John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: National careful not to name NZ First as spendthrifts

Finance Minister Bill English. Photo / APN
Finance Minister Bill English. Photo / APN

Coincidental or deliberate? Bill English somehow neglected to mention New Zealand First in his press statement yesterday decrying the "big spending" promises made by Labour, the Greens and Internet Mana.

The omission followed John Key not mentioning Winston Peters or his party by name when he attacked the Opposition bloc at National's official campaign launch last Sunday.

The Prime Minister instead referred to the Greens, Internet Mana "and others" as partners in any governing arrangement that faltering Labour might yet be able to cobble together.

It seems - and it is not surprising - that National is being very careful not to antagonise the man with whom it will most likely have to negotiate post-election to remain in power.

That is the major reason why Peters or his party are exempt from the "tax and spend" criticism that English - as Finance Minister - keeps levelling at other Opposition parties.

After all, Peters has not been shy when it comes to making expensive promises up and down the campaign trail, be it abolishing GST on food or reopening the uneconomic Napier-Gisborne rail line.

Moreover, unlike Labour and the Greens, New Zealand First has yet to produce a detailed fiscal plan or alternative Budget which lays out exactly how the party intends funding its spending promises.

Rather than highlight that, National may be offering something of a timely olive branch to Peters, knowing that he knows National knows that the poor showing in the polls by parties on the left is inevitably leading him to National's door.

There is another reason why National is not including New Zealand First in its "tax and spend" equation, however.

Although he might sound profligate before an election, Peters, who was Finance Minister for two years in the 1990s, has been pretty responsible when it comes to spending taxpayers' money. Painting him as a spendthrift does not square with his track record.

Having spent their whole time in Parliament in Opposition, the Greens do not have a similar track record to fall back on.

That makes it a lot easier for National to indulge in scare tactics. Adding New Zealand First to the mix only makes a simple message more complicated to get across to voters. In contrast, bringing Internet Mana - and its promise of free tertiary education - into the picture makes National's spending warnings even more potent.

Of course, David Cunliffe has ruled out Internet Mana being involved in any Labour-led governing arrangement. But then he has to do so before the election to protect his vote. As everybody knows, afterwards can be a very different story.

- NZ Herald

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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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