There are 16 days to go until the election, and a new poll has the gap widening between the two main parties. Shane Cowlishaw and Sam Sachdeva report from the campaign trail.

A fresh poll from Colmar Brunton, released on TVNZ, has proved even more disastrous for National than the previous one.

Last month TVNZ released a poll that put Labour ahead of National for the first time in years. The latest poll has them extending their lead.

Labour is sitting on 43 percent, with National dropping down to 39 percent. NZ First rises to 9 percent, the Greens are steady on 5 percent (right on the threshold), while the Maori Party and the Opportunities Party are both on 2 percent.

Labour leader Jacinda Ardern has also risen in the preferred Prime Minister stakes, up to 35 percent while Bill English drops to 31 percent.

The latest results will be of great concern to National for whom a poll result under 40 percent will seem foreign, although both internal polling and rival media polls have the race slightly tighter.

Fiesty ‘town hall’ debate

Bill English and Jacinda Ardern have traded blows on the future of Christchurch and New Zealand in a debate heavy on sniping but light on any knockout blows.

However, for the second time in three debates, the pair debated in the shadow of a poll showing Labour ahead of National, with English doing nothing on the night to arrest Ardern’s apparent momentum.

The Stuff debate has had a history of enthusiastic audiences, and was no different tonight with those on the left and the right exchanging heckles.

However, the audience appeared more inclined towards Labour than at previous events – as illustrated by the derisive laughter when English said Christchurch would have “the most modern city in Australasia” once the city’s earthquake rebuild was completed within two years.

English said he was unworried by Ardern’s momentum, again seeking to frame the Labour leader as light on substance.

“Now the stardust has settled, you’re starting to see the policy…as an alternative to a successful New Zealand, you’re being asked to vote for a committee.”

Ardern bit back, framing the election as a choice between the “risk attached to the status quo” and the hope of change under Labour.

“This stardust won’t settle, because none of us should settle. Christchurch shouldn’t settle, New Zealand shouldn’t settle for anything less than taking on the challenges we face this election.”

The leaders again clashed over National’s claims of an $11 billion hole in Labour’s fiscal plan, with English standing by his Finance Minister Steven Joyce – jeered when English mentioned his name – and Ardern maintaining it was a lie.

Ardern played to the hometown crowd during the debate, receiving loud cheers when mentioning underfunding of the Canterbury District Health Board. English received lusty boos when he mentioned the work done in Christchurch by Gerry Brownlee, and again when he named the Christ Church Cathedral restoration as the most important project in the city.

However, Ardern was on the back foot at points, forced to defend her water tax as English spoke about its impact on farmers.

She was again put on the spot over a lack of clarity about her tax package, promising the family home would be exempt from any changes, but not going any further.

Pressed on her decision to rule out raising the superannuation age, Ardern said English had sold her generation down the river.

“That generation was let down the moment National stopped contributing to the superannuation fund.”

In their closing remarks, both agreed there was a serious choice for Kiwis this election.

Afterwards, English told media he had won, while Ardern was not prepared to be as bold – something she could perhaps afford with the polls continuing to move in her favour.

The debate is being moderated by Stuff’s Tracy Watkins and Press Editor Joanna Norris.

The events have a reputation of being rowdy, but at the same time creating key moments of truth. In 2011 John Key walloped Phil Goff with his ‘show me the money’ comment and in 2014 embarrassed David Cunliffe over Labour’s Capital Gains Tax policy.

Charter schools announcement as ACT fights for survival

ACT leader David Seymour has announced four new partnership schools will open in 2019, as election crunch time looms for the small party.

Better known as charter schools, the new openings will take their number to 16 across the country.

Seymour is fighting for the party’s survival, which is dependent on him winning in Epsom, with charter schools a flagship ACT policy.

A second Vanguard Military School will open in Christchurch, initially with a roll of 120 and a maximum of 210.

Other schools include a science and technology-focused school in Auckland, plus two schools for Maori students, Turanga Tangata Rite in Gisborne and Waatea High in South Auckland.

Seymour and the teacher unions have been at loggerheads the past week after ACT announced it would boost teacher’s pay if collective agreements were scrapped.

In response to the charter schools announcement, PPTA president Jack Boyle said the scheme was failing and took money, teachers, and children away from local schools.

“Some might ask what an out-of-touch under-secretary from Epsom might stand to gain from an announcement like this so close to a general election. We couldn’t possibly comment.”

Primary teacher’s union NZEI also criticised the announcement, demanding the Government reveal how much it was spending on the four new schools.

Debate frenzy

Following on from the successful leaders’ debate on Newshub, this morning saw Finance Minister Steven Joyce and Labour’s counterpart Grant Robertson battle it out on RNZ’s Morning Report.

It was a noisy affair and at times unlistenable.

Joyce’s accusation that Labour has a $11.7 billion hole in its budget plans, which was rejected by Robertson and every independent economist and commentator, laid fertile ground for the debate.

“You have damaged democracy by what you have done. This is fake news,” Robertson told Joyce, who was sitting across RNZ’s studio desk in Auckland.

“It is a disgraceful situation and you owe New Zealanders an apology … You threw this on the table to try to get the reaction you got.”

Steven Joyce and Labour’s Grant Robertson during Morning Report’s debate. Photo: RNZ/YouTube

Joyce said many people backed his claim, but none he could name.

Newsroom Pro editor Bernard Hickey suggested on Twitter that moderator Guyon Espiner may want to use fire extinguishers on the two and at times you could see how they would have come in handy.

The Spinoff also held its own debate last night live on Facebook, featuring some of the minor party leaders and the deputy leaders of Labour and National.

It was also rather rowdy and at times ran out of control, with those involved, particularly Marama Fox and Kelvin Davis, continually shouting over each other.

Big poll due on TVNZ

Later tonight will bring a fresh poll, with TVNZ set to release an update from Colmar Brunton that is already being touted as ‘explosive’. The last one certainly was, putting Labour in front of National for the first time in many years.

That poll was taken between Saturday August 26 and Wednesday August 30. The Reid Research poll published on Sunday, which showed Labour at 39.4 percent and National at 43.3 percent, was taken from August 22 to August 30, so is seen as slightly less up-to-date than the Colmar Brunton poll.

The poll for TVNZ was more heavily weighted to the beginning of last week, which included the controversy around Winston Peters’ pension repayment. It showed New Zealand First support down two percentage points to 8 percent, while the Reid Research poll showed New Zealand First down 2.6 percent to 6.6 percent.

The key interest will be on how the ‘Jacinda Effect’ has held up after the debates and whether New Zealand First’s slide has continued towards the 5 percent threshold. The Green vote will also be closely watched. It fell 2.2 percent to 6.1 percent in the Reid Research poll and was up one point to 5 percent in the Colmar Brunton poll.

A debate that creates key moments

Tonight Ardern and English will again clash, this time in Christchurch in a debate moderated by Stuff‘s Tracy Watkins and Press Editor Joanna Norris.

The events have a reputation of being rowdy, but at the same time creating key moments of truth. In 2011 John Key walloped Phil Goff with his ‘show me the money’ comment and in 2014 embarrassed David Cunliffe over Labour’s Capital Gains Tax policy.

Newsroom’s Sam Sachdeva is in Christchurch for the event, and in a preview writes about Norris’s view of why the Stuff debate seems to get both the best, and worst, out of candidates.

“It’s often a really rowdy, robust audience which is not dissimilar to the types of environments that they would face in the House, so they need to think really quickly on their feet, they need to respond to often quickfire questions as well as that real energy and vibe you get in front of a live, local audience,” she told Sam.

“We describe it as moderating but with a gentle hand on the tiller, and that’s deliberately so, because in the House you don’t have the moderation other than through the Speaker, and so this is a chance for them to really show their political mettle and their ability to respond in what is essentially a crisis situation and that’s what we require of our leaders.”

Tomorrow night will see the leaders of all parties polling over three percent take part in a debate on TVNZ. Opportunities Party leader Gareth Morgan is set to go to the High Court to try to take part in the debate after being told his party was not polling high enough.

Greens want pay clarity

Also out this morning was the Green Party, which occupied a corner in central Wellington to announce a policy on pay equity.

Greens leader James Shaw was joined by spokesperson for women Jan Logie to commit to making New Zealand the first country to achieve the same pay for men and women.

The policy would require all employers to collect data about what they pay both men and women, and make public sector chief executives responsible for achieving pay equity.

Shaw said funding for the Ministry for Women would be doubled and the Minister for Women would sit in Cabinet.

“At the moment, most women only find out by accident, if at all, if they’re being paid less than a male colleague.

“Introducing gender pay transparency will mean the pay difference is made clear, so that employers can change what they have been doing.”

The announcement continues the comeback counterpunch from the Greens as they desperately try to claw their way back into the election.

The idea has received tentative support from Labour, with Ardern saying it was obvious the gap needed to close and she expected the Minister of Women in her Government would sit in Cabinet.

Rebuilding the health relationship

The Government has been under severe pressure regarding health funding, particularly regarding mental health.

There is a sense Health Minister Jonathan Coleman may be losing his grip on his reins on the Ministry and DHBs (particularly Canterbury), leaving it a soft target for the opposition.

The Government will be keen to address this and today announced a $57m specialist mental health facility to be built in Christchurch.

It follows a shocking story by Fairfax about the poor state of Princess Margaret Hospital, with patients left stranded in dilapidated facilities.

Coleman said the new facility took the region’s hospital rebuild to more than $1b, including a recently opened $215m facility in Burwood and the $463m acute services building and $72m outpatients facility due to be completed next year.

The new mental health facility will be based at the Hillmorton Hospital Campus and be built within three years, with Princess Margaret being maintained until then.

English in high viz

English was in Christchurch to make the announcement and afterwards took a tour of the under-construction acute services building.

“Last time I came here it was a big hole, they were just getting the framing up,” English said as he donned a fluoro vest and protective gear.

Checking out the building’s base isolators and chatting to workers, he spotted his own artwork in a meeting room – a buzzy bee.

“It took me days…how did it end up here? Did someone pick it up out of the rubbish?”

A worker said it was bought by the Mad Butcher at a charity auction and donated to the hospital.

English headed to the top floor to check out the helipad and the views of Hagley Park.

Bill English donned hi vis gear in Christchurch today. Photo: Sam Sachdeva

A photographer asked him to pose and look amazed.

“How can you look amazed in a helmet for God’s sake?” he exclaimed.

Nevertheless English did his best to oblige before heading off to his next stop – a Sydenham cafe and The Colombo mall.

“I can now imagine the building being finished, which is great because these things take a long time,” the PM said.

English backs housing approach after billboard removal

English told media he was unaware about why a National Party billboard on the side of the Auckland City Mission had been removed, after a picture of the billboard with homeless people sleeping next to it was shared online.

The Government was working with the Auckland City Mission on a social housing complex in the city, and was undertaking a number of other initiatives to address the problem.

“We’re taking decisive and more comprehensive action on rough sleeping than any government has, particularly with this approach through Housing First.”

Asked about the contrast between the image and National’s campaign slogan of “delivering for New Zealanders”, English batted away suggestions it was a bad look.

“Part of delivering for New Zealanders is dealing with the problem of rough sleepers, and we’ve put in place a system now that will lead to sharp reductions in rough sleeping…

“The help will get to them, the help is there, it’s underway and I hope whoever was sleeping there is going to be able to get the benefit of that service soon.”

Coming Up…

Bill English is spending the day in Christchurch visiting a factory, the hospital, and a shopping centre before The Press Leaders’ Debate in the evening.

Jacinda Ardern is in Rotorua where she will visit Red Stag Timber before a walkabout with local candidates, before travelling to Christchurch for the debate.

Tomorrow night: TVNZ will host a debate with the leaders of all parties polling over three percent

September 11 – Polling booths open for early voting.

September 14 – TVNZ’s youth debate

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. That is assuming the current polling is replicated on election night.

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