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Cunliffe vs. Key in first Leaders’ Debate

David Cunliffe and John Key met face to face for their first televised public debate on Thursday. A contest of ideas, from economic policies to housing strategies, made for quality political theatre.

 
 

, Prime Minister John Key (R) and Labour Leader David Cunliffe (L) shake hands prior to the TVNZ leader's debate on August 28, 2014 in Auckland, New Zealand. Prime Minister of New Zealand, John Key will go head to head with Labour leader David Cunliffe at the general election on 20 September 2014

Photo by Handout/Getty Images

Whilst many political commentators have tripped over themselves with talk of body language, ‘hands in pockets’, tone, and the like we should instead stay focused on the policy and content that was debated.

Inevitably, the debate began with the issue of leadership and ‘Dirty Politics’. Nothing new or of note was debated in this segment, although David Cunliffe’s triumphant statement surrounding Minister Judith Collins gave him early advantage.

“If she was a minister in my cabinet she’d be gone,” said Cunliffe.

Moving swiftly on, the economy was the first major segment of the debate.

Rock star Economy?

Cunliffe conceded early on in the segment that National has done well to produce fiscal surplus, lower unemployment and significantly reduce migration levels. However, that was the only gracious compliment he could offer the Prime Minister on economic policy.

Cunliffe argued that the median real wage is less now than it was when John Key took office in 13 out of 16 regions in New Zealand. In fact, he frequently interrupted Key with the fact that there are 32,000 less jobs in New Zealand today than when Key took office in 2008.

The Labour leader worryingly said that 100,000 children are living in poverty in New Zealand and that for too many Kiwis the supposed economic gains post global financial crisis have been fictional.

“So we seem to have missed for many people the party and we’re going straight to the hangover,” said Cunliffe.

That is perhaps a well coined phrase but what is David Cunliffe’s policy cure for Nationals economic hangover?

He wants to raise minimum wage to $16.25 an hour, he wants a capital gains tax, and he wants to raise the top tax bracket to 36 per cent. Those are all economically controversial policies which have economists forever arguing from both sides of the political spectrum.

But Cunliffe confidently sold his economic vision in the debate.

“We will keep the books in black and run surpluses every year unless there’s a major downturn”

He also foresees unemployment dropping to 4 per cent if Labour comes to power.

John Key meanwhile emphasised a starkly different economic situation and future outlook for New Zealand:

“If you look at our economy by any measure it’s doing well,” Key said.

The PM said that economic growth in New Zealand is one of the fastest in the world, and that the economy created 83,000 new jobs in 2013 alone.

As Kiwis love to do, Key contrasted New Zealand with Australia, stating that unemployment fell to 5.6 per cent at the same time Australia’s went to 6.4 per cent and also that migration to Australia is barely existent.

In regards to average wages Key’s conclusion is that the average wage has increased from $47,000 to $55,000 under National. Treasury also predicts that over the next few years that figure will increase to $62,000.

Key also emphasised welfare reform: 1600 people are coming off welfare into work every week – reinforcing the popular notion of self-reliance and self-respect in the value of work.

In summary Prime Minister Key wanted to assure the public that New Zealand is on the cusp of something special if National is permitted to govern for another 3 years. Key also warned the public by saying that businesses will hurt under a Labour/Greens coalition due to measures such as abolishing the 90-day trial period for work, a capital gains tax on every business and a more closed economy to the worlds markets.

Housing: Kiwibuild vs. Kiwisaver

The second major segment of the debate was housing.

Labour’s plan – Kiwibuild – is to build 100,000 new homes over 10 years where the government contracts with private sector builders to build houses where supply needs to be met.

Cunliffe explained that half of these new homes will be stand alone houses and the other half will be apartments. The Labour leader is promising to build each house for at least $280,000 and at the most $360,000 by building on a large scale, which is supposed to bring down material costs.

The host Mike Hosking pressured Cunliffe on the worry that houses would have to be built in poorer and inconvenient areas with those sorts of prices.

Rather than defy the market Cunliffe stated that: “We think we can work with the market to create better conditions”

On the other side of the aisle Key responded by saying that: “That’s not a plan, that’s a wish list”

Hosking then pressured Key on his proposal of supplying people with more money to enter an already over-heated market. Key laid out his housing policy, which includes not just taller money grants for depositors but the rezoning of more land through special housing areas.

In terms of increasing supply National has rezoned more land through their special housing areas in the last nine months than has been rezoned in New Zealand in the last nine years. However, this ‘achievement’ is tainted by the fact that it is a new project and that there hasn’t been one single house completed in the designated areas.

In terms of increasing demand Nationals plan is to target Kiwisaver.

The government will let people take their personal savings, their employer’s contribution, and the government contribution out of Kiwisaver whilst providing a Kiwisaver HomeStart grant for first home buyers on modest incomes – of up to $20,000 for a couple buying a newly-built home.

The existing grant of up to $10,000 would remain for buyers of existing homes, but the policy lifted the cap on the value of properties that could be bought.

Cunliffe wants a supply-side revolution with Kiwibuild through careful government-planning and collaboration with private contractors. This could in theory cool down an over-heated housing market but it might lead to an explosion of government debt.

Key wants a more mixed approach of supply and demand by freeing up land and building consent to increase supply, whilst providing grants and access to savings to would-be depositors to increase demand. This might be a more nuanced strategy but it may not be enough to affect house prices. Indeed many believe throwing money at an over-heated market will cause house prices to rise even further.

And the Winner is?

The debate ended with discussion of foreign ownership of property and foreign investment. David Cunliffe was probably the winner in this segment with his memorable – ‘our land is our birthright’ comment.

In terms of content and policy debated, the economy and housing were central subjects in Thursday’s debate. However, most viewers have a pre-determined view of the world and of politics, and it’s unlikely that one hour of political debate could really affect how they may vote.

Addressing the ‘importance’ of body language, tone and the like it was clear that Cunliffe stood taller, spoke with more vigor and had a more proactive debating style – hence his 21 interruptions I counted.

John Key on the other hand looked a little flat and jaded, with his hand in his pocket and his overall breezy attitude toward the event. I counted five interruptions from the PM.

Although most of his content was impressive, National supporters will be urging Key to show more energy and passion for the ideas that underpin his party.

Labour supporters should be happy with Cunliffe’s performance and may only want a more calculated use of his interruptions.

In terms of winning votes, Thursdays Leaders Debate only ever had one winner – and that was Cunliffe. However, it’s unlikely that Cunliffe swung a considerable amount of the public from Thursday’s performance and he could lose those gains easily with a slip-up come next debate.

 
 

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About the author

Cameron is a Freelance Columnist who works for a non-profit surgical company in the heart of London. A recent political science graduate, Cameron has a strong writing background in all things political, economic and foreign affairs. His writing style is a blend of the cold hard facts with a dash of opinion and personality. Cameron writes weekly political columns for the New Zealand Times and is intending to broaden his writing repertoire to include topics such as travel, sport and food & drink.

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