With 12 days to go to Election Day, voting is officially open for those wanting to get in early. Suicide and mental health has again featured prominently on the campaign trail, while National has again raised the spectre of an inheritance tax if Labour is elected. Shane Cowlishaw reports.

With voting open both major parties are putting everything on the table, particularly when it comes to first-home buyers.

Yesterday National announced it would double the HomeStart grant for first-home buyers of existing homes to $20,000 per couple from January 1. The grant for newly-built homes would rise to $30,000.

English told media that a couple who had been in Kiwisaver for five years should be able to withdraw an extra $40,000, leaving them with a deposit for a $600,000 home in Auckland.

But as Newsroom Pro editor Bernard Hickey explained a few years ago, there is debate about whether the scheme is a help or a hindrance.

This morning in Napier Ardern announced if in Government Labour planned to build 240 starter homes in Hawke’s Bay.

The homes would be a mix of state housing and homes that would be sold to first-home buyers at cost. Labour’s KiwiBuild plan aims to build 100,000 affordable homes.

English used a news conference at vegetable packing house near Levin this afternoon to raise the prospect that Labour could turn a potential capital gains tax into an inheritance tax. He was referring to the potential for estate sale proceeds to be subject to a capital gains tax.

Labour have repeatedly dodged questions over the details of any capital gains tax, putting off questions until after the tax working group they would assemble if in government reported back. But a capital gains tax on the family home, and the land under it, along with a rise in the top income tax bracket has been ruled out.

They have refused to rule out an inheritance tax, however.

Grieving families demand action

Politicians from across the spectrum have sat and listened to the harrowing tales of families affected by suicide.

The Yes We Care campaign saw family members converge on Wellington after travelling the length of the country with 606 pairs of shoes to symbolise the number of people lost to suicide in the past year.

Three mothers who lost children to suicide wrote a letter to every party last month, asking them to put aside politics and fix the problem.

National and Act did not respond.

This morning a press release was issued announcing that two bereaved family members would don chicken suits and blue and yellow ties to sit in the empty space at the table left by the two parties.

The tactic worked, with National sending Attorney General Chris Finlayson and Act Rimutaka candidate Grae O’Sullivan. They joined Geoff Simmons from the Opportunities Party, Julie-Anne Genter from the Greens, David Clark from Labour, and Ria Bond from NZ First.

They listened for about an hour as family members spoke of the grief of losing a loved one and the frustration at a system that had failed to help them.

Susan Taylor said in the past 20 years she had lost a husband, a best friend, and most recently her daughter to suicide. During that time, nothing had changed.

“I don’t believe these 606 people, one of them’s my daughter, wanted to die.”

Politicians listen to harrowing stories from family members who lost loved ones to suicide. Photo: Shane Cowlishaw

National MP puts foot in it

The group marked World Suicide Prevention Day by laying the 606 pairs of shoes on the lawn outside Parliament on Sunday.

Labour leader Jacinda Ardern addressed the group, which included the families of those lost, and broke down in tears when talking about her best friend’s brother who committed suicide when she was 13 and he was 15.

“Those shoes are quite moving. The idea that we have lost 600 New Zealanders in the last year – I find absolutely devastating.”

Labour has committed to an inquiry into mental health if elected, while National announced a package at the Budget that will increase funding for the area by $224 million over four years.

National MP for Tamaki Simon O’Connor chose to use the occasion to attack Ardern over her comments at the event, appearing to refer to the current debate over assisted dying.

He posted on his Facebook page last night: “It’s strange that Jacinda is so concerned about youth suicide, but is happy to encourage the suicide of the elderly, disabled and sick. Perhaps she just values one group more than the others? Just saying. #consistency #nosubstance #contradiction #worldsuicidepreventionday”

O’Connor has been heavily criticised for the post.

Bill English tells reporters Simon O’Connor holds strong views on euthanasia. Photo by Lynn Grieveson

English was repeatedly asked whether he agreed with O’Connor’s view, but he refused to rebuke or condemn O’Connor.

The Prime Minister said he had texted O’Connor this morning to say that the issues of youth suicide and euthanasia should not be connected.

He said O’Connor had strong views on the issue and had expressed them in the Facebook post.

Greens pledge free counseling for young people

Following the morning forum, Greens leader James Shaw announced a $263m annual package that would provide free counselling for those under 25.

Youth mental health service funding would also be increased by $100m a year to reduce waiting times and retain skilled staff.

He also reiterated the party’s commitment to a mental health inquiry and promised to re-establish the Mental Health Commission.

“Everyone goes through ups and downs and as a society we can do more to recognise that and support people through hard times, so that the hard times don’t get worse.

“We need to end the stigma and shame for our young people around emotional wellbeing, encourage people to speak up, and when they do, make sure there is help readily available.”

Minor pledges for farmers and families

The major parties continued to roll out policies, with some relatively minor announcements this afternoon.

National said if elected it would boost the Sustainable Farming Fund from $7m to $20m per year, renaming it the Future of Farming Fund to invest in agricultural science and innovation.

A cross-sector panel would oversee the fund and include representatives from industry, science, and environmental groups.

A target to double the value of the agritech industry to $6b by 2025 was also set.

“We want the latest soil sensors, farm management software and diagnostic tools all developed and used here, and exported to the world,” he said.

“Through the Future of Farming Fund we can achieve more productivity and sustainability, and create more jobs by exporting our agricultural technologies and expertise around the world.

English poses for selfies with horticultural workers in Levin, while others wait their turn. Photo by Lynn Grieveson

Soon after, Labour announced it would spend $10m a year if it formed the next government on an extra 100 Plunket and Tamariki Ora nurses.

It would provide an extra 90,000 nurse visits annually, targeted at 18,000 vulnerable families.

Ardern said initial visits will be offered before the baby is born and will be more regular.

“These visits will allow organisations like Plunket to get alongside parents earlier to give them the skills and support they need. They can address issues like drug and alcohol use, ensure the baby has a safe sleeping environment and help prepare them for parenthood. They’ll also be able connect a family with any other services they might need.”

No fiscal hole here

After Finance Minister Steven Joyce ended up with egg on his face after claiming Labour’s budget had an $11.7 billion black hole, National have released their own updated policy costings.

It includes the spending announcements made in the past month, which will have a $424m effect on the 2018/19 operating budget.

Across the four-year period the policy announcement spending equated to 11 percent of the $17.34b reserved in the pre-election fiscal update for new spending.

“We are therefore on track to stay well within the parameters of the pre-election update and reduce the Government’s net debt to $56 billion by 2022.

“This is in marked contrast to the Labour Party who by their own admission would have debt $11.4 billion higher at $68 billion by 2022.”

Advance voting begins

Kiwis can now officially cast their votes for the election, with advance voting kicking off.

According to the Electoral Commission, there are 485 advance voting places around the country, up from 295 in 2014.

The commission estimates as many as half of Kiwi voters could cast their votes during the advance period, up from about 30 percent last election.

The voting period will run until September 23, and you can find a full list of advance voting places on the commission’s website here.

Coming up…

Prime Minister Bill English will spend the day in Palmerston North and Levin, visiting Te Tihi o Ruahine Alliance, Bidfood, Horowhenua College and a cafe. He will make an announcement with Nathan Guy at around 1pm.

Labour leader Jacinda Ardern is in Napier/Hastings and is set to make two announcements, the first about regional housing and the second a families announcement.

Today – 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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