Lots of laughs and low blows – but where are the numbers?


The Queenstown debate came up short on numbers (Photo INL)

Venu Menon
Wellington, September 15,2023

The premise of the ASB Great Debate that played out in Queenstown on Thursday was meant to be about why each of the four top-polling political parties thought it was the best suited to lead New Zealand and manage its economy.

With Labour’s Grant Robertson taking the floor first, there was an inevitability about hearing him making the case for Labour with the same seamless presentation delivered in the baritone voice that New Zealanders have grown used to.

“Over the past few years,” Robertson reminded one and all, “New Zealand had faced many new challenges, with the pandemic, the spike in inflation and the cost-of-living pressures that households faced.”

But the Ardern gospel of “we’ve got through by working together, by looking after each other,” appears to be wearing thin as the general election looms.

The fall-back positions came out pat: The economy is 7% bigger than it was before Covid, unemployment at 3.6%, public debt that’s among the lowest in the developed world, an economy that can create high-paying jobs that have low emissions and that keep New Zealanders here for the long term. Labour will get the balance right, everything it does will be fully costed.

National’s finance spokesperson Nicola Willis rushed in with her familiar battle-cry: “Labour has mismanaged our economy. And it is hurting New Zealanders. Inflation remains out of control. We are entering the third year of a cost-of-living crisis. Interest rates have more than doubled in just two years, meaning mortgages have become unaffordable for too many. Our current account deficit is the worst in the world, with forecasts for growth worse than other countries with Treasury confirming we’re flat-lining. National will stop wasteful spending, put the books in order.”

Semantics trumped figures, with pronouncements masquerading as policy during the debate.

Sample: “For the last six years, government has been doing less and less with more and more, while household and businesses are forced to do more with less…” (ACT’s David Seymour).

Seymour painted a faintly apocalyptic picture of a New Zealand gradually declining in living standards and becoming “a kind of middle-income country that’s nice to visit but not reaching the potential of a First World country, an island paradise that we all aspire to.”

Predictably, James Shaw of the Green Party came up with his own cache of catch phrases: “The climate crisis actually represents the single greatest opportunity in at least a generation for us to build a highly productive, clean-tech, high-value economy that works for everyone.”

The Greens are ringfenced by their own sloganeering.

Robertson took a swipe at the “professors of hindsight economics” who downplayed the role of Covid. But Labour is desperately fanning memories of the pandemic and the cyclone when the public have moved on. A month out from the election, Covid and adverse weather events have little voter appeal.

Robertson’s attempt to prop up Labour’s case by reminding the nation about Covid and coupling that with a message of austerity and belt-tightening by households was a clear poll damper.

That’s not to say National came across as a cheery alternative with all the answers in its pocket.

Instead of cold numbers, Willis turned up the heat: “New Zealanders are getting to keep more of their own money because they are sick of the way you spend it.” When pressed for figures, Willis was less than forthcoming: “We have been clear that we don’t think it’s okay that spending has increased 80% under Labour, but New Zealanders have not seen an 80% improvement in results in just about any area except perhaps the number of ram raids occurring.”

That jibe was the closest the debate got to discussing the hot-button issue of retail crime.

Throughout, Labour and National shadow-boxed around the pivotal issues that drive this election.

Robertson ducked a query on his abortive GST policy, while Willis found herself struggling to explain how taxing foreign buyers of high-end properties in New Zealand would pay for National’s tax plan.

“Show us the details,” Robertson bellowed.

ACT’s Seymour hedged when asked if National’s tax plan was credible. It was Grant’s job to bash National, he said.

The Great Debate came up short on numbers, leaving New Zealanders none the wiser.

Venu Menon is an Indian Newslink reporter based in Wellington

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