(Bloomberg) -- New Zealand’s two main political parties launched their election campaigns over the weekend, with both promising to ease the cost-of-living crisis and warning of dire consequences if the other wins.
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The ruling Labour Party kicked off its campaign Saturday in Auckland with a pledge to extend free dental care to everyone under the age of 30 if re-elected. The main opposition National Party followed Sunday with a list of eight commitments, the first of which is to reduce inflation and return the economy to growth.
The stage is now set for a six-week campaign in the run-up to voting day on Oct. 14. Prime Minister Chris Hipkins, who took over from Jacinda Ardern just seven months ago, is seeking a third term for Labour. He’s up against National leader Christopher Luxon, a former high-flying businessman who’s been in parliament for less than three years.
While National was ahead of Labour in recent opinion polls, the election could be tight. Both party leaders warned that the country faces a bleak future if their opponent prevails.
“We are going to fight this election campaign as though New Zealand’s future depends on it, because actually it does,” Luxon told supporters. “We will be up against a campaign based on fear and disinformation, a campaign that’s negative and personal. That’s what they do when you have no record to run on and no ideas to take the country forward.”
Hipkins said policies put in place by Labour to reduce child poverty will be at risk if there’s a change of government.
“In National’s upside-down cost-of-living crisis they think property speculators, international investors and millionaires need government support more than our children, especially our poorest,” he said. “More kids in poverty should not be how you fund tax cuts, but that’s exactly what National’s proposing.”
The election takes place against the backdrop of soaring prices and a weak economy.
While off its peak, inflation is still running at 6% and mortgage rates have surged after the central bank raised interest rates rapidly to defuse price pressures. The country entered a recession at the end of last year and is forecast to succumb to another one this year as households reduce spending.
Hipkins said the economy “is turning the corner,” with inflation coming down, unemployment of 3.6% close to record lows, and wages rising.
Luxon said most people are going backwards and “New Zealand should be a country where if you work hard, you can get ahead.”
National has pledged tax cuts that target families and middle-income households at a cost of NZ$14.6 billion ($8.7 billion).
The package would be partly funded by allowing foreigners to buy houses worth more than NZ$2 million and applying a 15% tax on those purchases, partially repealing Labour’s foreign buyer ban.
Hipkins claims National won’t raise the revenue it expects from house sales to foreigners and will fund the shortfall with cuts to welfare benefits and public services.
Labour, with its slogan “In It For You,” is offering a package that comprises increased benefits for low-income families and the removal of the 15% Goods and Services Tax from fruit and vegetables at a cost of NZ$3.6 billion. Its pledge to extend free basic dental care to everyone under 30 by mid-2026 would cost another NZ$390 million.
National, whose slogan is “Get our country back on track,” claims Labour has been profligate during its six years in office and that increased government spending is one of the reasons inflation soared as high as 7.3% last year.
Both parties are expected to unveil more policy after the Treasury’s Pre-election Economic and Fiscal Update on Sept. 12, which is likely to show a worsening fiscal outlook.
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Under New Zealand’s system of proportional representation, left-leaning Labour or right-leaning National usually form a government with the support of a smaller partner.
Labour would turn to the Green Party and probably the tiny Maori Party to achieve a majority in the 120-seat parliament, while National would rely on the libertarian ACT Party and potentially the New Zealand First Party if it manages to return from the political wilderness.
Elections are held every three years. At the last one in 2020, Ardern led Labour to the first outright majority since the current system was introduced in 1996, and Labour’s best result in more than 70 years.
Since then, support for the party has slumped from 50% on election night three years ago to 29% in the latest 1 News/Verian poll. National’s support has climbed from 26% to 37%.
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