With 22 days until the election and a day expected to be light on new policy announcements, Labour leader Jacinda Ardern has again come under pressure to explain her party’s position on a possible capital gains tax, while National pushes a plan for more PPP projects.

Ardern had a closed door meeting with the Mt Albert Grammar School feminist club (off-limits to media at the request of the school) before taking questions on Labour’s tax plans.

She told reporters she had spoken to her deputy Kelvin Davis and set him straight on Labour’s intention to introduce a possible capital gains tax without taking it to the electorate in 2020.

Davis had been confused on The AM Show this morning, citing the former Labour leader Andrew Little’s position on any new tax, which was to campaign on the change before bringing it in.

“I’ve been absolutely clear and have absolutely maintained my right as leader to make sure when that tax working group reports back that I am able to act in government in the best interests of New Zealand to try to address the housing crisis,” Ardern said.

“I’ve spoken with Kelvin, I didn’t see the piece so I’m not entirely sure what was said but I’m very clear on our position. He’s certainly now very clear on our position.”

Davis absolutely supported her stance.

Asked why she would not take the issue to another election for a mandate, Ardern cited National’s example when it came to power in 2008 and commissioned a tax review, ultimately leading to an increase in GST. “He [Bill English] saw fit to act on that as he saw fit in the best interests of New Zealand. The difference is that he wasn’t quite as open about intent before the election.”

“I don’t want to be in a position where that working group comes back and there’s some ideas in there that could make a difference for that next generation to get into housing and to deal with some of the inequity in our tax system and to have to sit on that for another couple of years just doesn’t feel right to me.

“My view is though that certainly voters still get a way to feed back to us whether they think we are right or not. There will be another election probably 18 months within us acting on that review and if they don’t agree with what we’ve done, I’m sure they will tell us that.”

She denied it was a way of introducing a capital gains tax without having to say she was going to do so. “No, because I’ve been really clear with people. I expect to get scrutiny over that but I would rather be transparent around our direction of travel than say nothing at all.”

It was a government’s prerogative to act on the information a tax working group would give it. “But of course I’m setting out a few values, a few expectations going in; my expectation that it would never be on the family home and our major driver for this that it be around affordability issues, particularly in Auckland.”

Nats push for more PPPs

National has announced plans to “turbocharge” its infrastructure investment plans by creating a new commission to lead public-private partnership (PPP) projects.

The party’s infrastructure spokesman Steven Joyce said the National Infrastructure Commission would be tasked with expanding the number of PPPs for projects in health, education and transport among other areas.

The core of the commission would be created by merging two Treasury units – its internal PPP team and the National Infrastructure Unit – with an additional $2.5 million in annual funding for its operation.

“PPPs are very effective at getting quality long-lasting infrastructure built more quickly and using private capital to stretch the country’s capital budget so we get more built,” Joyce said.

The commission would work with the Government’s new Crown Infrastructure Partners investment company to invest with councils and private companies in non-government infrastructure like local roads, water networks and the Ultra-Fast Broadband programme.

Its other major role would be to promote New Zealand’s national and regional infrastructure pipelines to local and international construction firms to help meet the country’s infrastructure demand.

“Construction companies need clear visibility of the full pipeline so they can invest in innovation and skills to gear up and meet the challenge,” Joyce said.

The Government already had about $2 billion of PPP projects included within its $32.5 billion capital investment plans, including the Transmission Gully and Puhoi to Warkworth roading developments, and a number of school building projects.

Other projects which would be considered as a PPP included the $1.7 billion refresh of defence bases, the $1.4b redevelopment of Dunedin Hospital, and the new 1500-bed Waikeria Prison project.

Ardern has already pushed back against the idea, saying PPPs were not the right approach for building hospitals and prisons.

Poll position

Ardern spoke cautiously about the latest “game-changing” poll showing Labour ahead of National for the first time in 12 years.

Last night’s Colmar Brunton poll, broadcast on TVNZ just an hour before the debate, counts as yet another bombshell after a month of polling and resignation shocks. It put Labour two percentage points ahead of National in a poll taken in the week to Wednesday night.

Just remember where we were as recently as July 30: Andrew Little was still Labour leader and Colmar Brunton’s poll, taken earlier that week, had shown support for Labour at at a 20-year low of 24 percent. National was flying high at 47 percent, the Greens were at a record high 15 percent and New Zealand First was at 11 percent.

No one would have expected to write a headline like ‘Labour ahead of National’ just 32 days later.

However, Ardern said she was not taking last night’s poll result as a done deal. “The polls have moved around quite a bit and they could move in the other direction and that’s why certainly my message to the team is we have to just keep working incredibly hard.”

She conceded she was surprised by the jump in the Colmar Brunton as Labour’s own polls, by UMR, did not show quite the same lift. “But it is heading in that direction. It is heartening for us.”

She would not speculate on coalition preferences with minor parties.

“Some of the polls give a different iteration on almost every occasion so it is really hard to determine what’s likely to happen. I just want Labour to be in the strongest position possible.”

Asked if Labour’s goal to win all the Maori seats could, by removing the Maori Party from Parliament, make it harder to put together a coalition without New Zealand First, Ardern said Labour wanted to win them and was not focusing on the impact on other parties.

The wind is definitely behind Labour, although Ardern’s performance in the first head-to-head debate with English did not lift Labour even higher on its foils.

Ardern preferred PM in Horizon poll

There was good news for Ardern in another poll, released today by Horizon Research.

The online poll of 860 people both registered to vote and 100 per cent likely to vote, taken from August 11 to 15, gave Ardern a 6 percent lead over English in the preferred Prime Minister stakes, by 43 per cent to 37 per cent.

NZ First leader Winston Peters had 14 percent support, followed by Greens leader James Shaw on 2 percent and ACT’s David Seymour and the Māori Party’s Te Ururoa Flavell on 1 percent each.

The survey had a margin of error of 3.2 percent.

The wind is definitely behind Labour, although Ardern’s performance in the first head-to-head debate with English did not lift Labour any higher on its foils.

A tight debate

The hour-long debate began last night in TVNZ’s studios at 7pm, just an hour after the Colmar Brunton poll exploded into the mix.

It began with moderator Mike Hosking confounding his critics and confronting Bill English directly about the poll.

“Why are you losing?” he asked with his first question.

English said National’s own polling showed National was a “bit better” than the 41 percent indicated in the poll and he jumped straight into his prepared lines about delivering for all New Zealanders.

English got in some hits over Labour’s plans to scrap National’s tax cuts and potentially implement a suite of new taxes, while Ardern struck back over housing affordability and productivity issues with the New Zealand economy.

The PM made some debatable remarks about whether or not there has been a productivity recession in New Zealand, as dissected by Newsroom Pro editor Bernard Hickey in this morning’s 8 things at 8 (available to Pro subscribers).

Hickey gave the debate narrowly to English, saying he “came across as clear, concise and more energised that he can appear in such situations”.

“Ardern was more subdued than some expected and did not butt in to rebut English’s claims or those of Hosking as much as she could have.”

However, he offered the caveat that the TVNZ poll “essentially sucked the air out of the room”, making it difficult for English to move the needle in any meaningful way.

Newsroom co-editor Tim Murphy thinks Ardern probably narrowly lost, but she showed enough of her positivity and agility to call it success in any case.

“Her debut was something like Jordie Barrett’s first start for the All Blacks against the Lions. Young, a bit lopey and occasionally off balance, not quite all there yet but showing every sign of being the real deal,” Tim wrote.

“English was as good as he gets. Loath as we all are to comment on leaders’ appearances, he looked energised and even a little perma-tanned (perhaps National practised outdoors yesterday in Auckland’s brilliant sunshine).

“More importantly, he was warm to the camera and in key moments like the final, 30-second statement he was animated, nailing his messages.”

What’s on today:

Ardern is visiting Mt Albert Grammar School and Auckland University to spruik Labour’s plans to boost the education system, while English is heading to Whangarei and Kaitaia.

NZ First leader Winston Peters is attending a public meeting in Hastings, while Green Party leader James Shaw is at a couple of events in Wellington.

Don’t expect any meaningful policy announcements today, with the two major party leaders likely to be taking questions on last night’s debate and the shock poll.

Coming up… 
September 4 – TV3 has its leaders debate.
September 7 – The Press/Stuff leaders debate will be held in Christchurch
September 11 – Polling booths open for early voting.
September 20 – The final leaders debate on TVNZ.
September 23 – The General Election.
October 12 – Winston Peters has said he will make a decision about which party he ‘crowns’ to be in Government by October 12, which is when the writs with the final election results are returned.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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