The leaders of the five main parties in Parliament shared a washed-down podium for the first time on the campaign trail – except for NZ First’s Winston Peters, who livestreamed from his bus tour of the South Island. Tim Murphy reports.

This was no debate. It was more like individual rounds of golf than a tennis match – shots being fired but not returned, and every politician for themselves.

New Zealand First’s Winston Peters couldn’t make it, stuck somewhere on his campaign bus at the top of the South Island while the other leaders of the main parties who had been in the Parliament just expired fronted up, one-by-one, at a virtual Business NZ conference in Auckland.

Another MP who now leads a party, Jami-Lee Ross of Advance NZ, did not make the cut but event MC Sean Plunket made no apology for that.

It was a pretty sterile affair at the Hilton Hotel out on Princes Wharf, all masks and sanitiser for the 20 or so media and a few sponsors and organisers in a meeting room  – and a man with spray and wipes removing the physical and political presence of each speaker from the podium before each new leader appeared.

Peters was at a self-imposed disadvantage, beaming in from what looked like a darkened motel room (or was it the war-room aboard Handbrake One, the campaign bus?), but then none of the leaders could gain any response or life from the disintermediated online audience.

The task was to set out their parties’ economic and business policies but the speeches ranged from tightly targeted (Act’s David Seymour) to ad hoc (Peters and National’s Judith Collins). No one presented commandingly and while Peters physically streamed in, most of the rest simply phoned-it-in.

David Seymour

Act leader David Seymour. Photo: Getty Images

The Energiser bunny of politics, Seymour rattled through ACT’s two founding purposes (for self-starters and independent thinkers, and to make a difference in public policy), three areas New Zealand needs policy change (getting real about our Covid public health response, an honest conversation about our fiscal track, and “how to grow out stronger and better”) and five points learned from Taiwan’s pandemic response, which ACT would mimic.

He pinged the Government for doing premature victory laps, National for “going around the country announcing spending each and every day”, highlighted the Resource Management Act as a priority target for Act, promised to do better for the fifth of Kiwis coming out of school “functionally illiterate” and to remove Overseas Investment Office restrictions on capital coming to this country.

“I do hope,” he told the unseen business audience, “you will give your party vote to ACT to raise the standard of debate in Parliament and we come out stronger, as winners.”

James Shaw

Green party leader James Shaw. Photo: Getty Images

Shaw, restrained and perhaps even sheepish after his brush with scandal over pushing for $11m for Taranaki’s Green School, came armed with a tight three point presentation, focusing on the country’s infrastructure deficit, the need for an export-led recovery, and a focus on the Government’s finances. He also brought a new idea, daring to “pick a winner” – and it wasn’t the Green School.

He listed long-term challenges “that are not going away just because we’re in the middle of the Covid crisis. We are having to flood the economy with equity … I would argue that we have a responsibility to future generations to assure every dollar of that stimulus goes towards the long-term challenges” such as inequality, the built environment and climate change.

Shaw’s “winner” was what he called “E-transport”.  This was beyond the electric cars of the Teslas of this world. New Zealand had emerging businesses which could help develop “very small electric planes that could help de-carbonise aviation” and also electric ferries and boats which would use technology learned from the America’s Cup.

“The Green Party has demonstrated we are a credible, stable, responsible partner to Labour,” and aimed “not just to return to Parliament, but also to be part of the next Labour-led government.”

Winston Peters

NZ First leader Winston Peters was livestreamed from on the road in the South Island. Screenshot.

Peters was in no mood for the Greens in government, although he did not name the party in his slightly discordant broadcast from the south. “New Zealand needs a moderate force in government. This country has a bad habit of distracting itself with woke issues.”

He used woke a bit, as well as “mindless ideology” and reached a crescendo at the end, exhorting the business folk back in the boardrooms and offices: “Don’t stuff the country… that’s what this election is about.”

Of the speakers, Peters was the “Ok, Doomer”. He said the economic crisis was not only the worst of his (75-year) lifetime but also that of his parents, bar the two world wars.

He reached back, in his way, for answers. “What would Roosevelt have done? What would smart governments from the 40s, 50s and 60s have done?”

“My party does not underestimate the global fallout and implications for governments and central banks, for doing business.” To help New Zealand get back to being the export leader it once was, the country needed smart tax policies and the soundness NZ First had delivered over three crises during this Government.

His bus tour had emphasised just how bad things seemed for people in communities around the country. “Some of the things I’ve heard have just been unbelievable, out-of-this-world.”

Judith Collins

National leader Judith Collins. Photo Getty Images

The National leader ran late, holding up the livestreamed event for a few minutes and giving those online an interlude of elevator music. “Hi everybody. Thanks for joining us today. I know you’re out there somewhere.”

Collins has been relatively low-key in her eight weeks as leader and was solid here, not really sparking but talking around and beyond her notes and pinging Labour over border issues and Shaw over the Green School. Her main focus was the extent of debt and type of spending the Government has deployed during the economic crisis: “$500 million each week in wage subsidies, a Hastings Hospital of Christchurch Hospital, every week it’s another big public hospital that is not being built with that money being borrowed.”

 The Reserve Bank was pumping the equivalent of $1 billion a week into the economy, debt rising from 20 percent to 40 percent of GDP – “equal to the building of 50 new hospitals”.

“We cannot continue to have this line of economic morphine in our bloodstreams any more. It needs to finish. It simply cannot continue.”

However she then went through some of National’s spending promises – the Hastings Hospital $500-$600m rebuild, roads, tunnels, the second Waitemata Harbour crossing and schools among them – and warned business not to fret about what might go wrong. “We can seize the opportunity. The population of New Zealand understand it’s actually a time for vision. Every party understands we are going to have to borrow. My plea is that we do not just spend, but borrow as we would for our own businesses.”

In a play on the old Muldoon “leave the country no worse than I found it” line, Collins assured the business audience: “We are absolutely determined we will leave New Zealand, when we leave office, a better place than what we found it.”

Jacinda Ardern

Jacinda Ardern speaking to media after the event. Photo: Tim Murphy

Ardern went last, and then had the benefit of a press conference at the close. She stuck to her script, literally, reading closely from speech notes and bringing details of the Labour Party’s big border and migration announcement to reserve 10 percent of isolation and quarantine spaces for migrant workers and other retournees needed by the economy.

Her Government’s response to the crisis would be “grounded in elimination” of the virus and aim to prevent a return to a Level 4 lockdown by moving quickly and not relying on restrictions alone. An index of business activity for July had shown it up 1.2 percent on that month a year earlier, so New Zealand had been moving forward before the August outbreak in Auckland.

The Prime Minister listed the measures the Government had already taken, including making apprenticeships free and fast-tracking elements of the RMA while “writing the playbook”. She believed the election was about how the country could be “as successful in our economic response as in our health response”.

Labour would launch an “investment attraction strategy… Now is the time to sell our story to the world”.

Always good with a catchphrase, Ardern talked of feeling a “double duty” to restore the economy while also overcoming challenges like climate change and housing.

And, to sign off, she borrowed one from Joe Biden. “It’s not just about building back, but building back better.”

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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