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Week One On The Election Campaign

Last weeks announcement of the November 27 election date has well and truly seen campaigning by all parties begin in earnest. The last week has been the week of tertiary education with Labour and the Alliance, NZ First and United all launching details of their policy for the sector.

The results of the various policy were interesting with only the Alliance committed to the principles of free tertiary education - universal student allowances and a drive to completely abolish fees. The Alliance policy was much the same as it was at the last election which is much more than can be said for Labour’s. At the last election Labour were promising tertiary fees set at $1000 and were committed to better student allowances and burying the loan scheme.

This time round Labour have shifted serious ground on what they envisage for the tertiary sector. Rather than cutting fees to $1000 they are now promising to freeze fees at the level they are now which, in most cases, is well over $3000. They are promising significant amendments to the interest calculations on student loans, which will give students a measure of relief, but there is no mention of the universal student allowance and they have not even offered to reinstate the emergency unemployment benefit for students over the summer holidays which was controversially taken from students by National last year.

Student representatives have been caught between a rock and a hard place over Labour’s policy launch. Students Associations are very keen to see a change of government so must make the right noises but are also disappointed that Labour are promising significantly less than they were last time.

United have gone a step further than Labour in terms of student allowances by saying they will abolish parental means testing for student allowances for students over 20 years old. They are also committing to increase core funding for tertiary institutions to 80 per cent of course costs. For a party that has supported the government over its last term students may well be surprised to hear Peter Dunne’s announcement that “United believes education is a public good and must therefore be publicly funded.”

Winston Peters says New Zealand First will reinstate the emergency unemployment benefit, adjust the repayment thresholds and interest rates on student loans and phase in a universal student allowance. Students however will remember that Peters promised universal allowances in the NZ First / National coalition document but their introduction never looked likely. The Alliance’s Liz Gordon also notes that while Winston Peters was Treasurer average tertiary fees increased by a quarter and student debt increased by $1 billion.

While courting the student vote at Auckland University yesterday Winston developed a novel technique of dealing with hecklers – telling one young man to “go to hell”.

National Minister Tony Ryall appeared on student radio and tried to hang out with students eating their lunch. It’s all beginning to look familiarly desperate and greasy, but Winston took the cake yesterday in singing a song to students. Bring on the baby kissing.

Yesterday was the long awaited announcement that the new hospital for Wellington is to remain on the Newtown site and with the announcement voters saw National throwing all their weight behind ACT’s Richard Prebble. Prebble has long campaigned for the hospital to remain in his electorate and, while the site was practically a certainty, National seems set on helping Prebble convince voters that his lobbying was influential in the eventual decision to keep the hospital in Newtown. Prebble will campaign hard on his “success” in keeping Wellington’s hospital and this will inevitably lead to spirited clashes with the Alliance’s health spokesperson and fellow Wellington Central candidate Phillida Bunkle. If she is still left standing.

The race for Wellington Central is certainly heating up with Richard Prebble launching a big strike on Labour’s Marian Hobbs. Prebble asked a number of parliamentary questions and publicised the results which showed Marian Hobbs has made no formal effort through parliament in lobbying on Wellington’s issues such as the town belt and the hospital. Calling Hobbs a “do-nothing MP” this effective strike came hard on the heels of a UMR Insight poll which showed Prebble jumping to a huge lead in the seat following National deciding not to stand a candidate.

And it is interesting to note that while Labour criticised National for not standing a candidate, Helen Clark is now hoping Phillida Bunkle will stand aside for Marian Hobbs. Labour need to sort out their position on electoral accomodations fast because similar issues promise to present themselves in other seats.

Other significant moves in what has overall been a good first week for the government included introducing portability of Pacific Islanders superannuation, doubling New Zealand’s contribution to the UN peacekeeping force in East Timor and taking 300 East Timorese refugees. Popular decisions that will wash well with most New Zealanders.

The announcement that Pacific Islanders can be paid superannuation if they move back to the Islands left Labour sniping that it was just electioneering. That maybe so but from here on in it’s all electioneering and in this case the government did it well.

Today the Parental Tax Credit comes into force which will also help National paint itself favourably to families and lower income earners.

The Broadcasting policies of the main parties were reasonably unspectacular except for the similarities between National, Labour and the Alliance. Labour have committed to retaining TVNZ and Radio New Zealand in public ownership, have stated that RNZ should not be expected to pay a dividend, and all parties except ACT have supported the adoption of a youth radio network.

Perhaps the most revealing announcement of the week was the tax policies of Labour and the Alliance. The Alliance, realising that taxation is going to be a key election issue, have moderated their own policy to bring it more into line with Labour’s – giving middle income earners a break but adding two tiers to tax higher earners more.

This is sensible from the Alliance who know that their old taxation policy would have showed up what would have been a gaping gap between their policy and Labour’s. Now, while their still exist significant differences, the main thrust of tax policy is more compatible between them which will make the coming eight weeks much easier for them both.

Polling shows this coming election may well be a much closer affair than many previously expected. The Green’s campaign in Coromandel may still be crucial to the formation of a centre-left government, as could the race in Wellington Central for a centre-right government.

However today Richard Prebble categorically rejected being involved in coalition with Winston Peters which seriously dents any influence he could potentially wield.

Week one of the 1999 election campaign saw policy pouring out of all parties and the effort clearly intensifying. Nobody has blundered badly, yet, but all in all not a bad start for the government. One week down. Eight grueling weeks to go.


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