NZ party leaders make final pitch to woo voters

New Zealand Prime Minister Bill English has attacked Labour leader Jacinda Ardern's financial credibility.
New Zealand Prime Minister Bill English (left) has attacked Labour leader Jacinda Ardern's financial credibility.

Opposition leader rues lack of time to win over undecided voters as ruling party lists significant issues it'll deal with

WELLINGTON • New Zealand opposition leader Jacinda Ardern conceded yesterday that she needed more time to win over wavering voters, as parties made their final pitches in what has been a rollercoaster election campaign.

Ms Ardern electrified the contest when she took over the centre-left Labour Party last month but opinion polls show that "Jacinda-mania" was fading in the lead-up to today's election.

While the polls still indicate Labour could form a coalition government, the charismatic 37-year-old Ms Ardern said a "scare campaign" by Prime Minister Bill English had slowed her momentum. "I'm sure it's had an impact, that's why it's so disappointing," she told reporters. "It's been politics as usual, it's not what I wanted this campaign to be about."

Mr English is seeking a fourth term for his conservative National Party. He has relentlessly attacked Ms Ardern's financial credibility while pointing to his own economic record over the past nine years.

Ms Arden said the seven weeks she has had to introduce herself to voters was not enough and she "would have liked more time".

"I know there are voters out there who'll be thinking (they need) just a little bit more time to know me and my leadership," she said. "But we can't wait another three years so my message to them is there's a sense of urgency. We... can't be on autopilot for another three years."

She has appealed strongly to the youth vote, putting issues such as the environment, housing affordability and education on the agenda.

Mr English acknowledged New Zealand had "significant issues" that needed to be dealt with. "The best way to do that is party vote for National, because it'll keep the economy moving along and give us the best opportunity to address the issues," he said. "Better public services, better water quality, poverty, better incomes for families, more jobs." He said Labour's plan involved "tax... debt, unions in the workplace and more big government spending".

This has been the most volatile and hard-fought race in recent history and it could usher in a change in openness to migration and trade and the central bank's approach to monetary policy. Volatile opinion polls have shown a neck-and-neck race, although Mr English's party has led in recent polls, with two giving it a lead of nearly 10 points.

If the polls are correct, both Labour and National will need the support of New Zealand First, led by the populist anti-immigration campaigner Winston Peters, to form a government.

Mr English said he had not spoken to Mr Peters because National was still focused on maximising its own vote. "I don't think Mr Peters would be expecting a premature call like that, we'll see what the voters give us," he said.

Meanwhile, there was a sombre note to Ms Ardern's final day of campaigning yesterday as she took time out to attend the funeral of her grandmother, who died on Monday. "My grandmother was a wonderful woman, I know she would have loved to have been here for tomorrow," she said.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 23, 2017, with the headline 'NZ party leaders make final pitch to woo voters'. Print Edition | Subscribe