Newsroom Pro's 9 things at 9: Labour widens lead over National; Generations clash in debate; Labour odds on to win

In today's email we look at the latest election debate and opinion poll.

1. Labour widens lead over National

Last night's TVNZ-Colmar Brunton poll shows the election is quickly becoming Jacinda Ardern's to lose.

It's still too early to call it for Labour, but the odds of a Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on September 24 now have to be over 50 percent and rising. The potential is growing for a simple coalition involving either Labour, the Greens and Maori, or Labour and New Zealand First. The strength of Labour and the solidity of New Zealand First's support suggests the latter is more likely.

Although Labour's lead is only four percentage points, the slide in National's support and the ability for Labour to avoid having to convince Winston Peters to join a Government that includes the Maori Party and the Greens (who he loathes separately and jointly) makes a change of Government now the most likely scenario.

The poll was taken from last Saturday to last Wednesday so it included the views of the million people-plus who watched Monday night's TV3 debate and those who watched TVNZ's less successful debate last Thursday.

Labour was unchanged from the previous week at 43 percent, while National dropped two points to 39 percent, its lowest level in 12 years. New Zealand First rose one percent to nine percent and the Greens were steady on five percent -- right on the threshold of just making it back into Parliament.

The Maori Party rose one point to two percent, while The Opportunities Party also rose one point to two percent. ACT is marooned on 0.1 percent.

Jacinda Ardern is also now clearly ahead of Bill English as preferred Prime Minister. Her support rose one percentage point to 35 percent, while English fell two points to 31 percent. Winston Peters rose one point to five percent.

As Newsroom's Sam Sachdeva explains below, Ardern held her own in a rowdy leaders debate in Christchurch hosted by The Press and Stuff, removing one more potential obstacle in her path to victory. Mistakes in this debate torpedoed the chances of Phil Goff and David Cunliffe in 2011 and 2014 respectively.

There is still one more leaders' debate to go on September 20 on TVNZ, which would be Bill English's last chance to disarm the Jacinda effect. Unless National can land more blows on Labour's less-than-specific plans for taxes and its budget forecasts, then Labour and Ardern are now likely to win the election.

After just 38 days in charge of a Labour Party that was on 24 percent and losing badly on the morning of August 1, Jacinda Ardern has upended the political landscape and looks set to become the Prime Minister in 15 days time.

There is a saying that a week is a long time in politics. In retrospect, the first week of August (when Andrew Little resigned, Ardern was elected Labour leader and Metiria Turei resigned) will be seen as the week that ended nine years of National Government.

2. 'This stardust won't settle'

Newsroom's Sam Sachdeva was in Christchurch last night for the now-famous Stuff leaders debate.

There is something particularly raw and dangerous about this town hall style debate that proved fatal for Phil Goff and David Cunliffe. Sam was there to see whether Jacinda Ardern's stardust would fade under the blowtorch of heckling in Christchurch.

Sam reports we were promised a rowdy audience. We were promised a light hand from the moderators, and a fist fight from the leaders. He was not disappointed.

The Stuff debate in Christchurch lived up to its promise in most respects, with both leaders lifting their energy in response and exchanging swipes in what was the most fiery debate yet.

What this event lacked compared to its predecessors was a defining moment, a clear triumph for Bill English or Jacinda Ardern. The pair were again evenly matched, with the “lead” ebbing and flowing throughout.

A score draw was a luxury Ardern could most afford, with a TVNZ-Colmar Brunton poll showing Labour increasing its lead over National - the second time in three debates English has had to deal with bad news.

After a brief video montage showing just how much has changed in the last three months, with resignations aplenty, the two leaders strode out on stage to face an energetic crowd of about 700 Cantabrians.

Clad in a dark suit and light blue tie, English said he was unworried by Ardern’s momentum, seeking to frame the Labour leader as light on substance in an attack he has used with increasing frequency.

“Now the stardust has settled, you’re starting to see the an alternative to a successful New Zealand, you're being asked to vote for a committee.”

Ardern bit back, framing the election as a choice between the “risk attached to the status quo” and the chance for a new approach under Labour.

“This stardust won’t settle, because none of us should settle. Christchurch shouldn’t settle, New Zealand shouldn't settle for anything less than taking on head-on the challenges we face this election.”

Taking a page from Barack Obama’s book, Ardern leaned heavily on themes of hope and change, as well as an echo of his “Yes we can” slogan.

“We can invest in health and education if we choose to do things like cancel tax cuts, we can clean up our rivers within a generation, and we can do all of that while maintaining growth in economy by investing it in innovation and investing it in skills.”

English spent most of the first two debates on the front foot, and it appeared Ardern had decided attack was the best form of defence.

Leaning on her lectern and crossing her left foot behind her, the Labour leader interjected more than in previous debates, with a predictable clash coming over the alleged $11.7 billion “fiscal hole” in Labour’s spending plans.

With Finance Minister Steven Joyce - whose name attracted jeers - seemingly on his own in making the claim, Ardern pressed English to name someone who supported that view.

"You continue to maintain that, you're maintaining a lie,” she said.

English boxed back, standing by Joyce and undaunted by the heckler who warned, “Watch out Bill, you’re going to fall down that hole.”

Predictably, Ardern came under attack for a lack of clarity on Labour’s tax plans, with debate moderator and Stuff’s South Island editor-in-chief Joanna Norris asking whether she could assure voters there would be no “nasty surprises” awaiting them under a Labour government.

"The only one where we have allowed ourselves the the tax working group. Every single other policy, we have provided an extraordinary amount of specific detail including a plan around how to pay for it."

The family home was off the table, along with the land under it, but she wouldn’t go any further.

When English tried to list off the possible new taxes under a Labour government, Ardern had a prepared line: “You increased taxes 18 times”, including a GST rise it did not mention before the 2008 election.

A topic expected to favour Ardern, water quality, was turned around when English attacked her for insulting “the thousands of people who have committed themselves” to improving practices on dairy farms.

Pressed on her decision to rule out raising the superannuation age, Ardern said English had let down her generation by stopping contributions to the Super fund.

"My generation has been sold down the river by your government," she said.

“I know this generation, I raised them,” English retorted.

In my view this was the exchange of the campaign. It represented perfectly the contrast between Ardern and English, and both of their strengths and weaknesses as politicians.

3. 'The mood in the room was with Labour'

Sam reports that one sign of a shift in public opinion came from the crowd gathered within Riccarton’s La Vida Conference Centre.

In both 2011 and 2014, John Key benefited from a friendly crowd, winning cheers as he rubbed first Phil Goff then David Cunliffe into the ground over their spending and tax plans - think “Show us the money” and “Five new taxes”. This time around, the mood within the room appeared to be leaning towards Labour.

English hardly set himself up for success in his opening, paying tribute to Cantabrians for their resilience - a word turned into a cliche by well-meaning politicians after the region’s earthquakes - and saying Christchurch would have the most modern city in Australasia once the city’s rebuild was completed “in just the next year or two”.

The remark attracted derisive laughter from much of the crowd, given the lack of progress on many of the city’s anchor projects.

Former Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee, a favourite target in the Garden City, received lusty boos when English mentioned his name, while the Prime Minister’s suggestion that the Christ Church Cathedral restoration was the city’s most important project was also unpopular.

Ardern played to the hometown crowd, receiving loud cheers when mentioning underfunding of the Canterbury District Health Board.
English seemed frustrated at points with what he later deemed a “partisan” crowd, grinning (or grimacing) as he raised his eyebrows and looked towards the roof.

In closing, he sought to repurpose Ardern’s talk about vision, speaking about his government’s values “based around the core value of the integrity of every person”.

But it was the Labour leader who had the last word.

“It is a decision between drift, which is what we’ve been doing for the last nine years...or for finally deciding to do things differently and take action.

“We can do it together, we will do it together, so let’s do this.”

4. 'Jacinda's one big remaining vulnerability'

Despite the polls and the debates, there remains one big vulnerability for Jacinda Ardern and Labour in the remaining 14 days of the campaign -- tax.

That was illustrated again in yesterday morning's fiery finance ministers debate on RNZ.

Newsroom's Tim Murphy writes that if there's one monotonous bump in Ardern's rollicking chariot ride to September 23, it is from an over-worn wheel, a tax policy that has sent things out of shape and possibly off course.

"Each time the wheel rotates, Ardern and Co are jolted from their electoral reverie. And the public can see things starting to wobble," Tim writes.

"The cause is, of course, the decision to out-source to a Tax Working Group the big calls Labour wants considered on everything from capital gains tax (not on the family home), land tax, asset tax, and who knows what else - estate and death taxes, gift taxes, income and company taxes.

"Ardern's predecessor Andrew Little had opted for the Tax Working Group but - and it is a big BUT - had decided anything the group recommended and Labour intended to go with would be put before the public at the next election before being implemented.

"The new leader ditched that pledge. She argues the urgency of the crisis in home ownership and housing affordability means a government needs the answers and then the right to take action.
It is a big call. Possibly the biggest call of this campaign."

I agree with Tim on this. I can't understand why Ardern dropped Little's pledge not to tax capital or land in the first term. Labour is already promising to extend the bright line test from two years to five years, which means an effective capital gains tax on landlords flipping properties will already be in place for most of the first term.

There are also no good revenue reasons to go early with a Capital Gains Tax beyond the family home. It will take several years to generate meaningful revenue and would be unlikely to be in place before 2020 anyway, given the time it would take for a Tax Working Group to reach a conclusion and then for legislation to go through Parliament.

Ardern has already been forced to rule out a land tax on the land under the family home and a capital gains tax on the family home, along with a new top tax rate. She has also promised to keep the retirement age at 65, which seems to cut against the appeal to the youth vote of a CGT, so the risks may well outweigh the returns.

Although the polls suggest she may just get away with it.

5. 'Social investment no panacea'

Auckland University's Michael O'Brien writes for us about the social investment approach touted loudly and often by Bill English, including again in last night's debate.

"Targeting ‘at risk’ individuals and families is not a substitute for a plan to reduce poverty and deprivation," O'Brien writes.

"The idea and language of social investment is being used increasingly to develop government social policy in health, education, care and protection of children, mental health and housing, and in funding decisions for not-for-profits working in these and other areas.

"But social investment is not a cure-all and its weaknesses must be acknowledged along with the common denominator that often links troubled lives - poverty," he writes.

See O'Brien's full article on Newsroom.

6. The problem with 'no surprises'

Victoria University academic Dr Chris Eichbaum, a former board member of the Reserve Bank and an expert on public administration, has written a piece for us at Newsroom on the 'no surprises' policy.

This policy backfired on ministers and public servants in the Winston Peters case. Eichbaum looks at whether the policy has gone too far. He says ministers should be told to back off more often.

He also uses this excellent graphic from Australia's Treasury Secretary Ken Henry to illustrate his case. It's well worth a read for anyone in public life and the public service.

See Chris' full article on Newsroom.

7. Rod Oram's weekly column

Rod Oram writes in his weekly column that our environmental problems in urban areas are just as intense as those in rural areas. But they are different and poorly understood, as this election campaign shows.

"When cockies get angry with townies for pushing swimmable rivers, for example, they accuse townies of being hypocrites. Just look at the state of urban rivers and streams! Right idea. Wrong target," he writes.

"Many urban waterways are a mess. But they account for barely two percent of the nation’s rivers and streams. The problems with water are overwhelmingly rural.

"But we townies are hypocrites for damaging our urban environment. We plan badly, use land wastefully, underinvest in homes, infrastructure, civic amenities and environmental systems, and devalue our landscapes, coasts and water – fresh and salt.

"We criticise cockies for high nitrate levels in water. Well, our nitrous oxide emissions from vehicles are second only to Mexico’s in the OECD."

See Rod's column in full here on Newsroom Pro, where it was published first this morning.

8. Weekend Reads

Especially for subscribers, here's a few longer reads on economic, political and social issues for the weekend.

Google, which has a full time lobbyist in Wellington, is rapidly losing the sympathy of people across the political spectrum in America, Ars Technica's Timothy B Lee reports.

This week the New America Foundation, a think tank that's heavily funded by Google, fired the head of its Open Markets project. For the last eight years, the Open Markets team has been methodically building the intellectual case for more aggressive enforcement of antitrust laws—a project that could easily result in more regulatory scrutiny of Google. On the right, many fear its ability to censor free speech, Lee reports.

"There's been a really big breakthrough," says Barry Lynn, who led New America's Open Markets team before New America fired him. "It's not just the left. Interest in dealing with concentration of power, the fear of concentration of power is across the spectrum."

Google is about become more pervasive and powerful, thanks to new way of doing Google Street view with cameras that allow machine learning to record a lot more detail about what the street view cameras see. This piece in Wired has the detail.

"Those algorithms can pore over millions of signs and storefronts without getting tired. By hoovering up vast amounts of information visible on the world’s streets—signs, business names, perhaps even opening hours posted in the window of your corner deli—Google hopes to improve its already formidable digital mapping database. The company, built on the back of algorithms that indexed the web, is using the same strategy on the real world, Tom Simonite reports.

Apart from Donald Trump, one of the biggest stories in America at the moment is the opioid crisis. Mother Jones' Julia Lurie reports about 64,000 Americans died from heroin or fentanyl (a synthetic opiod) in 2016. That's up 22 percent and over 50 percent more than were killed by guns or car crashes.

"The epidemic is straining the capacity of morgues, emergency services, hospitals, and foster care systems. Largely because of prevalent drug use and overdose, the number of children in foster care nationwide increased by 30,000 between 2012 and 2015," Lurie reports.

Further to the great debate about city design (should we sprawl out or go up?), this piece in Bloomberg about how Houston's sprawly approach was not helpful during Hurricane Harvey is well worth a read.

"No city could have withstood Harvey without serious harm, but Houston made itself more vulnerable than necessary. Paving over the saw-grass prairie reduced the ground’s capacity to absorb rainfall. Flood-control reservoirs were too small. Building codes were inadequate. Roads became rivers, so while hospitals were open, it was almost impossible to reach them by car," Esther Perel writes.

I found this piece in The Atlantic about the clash of two cultures fascinating. It details what happened when one of the early founders of Facebook, Chris Hughes, took over the left-leaning magazine, The New Republic. HT Shane Cowlishaw for this link.

"Chris wasn’t just a savior; he was a face of the zeitgeist. At Harvard, he had roomed with Mark Zuckerberg, and he had gone on to become one of the co-founders of Facebook. Chris gave our fusty old magazine a Millennial imprimatur, a bigger budget, and an insider’s knowledge of social media. We felt as if we carried the hopes of journalism, which was yearning for a dignified solution to all that ailed it. The effort was so grand as to be intoxicating. We blithely dismissed anyone who warned of how our little experiment might collapse onto itself—how instead of providing a model of a technologist rescuing journalism, we could become an object lesson in the dangers of journalism’s ever greater reliance on Silicon
Valley," Franklin Foer writes.

That'll do for now. Sort of thrilled I didn't include a single link about Trump or our election.

Have a great weekend and please do send me your best long reads (just hit reply on the email) for our fellow subscribers to enjoy next weekend.

Also, my apologies, but yesterday I put incorrect links onto Lynn Grieveson's excellent pieces on nitrate levies and welfare reform. The links are correct now.

9. One fun thing...

I always enjoy GCSB Intercepts:

This tweet is worth a click through to: "Surveillance feed of National's new approach to the $10.7 billion dollar hole argument."