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Election 1999: Leader's Debate Highlight Of Week 5

The biggest laugh of campaign week five came from the Libertarianz on Thursday. Deputy Leader Richard McGrath said he was tempted to join the National Party after Annette King claimed the government was responsible for a 'sexually transmitted disease time-bomb'.

"If a mere sixty or so MPs are responsible for spreading chlamydia and gonorrhoea nation-wide, they must be extremely busy people!" said McGrath. "Here I was thinking the Nats were just a motley collection of hypocritical pragmatists who sold out their free market principles years ago when it seems they're also sexually insatiable!"

Well… maybe it's just me…

The most significant element in the campaign this week was the beginning of the televised leaders' debates on Wednesday night. As most voters - especially the undecided - will probably decide how to vote through the television media coverage these debates are crucial to all parties. The debate was interesting to say the least. Chair John Campbell did an excellent job of keeping the peace with good humour, but the surprises came in the quality of the leaders' performances.

Unsurprisingly all leaders claimed to have won the contest, but some clearly had a better claim than others. The Alliance will be very pleased that Jim Anderton is looking so relaxed and comfortable on stage. He was clearly the most at ease of the five, and made very reassuring noises about the Alliance's plans for taxation - especially with his comparison to Australia's top tax rate. His arguments sounded rational and fair and Anderton sounded genuine, sincere and good humoured. The Alliance will want to keep him on the road 24 hours a day from here on in.

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At the other end of the scale there is no doubt that Prebble came dead last. He read diligently off his notes and then looked stunned and uncomfortable when interrupted. His speeches faltered and he was surprisingly rattled by rather immature interjections from Winston Peters. In yesterday's Evening Post however Prebble claimed to have won the debate 'hands down', get this, because a panel of his supporters said so. Hmmm…

Helen Clark turned in a solid performance, Winston Peters was warned to behave himself and subsequently, and predictably, later took a swipe at John Campbell for interrupting him. Peters was as usual not giving away which direction he would lean should he hold the balance of power, and suggested he would be happy to provide cross bench support on an issue by issue basis. Voters have certainly been warned.

Peters certainly charmed some people in a roguish kind of way but was painfully non-committal and thin on detail. The Prime Minister looked well trained and calm, but was unspectacular and her opening speech was too scripted and perhaps a little too rehearsed. One thing was very clear - all leaders were extremely nervous. Expect the gloves to come off in the remaining clashes.

There was more humour this week with the National Party suggesting Labour had deported their party president Bob Harvey to Britain for three weeks to prevent him from embarrassing their campaign so close to the election. He is apparently in Britain getting some election tips from Blair's Labour Party despite several Labour staff having already spent weeks there for that very purpose earlier in the year.

This may be funny but the Nats are probably right. Harvey has been an embarrassing liability to Labour in the past, and with the stakes so high the idea of sending him on an extended holiday to the other side of the world for a while will almost certainly make Clark sleep better at night.

There was more bad news for the government this week with the revelation that student loans have hit $3.44 billion and that the provisional trade deficit has hit a 10 year high of over $2.2 billion, with imports continuing to rise. Labour and the Alliance will make a lot of both of these figures over the next month, although the Alliance is also accusing Labour of failing to address the root causes of student debt.

The Alliance look set to make education perhaps their number one issue because their policy of free, state-funded tertiary education stands out clearly on it's own. Labour in fact are offering little more than National - after their recently announced changes - in their proposals for the student loan scheme. While the Alliance's tertiary policy is the same as it was at the last election, Labour have made a massive jump into the centre and have dramatically watered down their policy, particularly in regard to fees.

The Alliance launched their health policy which promises to provide $380 million per year to scrap fees for GP visits and another $190 million to scrap prescription fees. Like their education policy the health policy is completely free and proposes to replace the boards of directors on the HFA and CHEs with elected area health boards.

ACT launched their education policy which was widely condemned for it's goals of introducing a voucher system and compulsory bulk funding for all schools. Jenny Shipley confirmed National's intention to not only retain but strengthen the Employment Contracts Act and Labour launched their policing policy which advocates the use of uniformed volunteers to accompany single police officers in the provinces.

The Alliance look increasingly like they are about to withdraw Phillida Bunkle from Wellington Central and today Bunkle sent letters to every household in the electorate asking whether voters think she should withdraw. The letter asks whether voters would be prepared to give the Alliance their party vote in exchange for Bunkle's withdrawal in the seat and contain a free-post return form so voters can send their ideas back to the Alliance.

This move is pure public relations, an attempt to give the Alliance the moral backing to withdraw Bunkle when there is intense pressure upon them already to do so. The response will hardly be representative and the mail out will also be going to National and ACT supporters - who on the face of it are likely to recommend Bunkle stay in.

In any event the significance of the seat, due to ACTs polling around seven per cent now (its highest ever), is increasingly diminished.

Following his public comments about the quality of the Green list and the lack of loyalty of the Greens it now looks as though Anderton is perhaps concerned about the Greens taking votes from the Alliance. Despite the fiascos with Alamein Kopu, Pam Corkery (with her book to boot) and Frank Grover, Anderton says the Green list doesn't fill people with confidence.

Time will tell. With activist Sue Bradford and rastafarian Nandor Tanczos high on the party list, and potentially heading to parliament, the Greens will be aware that they need to run a very tight and highly disciplined ship. Already Anderton isn't the only one criticising their candidates, and as the election nears, any dirt on Green candidates will certainly be dug.

National MP Annabel Young indicated the depths some will be prepared to plunge after issuing a press release alleging that Fitzsimons' son used to scrape dead possums off the road, burn them and scatter their ashes on the garden.

In further developments Phillida Bunkle has made a complaint to the Press Council about an article in Wellington's City Voice newspaper by editor Simon Collins. The article claims Bunkle has encouraged voters in Wellington to vote Labour with their candidate vote, which Bunkle disputes. The difficulties the Alliance are having in Wellington are the difficulties posed by making crucial electoral accommodation policy apparently on the back foot and under huge pressure.

Expect Wellington Central to dominate headlines this evening.

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