Election 2023: Campaigns kick off as policies aimed at cost of living scrutinised

5:32 am on 4 September 2023
National Party leader Christopher Luxon at the party's launch of its 2023 election campaign.

Leader Christopher Luxon at the National Party election campaign launch on 3 September 2023. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Power Play - This will be an election campaign like no other.

Labour and National will battle it out for the government benches and neither is pulling their punches as they seek to promote their own offerings, and cast doubt on the plans of the other lot.

After years of Covid and divisions still stark in some parts of the community, they'll also have to contend with an electorate weary of politicians and their promises, with many New Zealanders more focused on how they are going to pay the bills.

The cost of living crisis is an unwelcome guest in so many households, and the two major parties now have the task of convincing voters they know how to turf it out.

The race is officially on with both launching their campaigns at the weekend.

For National, a slick number at a blue-lit event centre in South Auckland featuring a highly produced video - starring Christopher Luxon. It was obvious no expense was spared, funded by the massive donations war chest the party has at its disposal.

While it was quite a show, no big bang policy but rather a "personal" pledge card from Luxon (à la Labour 2005) listing his priorities should National win power. Not out of ideas, he insists, but more a desire to "bring everything together" as they head into the campaign.

Labour opted for the Aotea Centre in central Auckland, MPs and supporters were forced to walk through a Freedoms New Zealand protest to get in. Protesters who'd infiltrated the audience continued to cause disruption throughout Chris Hipkins' speech; he handled it well with a number of one-liners as the crowd chanted to drown out the protesters. Maybe though he was running out of material as the sixth person was being hauled out, resorting to a "Up the Wahs".

Chris Hipkins at Labour's campaign launch

Leader Chris Hipkins at the Labour Party election campaign launch on 2 September 2023. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Hipkins copped a bit more of the same the next morning at the Avondale markets. Many people were happy to see the country's leader and have their picture taken, but there were also some vocally expressing their frustration, anger and opposition to Labour and its record in government.

Some were just annoyed to be confronted by a rolling maul of politicians, supporters, police and media in what were often pretty tight spaces around the market, when people just wanted to get out and buy their fruit and veggies on a Sunday morning.

A ripe opportunity for him to spruik Labour's promise to remove GST from fruit and vegetables, but not much talk of that at the market, except a blunt reassurance from Hipkins the savings would be passed on to consumers after it was raised by one of the stall-holders.

Hipkins is at home in the bear pit of Parliament and most likely on the debate stage, but he's still awkward in the 'walkabouts', small talk doesn't seem to come naturally and that will start to matter as a big part of election campaigning.

This election is very much about the two leaders, the two Chrises, and whether they can present themselves as credible, likeable and trustworthy.

Other parties are also out there pitching to voters but the next government will be shaped by whether Labour or National wins the election, and which Chris will become the next prime minister.

Also, an important part of the mix is policy. Proposals from both sides - aimed at easing financial pressures - are rolling out thick and fast. That also comes with scrutiny.

While Labour's GST policy may have polled well when they were first looking at it, the party still faces questions about embracing an approach so roundly criticised, including relatively recently by its own people. A significant question not yet answered convincingly is how everyone can be sure retailers, in particular supermarkets, will pass on the full savings.

Free dental is another it scotched when proposed by the Greens as not being affordable or achievable with the current workforce.

Labour's own policy is phased, limited to those under 30 and comes with plans to increase the number of dentists and the other staff needed; but again the ability to scale up still has major question marks over it.

National launched its $14 billion tax relief plan last week; along with the promised income boost came a list of the ways a National government would pay for it.

An interesting nugget from finance spokesperson Nicola Willis speaking to TVNZ's Q&A about whether the tax cuts would be inflationary, the last thing the economy needs with sky-high mortgage rates a direct result of too much demand.

If everyone saved their tax cut instead of spending it, they would not be inflationary, said Willis.

Given this is a policy squarely aimed at the "squeezed middle", families who simply can't cover all of their costs, that is a truly aspirational ask.

National Party deputy leader Nicola Willis at the party's launch of its 2023 election campaign.

National's finance spokesperson Nicola Willis at the party's campaign launch. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Top of the list of revenue raisers is a 15 percent tax on house sales over $2 million to foreign buyers Willis estimates would generate about three quarters of a billion dollars each year - nearly $3 billion over four years.

That has been questioned by Labour in terms of whether enough houses would actually be sold to raise the amount of tax needed. Also a debate over whether New Zealand could even levy that tax within the confines of its double tax agreements with a range of other countries.

National did get formal legal advice on the impact of its trade deals but that did not settle the question of tax agreements. It pointed RNZ to advice then given by Robin Oliver, tax expert and former deputy commissioner of policy at Inland Revenue. His view is a tax on overseas buyers would be possible, as long as they didn't live and pay tax in New Zealand - that is where this country has an obligation not to discriminate between people based on their nationality.

But Labour won't let this one lie, demanding National release its costings, modelling and advice to show its whole plan does stack up. Technical it may be but it's important; the tax cuts will be locked and loaded but if the revenue-gathering measures fall short, the money will still have to come from somewhere.

For its part, the spotlight will be on Labour not just for what it's promising, but what it has - or has not - delivered over the past two terms, particularly since 2020 with its historic majority.

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