20 Sep 2017

Subdued final debate ends on scrappy note

9:28 pm on 20 September 2017

National's Bill English and Labour's Jacinda Ardern have faced off in the final leaders' debate before Saturday's general election.

Jacinda Ardern and Bill English faced off in the second TVNZ debate hosted by Mike Hosking.

Jacinda Ardern and Bill English faced off in the second TVNZ debate hosted by Mike Hosking. Photo: Screenshot / TVNZ

Without a live audience, and with the two leaders seated at a desk either side of host Mike Hosking, the second TVNZ debate was more subdued than those earlier in the campaign.

But against the backdrop of the latest 1 News Colmar Brunton poll - which put National on 46 percent, nine points ahead of Labour - it was a chance for both Mr English and Ms Ardern to recap some of their key commitments.

Both leaders agreed the election would be close and the volatile polling pointed to there being a lot of undecided voters who would be making up their minds in the final days of the campaign.

While Labour has faced plenty of scrutiny in the media over its tax plans, Ms Ardern said people she had met were more concerned about health and mental health, and she accused Mr English and National of stoking up a debate on tax.

She said it was "mischievious and wrong" of National to claim that Labour would put up income tax - something she had specifically ruled out.

Mr English argued that because Labour planned to roll back tax changes that had already been passed into law and come into effect on April 1 next year, people would be left out of pocket and were therefore facing a tax increase.

Mr English also stood by National's finance spokesperson Steven Joyce's inaccurate claims that there was an $11.7 billion hole in Labour's budget.

"Everyone agrees there is a hole," Mr English said.

But Ms Ardern hit back.

Jacinda Ardern in the second TVNZ debate.

Jacinda Ardern in the second TVNZ debate. Photo: Screenshot / TVNZ

"It was a complete fabrication, no one has agreed with you, but what it did do was it confused voters, it was politics as usual, all they heard was someone making up numbers."

Water was another issue where the two leaders were divided.

Ms Ardern was asked whether rural New Zealand had got offside with her. She said she believed there was unity on the issue of cleaning up waterways, and Labour would work with those affected.

The money generated by Labour's proposed water tax would go back into farming communities to help them with pollution mitigation.

She said her target was water bottlers, and the vast majority of farmers wouldn't be impacted by Labour's plans.

Mr English said the National government has done a lot of work over the last six years to improve water quality, including working with the Land and Water Forum and iwi.

He said water quality was worse in urban areas than rural areas, so National had to work with those people as well.

Mr English said Labour and the Greens had "popped on a populist bandwagon" and called the water tax a "random tax, targeted at a handful of people".

Bill English in the second TVNZ debate.

Bill English in the second TVNZ debate. Photo: Screenshot / TVNZ

Meanwhile, on the issue of potential coalition partners, Ms Ardern wouldn't say whether she would jettison the Greens for a clean deal with New Zealand First.

She maintained that her first phonecall would be to the Greens, but that didn't mean it was a "stitched up and done deal".

Mr English said his focus was on getting National's support high enough so it could maintain a majority and form a strong, stable government.

"I don't like this view that Mr Peters has that he decides who the government is New Zealand is ... voters have it within their capacity that they can decide."

But Mr English said he knew Mr Peters well and that he had worked with him before.

He admitted it could be pretty challenging, but said if that was National's obligation to form strong government, then National would get on and meet its obligations to voters.

The fuel crisis also made it into the debate, with Ms Ardern committing to either building a second pipeline or extra storage.

Mr English said he would make sure solutions were found, with airlines leading the way in doing that.

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