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Week Three: Beware - Cliffhanger Election Looming

Week three of the election campaign was again dominated by tertiary education, though this time not for the debate over policy. The week was also significant as a TV3 CM Research poll showed the gap between the two main parties closing, thus reinforcing the need for the left to make electoral accommodations in key seats. However announcements from two candidates in two crucial seats this week shows no such plans are in the pipeline.

The ‘highlight’ of the week, if you like, was the incident at Canterbury University on Wednesday which has seen a student lay charges of assault against Tertiary Education Minister Max Bradford. The two accounts of the incident differ markedly with the student saying he was assaulted and Bradford saying he merely brushed a student aside.

The pressure on the government over tertiary education has been building for around a month now and students are keen to maximise this pressure before they finish the term and go on exam leave in a couple of weeks. Registry occupations and various protests are occurring on a weekly basis, however the protest at Canterbury University was decidedly messy and did the students involved little credit. As an ex- student owing the government more than a small fortune myself I find myself in the unusual situation of sympathising with the Minister. Bradford was invited onto the campus to deliver a speech and while he is reported to have wound up the crowd, the student who was shouting in Bradford’s face clearly crossed the line of reasonable and mature behaviour.

Although accompanied by the heavy Gerry Brownlee Bradford had no other security in what turned into a rather threatening situation. The merits of taking no security are debatable but the students’ association that invited him there provided no security or assistance for him. The student claiming the assault performed like an English soccer player and under the circumstances I thought Bradford’s reaction was remarkably restrained and calm. However in the end it was bad press for all parties concerned. No winners from this incident.

The New Zealand Medical Association coming out and backing the protest action of Dunedin medical students yesterday however is high powered endorsement for the ongoing concerns over tertiary funding.

In other education news Labour launched their early childhood education policy promising an extra $86 million for the sector over the next three years, fairer resourcing for rural and provincial areas and a commitment to boost the participation of Maori and Pacific Island children. The announcement that Labour was committed to pay parity for early childhood teachers went down well in the sector although National said the plans to place Kindergartens back inside the State Sector leaves most early childhood teachers out in the cold.

On pay equity the Alliance’s Laila Harre launched her party’s policy to break down the disparity of income between men and women, saying the market was ineffectual in reducing the gap and intervention was required. The Alliance has legislation ready to go the minute they hope to take the Treasury benches and this has concerned the Employers Federation. The Federation argue that legislation is not the answer and that the market is in fact working towards closing the wage gap. They say that figures from 1999 show women earned 83.9% of men’s average ordinary time hourly earnings, up from 78.8% in 1987.

However polling over this last week shows the Alliance’s involvement in a new government is far from a sure thing. In fact right now it is looking closer to 50 – 50. A TV3 CM Research poll shows the gap between National and Labour has closed to just four per cent – National on 36 per cent, Labour on 40 per cent. The Alliance has risen slightly to eight per cent, ACT on seven, New Zealand First on four and the Greens on two.

The gap between Labour and National will be of huge concern to Helen Clark but perhaps even more so will be the realisation that, from this poll, Labour and the Alliance haven’t got the numbers. This poll gives Labour 49 seats and the Alliance 10. National would have 45 seats and ACT nine. Peter Dunne is likely to win the seat of Ohariu Belmont taking the total on the right to 55. And this is where things get even messier.

If Winston Peters wins the Tauranga seat (and going by this poll New Zealand First’s survival depends on it) his support could just be enough to give National and ACT a majority. Except that ACT has ruled out working inside a coalition with Winston Peters. However ACT would probably be quite comfortable working outside government and instead providing cross bench support for a minority government.

The Green Party are looking more and more likely to hold the key to the election for Labour and the Alliance. Currently polling around two or three per cent they would have around three MPs in the House if Jeanette Fitzsimons wins the seat of Coromandel – enough to give the left a slim majority.

Polling commissioned by the Greens showed Fitzsimons slightly ahead of National’s Murray McLean and details of a poll commissioned by ACT this week also shows National trailing in the seat. The Coromandel seat is fast becoming crucial to Labour, however this week Labour’s candidate in the seat Margaret Hawkeswood told Scoop she would not be standing aside in the seat and would certainly not be endorsing Fitzsimons at any stage in the campaign. The Green poll shows Hawkeswood on 20 per cent, 13 per cent behind Fitzsimons. Victory in the seat for the Greens is currently looking likely, however it could basically be guaranteed if Labour so desired.

In Wellington Central this week Alliance candidate Phillida Bunkle categorically stated she would not be standing aside in the seat for Labour’s Marian Hobbs and that her name would appear on the ballot paper. It is likely that Bunkle would endorse Hobbs if the Labour Party were to offer some kind of deal in return but with current MP Richard Prebble running such a professional campaign in the seat such squabbling is beginning to look a little irrelevant.

Prebble is performing extremely well in Wellington Central, in stark contrast to Hobbs who is continuing to run a very poor campaign. Prebble is the calm and relaxed professional at the various candidates meetings and Bunkle is also performing strongly. On the other hand Hobbs is looking increasingly out of her depth and the crowds are not responding well to her.

However the significance of Wellington Central is decreasing anyhow as ACT now look set to comfortably cross the five per cent threshold.

ACT continue to jump on any issue with a racial theme and have sent out a leaflet to households stating that ‘ACT is the only party who can fix the Treaty’. They have criticised Mauri Pacific’s justice policy as “separatist nonsense”, have called for the full force of the law to come down on a Maori citizenship scam and late this week came out strongly against Tau Henare’s ‘deal’ with the government for $15 million to fund Maori language initiatives. However distasteful some find the use of the race card it seems to be working a treat for ACT right now.

The Alliance have realised the direct threat that Winston Peters poses to their voter base and have launched a campaign to remind voters of his performance over the last three years. And quite rightly too. New Zealand voters seem to have dangerously short political memories.

The report from the Finance and Expenditure Select Committee into the Inland Revenue was finally released by Committee chair Peter Dunne on Wednesday, recommending a major shakeup of processes and especially the culture that exists within the IRD. The report is damning in anybody’s words and there is yet a chance that IRD Commissioner Graham Holland’s job is on the line over it’s findings.

In terms of other policy this week Labour launched their rural policy, the Alliance confirmed their commitment to replace the Employment Contracts Act with compulsory collective bargaining, National launched their energy policy and Labour launched a conservation policy which has a lot in common with that of the Greens. ACT launched their welfare- work policy and Winston Peters reaffirmed his commitment to compulsory superannuation.

The government made the sensible decision to increase the daily allowances of Kiwi troops in East Timor this week, although they still get less than half of the amount paid to their Aussie counterparts. Health Minister Wyatt Creech engaged in some petty politics by releasing leaked details of Labour’s health policy a week before they were scheduled to be launched and if ever there was doubt that National were planning to run a personal campaign against Helen Clark then they were shot to pieces with the revelation that they are making TV ads that impersonate the Labour leader.

No clear winners in week three but with a third of the campaign gone already the pressure will continue to mount in seats that may prove decisive. Polling this week shows we are in for a cliffhanger. Tense times ahead.

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