Bill English and Jacinda Ardern have clashed in a fiery debate, with a surprise commitment on child poverty from the PM. With 19 days until the election, Bernard Hickey and Sam Sachdeva report.

Prime Minister Bill English and Labour leader Jacinda Ardern have butted heads again in an evenly-matched second leaders’ debate.

In front of a boisterous studio audience, the two leaders delivered more fiery performances than in the first debate on TVNZ, English saying his Government had earned the trust of Kiwis while Ardern arguing it was time for a change.

English made a surprise pledge to reduce the number of children in poverty by 100,000 within three years.

Newshub political editor Patrick Gower, the debate moderator, opened proceedings by asking both leaders if it was possible to survive in politics without lying.

English said governments could earn trust, as his had through balancing the books during the global financial crisis.

“We did what we said we would do – that’s what earns trust and credibility.”

Asked by Gower whether his approach to the Todd Barclay scandal showed truth and trust were “a sliding scale”, English said it had been a difficult situation for him involving two people he knew well.

Ardern answered simply, saying she did believe it was possible to be a politician without lying.

‘Hand over to someone with a plan’

Ardern and English were pressed on how they would tackle rising house prices and growing homelessness, with the Prime Minister saying house prices were now flattening out as more houses were built.

“We know how to do this, the houses are coming.”

However, Ardern said teachers, nurses and police officers were being shut out of owning their first homes.

“It’s time to hand over to somebody who has a plan.”

Ardern did not believe her party’s plan to tighten immigration settings would affect Labour’s plans to build 100,000 affordable homes over 10 years, saying New Zealand had the skills and talent to achieve the goal.

Asked about why the Government needed to buy motels to house the homeless, English said it was “pulling every lever to make sure those people have a roof over their heads”.

Ardern retaliated: “You’ve had nine years, it’s time to hand over to someone who has a vision and a plan.”

English, who led National to a historic defeat in 2002, was asked how he was different from then.

“I got up again,” he replied.

Ardern, asked what she offered that English didn’t, responded: “Generational change and a future for the vision of New Zealand.”

Fiscal hole ‘an absolute fiction’

Earlier in the day, National had accused Labour of having an $11.7 billion “hole” in its fiscal plan, an allegation dismissed by Ardern as an “absolute fiction”.

Brandishing a copy of Labour’s fiscal plan, Ardern said National’s allegation had been debunked by a range of independent commentators (including Newsroom Pro editor Bernard Hickey) while her party had run nine economic surpluses while in government.

However, English stood by his argument that “the numbers don’t add up”.

Ardern fought back on the economic front, saying Kiwis felt they were going backwards when it came to wage increases.

“As long as we have flatlining productivity, we will not see growth in this country – that’s why we need a change after nine years.”

However, English argued that wages had been rising at about twice the rate of inflation.

Ardern was again pressed on whether she would implement a capital gains tax or make any other tax reforms, with her opponents accusing her of a lack of clarity.

She stood by her approach to let a tax working group look at the issue in Labour’s first term before making any announcements, saying the experts needed to carry out their work first.

English had some tax issues of his own. Ardern said the Government’s proposed tax cuts would benefit people like her and the Prime Minister who did not need more help.

Asked how he would spend his $1000 tax cut, English elicited some groans from the audience when saying he would spend it on his children.

Bill English made a surprise pledge to reduce child poverty.

On child poverty – a pet topic of Ardern’s – English committed to reducing the number of Kiwi kids in poverty by 100,000 within the next term of Parliament.

The Government was beginning to “get inside the very difficult toxic mix of social issues” that were behind poverty, he said.

Ardern said reducing child poverty was “my entire reason for being in politics”, and pointed to a suite of policies that would tackle the issue including money for winter heating and its Best Start package.

Moving from the young to the elderly, Ardern said she would resign rather than raising the age of superannuation – a pledge made by former Prime Minister John Key in his first term of government.

English, who has already made plans to gradually increase the retirement age to 67, accused Ardern of “letting down her generation”.

Immigration, a hot topic during the campaign, came to the fore when Ardern said the Government had failed to address the strain put on New Zealand’s public services by rising population numbers.

“You’ve let all these people in and you didn’t have a plan did you?…

“We would not be having this conversation if there was a plan.”

Gower asked English about roughly 3700 prefabricated buildings being used as classrooms.

The Prime Minister said they were called “modern learning environments” – “That’s a jazzy name for a prefab,” Ardern retorted.

Common ground on Winston

The leadership rivals found some rare common ground when asked about what they would offer NZ First leader Winston Peters in any coalition negotiations.

The jobs of Prime Minister and Finance Minister were off the table for both, while Deputy Prime Minister and Associate Finance Minister were up for grabs – although English plaintively noted to Gower that “this isn’t some kind of auction”.

Ardern said she would change abortion laws so it was not part of the Crimes Act, while English – a committed Catholic – said he would not support any “liberalisation” of the current regime.

English was also opposed to decriminalisation of cannabis, while Ardern said decriminalisation was not a Labour policy but she believed a health-based approach was best.

“Locking up somebody for smoking weed is a waste of money and doesn’t solve an individual’s problem.”

Ardern also threatened retaliation against Australia over any further reductions to Kiwi expats’ rights, saying: “If they lock us out of tertiary education, we will lock them out of it here.”

Gower asked the pair what they would march in the streets for.

English said he would take to the street “for the right to govern this country”, while Ardern said she would march to end homelessness.

Ardern appeared more confident and assertive than in the first debate, while English continued his aggressive approach.

With neither leader confident in claiming a victory afterwards, it appears the tight battle for power is likely to continue.

‘There’s a hole in their numbers’

Earlier on Monday, Finance Minister and National Party Campaign Manager Steven Joyce held a late morning news conference in Wellington to allege there was a $11.7 billion hole in Labour’s fiscal plans.

He said Labour had failed to roll forward their operating allowances for each year for subsequent years, which accounted for $9.4b of the hole.

“It’s a pretty basic error,” Joyce told the news conference.

He agreed it was possible that Labour was able to sharply control its spending in outer years to keep within the operating allowances, but was unlikely given the usual spending pressures on Government.

“Either they’re planning on starving expenditure beyond their party’s commitments, or they’ve made a big mistake,” he said.

Joyce said Labour had also failed to allow for any increase in paid parental leave in their Family Incomes package, which accounted for $567 million of the hole. He said Labour had also counted additional multi-national tax revenues that were already counted in the Pre-Election Fiscal Update and had short-counted costs from its family incomes package and interest costs totalling $1.19b.

Labour Finance spokesman Grant Robertson responded in an early afternoon news conference in Parliament that Joyce had wrongly assumed that Labour had accounted for inflation and population pressures in Health and Education in the operating allowances.

Robertson said Labour had included those costs in its ‘Delivering For a Modern Health System’ and ‘Delivering For a Modern Education System’ lines in its fiscal plan. The lines totaled $6.73 billion and $1.77b respectively, which totals $8.55b of the $9.4b that Joyce had assumed.

Robertson said Labour would also be asking Government departments to find efficiencies to offset some of the inflation and population pressures on costs.

“I think this is a desperate act from a flailing Finance Minister,” he said.

“He’s trying to mislead the New Zealand public. I believe they’ll see through it.”

Robertson reiterated Labour’s previously stated policy of creating an independent office for budget analysis within Parliament, which would analyse Treasury’s budgets and price the respective policies in a way similar to the independent Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and Britain’s Office for Budget Responsibility.

Joyce rejected the need for such a commission, saying New Zealand was too small for such an office and the analysis was simple enough. He said his office and some National Party staffers had done the analysis in recent days. Treasury had not been involved, he said.

‘She made a mistake’

The main focus this morning was on yesterday’s comments by Paula Bennett about how gang members had fewer human rights than other New Zealanders.

Clearly concerned about the effects of the comments, Bill English effectively backed away from them and Bennett in an interview this morning.

Bennett made the comments when challenged over National’s policy to allow police to search the houses and cars of gang members at any time to ensure they didn’t have firearms, using a new firearms prohibition order.

Bennett said National had received advice on the human rights implications of the orders, which would “probably” breach the rights of some criminals, but the party felt it would be justified given they would have had to have been already convicted of a serious violent offence and had a firearms charge.

Asked outright whether criminals had human rights, Bennett responded: “Some have fewer human rights than others when they are creating a string of victims behind them…there is a different standard.”

English, who was also at the news conference, appeared to defend her comments when he said: “It’s good that we don’t have a written constitution. It’s enabled the country to deal with all sorts of issues in a practical effective way.”

Bennett’s comments were immediately criticised, including by the Human Rights Commissioner David Rutherford, who sub-tweeted a report of Bennett’s comments with this comment: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. What we fought WW2 to preserve. What NZ declared in 1948.” He was referring to the UN convention on human rights.

Jarrod Gilbert, a University of Canterbury sociologist who specialises in studying gangs, described the comments as cynical and dangerous in an Op-Ed for the NZ Herald.

“What is being proposed here is quite clearly breaching the Bill of Rights Act of New Zealand and what’s more the government is quite aware of that and is seemingly incredibly comfortable with it,” Gilbert later told RNZ.

“That’s not only troubling, it ought be seen as sinister, and it ought be called out for the nonsense that it is. If this is genuinely what Paula Bennett believes she is not fit for the job,” he said.

‘She was mistaken’

Today English appeared to back away from Bennett’s comments in an interview with Susie Ferguson on Morning Report.

He said Bennett had been referring to legal rights rather than human rights.

“It’s just not the right way to describe human rights,” he said.

“She understands the policy the right way, but it was a discussion about the legal rights of particular people, not the human rights of New Zealanders. Sometimes we just don’t say the right thing. That happens.”

Bennett later told Radio New Zealand she had apologised to English.

“I don’t like that the Prime Minister has had to go out and defend me this morning, so I have apologised to him in regard to that,” she said.

“But I certainly don’t apologise for this policy that I think is really good work and will make a difference in keeping our streets safer.”

Smith under attack

Meanwhile, Nelson MP and Environment Minister Nick Smith came under both physical and figurative attack. 

He complained to police after having rat poison rubbed on his face at the city’s weekend market.

Smith said his family was also threatened by a pair of protesters at the Nelson Market on Saturday morning, in relation to planned drops of poison at the nearby Brook Waimarama Sanctuary.

The Nelson MP told Stuff he was not harmed by the incident, showering to remove the poison afterwards, but found it unnerving.

“The situation became quite frightening when it escalated from verbal abuse and throwing rat poison at myself and volunteers to physical shoving and rubbing rat poison over my face and clothes.”

Smith told Stuff the protesters walked away after police were called, but threatened to poison Smith and his family.

“I’m quite tolerant of peaceful protest but this has gone too far and I have lodged a formal complaint with police…you get a bit of lip, that goes with the turf but this went too far.”

Elsewhere, Christchurch artist Sam Mahon has created a larger than life statue of Smith defecating into a glass of water as a form of protest against the Government’s water policies. He and friends placed the five metre high statue outside the Canterbury Regional Council’s offices earlier morning, as documented in this photo by RNZ’s Conan Young, which he published on Twitter.

(Updated 2.40pm)

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

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