Mike Joy's comments summed up one side of the debate: "It's just idiotic. We used to be able to farm without nitrogen, just with atmospheric nitrogen, so it is just a stupid trap – it's like kids on a sugar binge, we have just gone silly on it and we just have to get out of it."

Chris Allen from Federated Farmers had another view: "We note the Greens are only interested in cleaning up rivers and lakes - what about harbours and beaches that are arguably in a worse state? Or is that issue too hard to raise in an election campaign? Nobody wants to tell urban voters how bad their waterways are. Nitrogen is organic and an essential to life."

8. A noisy debate

I listened (or tried to) the finance leaders debate on RNZ this morning between Steven Joyce and Grant Robertson.

They have clashed noisily in the past. Last year's slugfest on The Nation was memorable for a lot of heat but less light. They met again last month on The Nation in a more civil and informative affair.

But since then we've had Steven Joyce's accusation that Labour has an $11.7 billion hole in its budget plans, which Robertson has rejected angrily and which every independent economist and commentator (including me) has said is just wrong.

So this morning's clash moderated by Guyon Espiner was shaping up as a doozy. And it was.

"You have damaged democracy by what you have done. This is fake news," Robertson told Joyce, who was sitting across RNZ's studio desk in Auckland.

"It is a disgraceful situation and you owe New Zealanders an apology ... You threw this on the table to try to get the reaction you got."

Joyce said there were lots of people who backed his claim, but none that he could name.

Newsroom's Tim Murphy takes a closer look at Joyce's attempted kneecapping of Labours campaign earlier this week. He describes it as a hail Mary pass to try to win a fourth term.

See Tim's piece here at Newsroom.

9. One or two fun things

Twitter is a fun place for debate...sometimes.

Felix Geiringer was also focused on the anecdotal survey referred to by Tolley in her announcement aimed at cracking down on drug use by jobless youth:

"We asked a focus group of NZF/National swing voters whether they thought all beneficiaries were on drugs."

The Jacinda effect is also being noticed overseas. Here's Jeremy Corbyn talking to Jacinda Ardern via a phone video selfie (via Jack Tame)