Key, Cullen take gloves off

Before the election campaign began, Michael Cullen and John Key frequently surprised many CEOs with their collegial approach in each other's company.

But as the race has tightened, Key's chirpiness and confident aggression has clearly rattled Cullen - particularly in televison or radio debates - as they each seek to convince prospective voters of the merits of their competing policies.

The incumbent Finance Minister has stung back with his trademark cutting sarcasm. But the arrival of a new contender on the scene, who has, as one leading CEO maintains, "already demonstrated an ability to turn very detailed policy into something that is consumable by the masses" has raised the stakes.

Recent polls show National's tax-cutting policies are making headway with ordinary voters - not just a captive corporate sector which has been subject to Key's salesmanship for months. Cullen must increase his "tax relief" pitch and convince voters of the recklessness of his opponent's "bribes".

The irony is that while 90 per cent of those who took part in the Herald's survey believe Key would make the better Finance Minister, a raft of CEOs who have got to know Cullen well during his six years in power admire him.

Westpac chief executive Ann Sherry likes Cullen and rates him a "very sharp, seasoned operator". Sherry, who has crossed swords with Cullen over transtasman banking issues, said she's watched Cullen work audiences that are politically hostile and turn them round.

"John has got a passion for New Zealand and issues," she said. "But he is greener. He is much more about the specifics of what he would do. Michael tends to smooth the gloss a bit more."

Pumpkin Patch chairman Greg Muir also admires the way Cullen tackled New Zealand's finances to post year-on-year Budget surpluses. "He was incredibly conservative in that respect and I guess everyone has been grateful for that over the last six years."

But Muir was "flabbergasted" when Labour started dishing out "voting bribes" just weeks after the Cullen's sixth Budget.

Cullen has publicly emphasised that policies such as the $300 million pledge to wipe interest from student debt is "Labour Party policy ... not Government policy." But he has staunchly promoted Labour's expansion of the Working for Families package which the Cabinet has cunningly sold as "tax relief" .

The scepticism over this shift in Cullen's public stance is reflected by the 86 per cent of survey respondents who are "concerned" at the election about-turn. Some were not concerned at the size of the shift - more at the target.

One chief executive said it had undone the work of the past five years. "It must have been directed by Clark. He will not stay after the election as Minister of Finance if they win."

Others speaking on a not-for-attribution basis were cutting.

"Every day Labour uncovers stuff it did not know about during the recent Budget. Too smart!" said the CEO of an Auckland car importer.

A well-connected Auckland advisory firm head differed: "He knew at the time of the Budget he was going to announce the election bribes."

Another said: "The student loan bribe would be the worst. But understand that Key is also buying the election with tax cuts."

The business sector has repeatedly tried to twist Cullen's arm to slash corporate taxes to match Australia's 30 cents rate. The Finance Minister argues that is irrational given Australia has a raft of other business taxes that New Zealand companies don't face.

But, ironically, the very sector which has continually bashed him is prepared to go along with Key's proposals to defer a company tax rate for two years in favour of first cutting personal taxes. A typical refrain was: "While I believe the reduction should have also been at corporate level next year, National need to gain the Treasury benches first." Another pointed to a surprise benefit: "There remains a lot of momentum in corporate earnings. I think delaying these tax cuts will provide the stimulus at the right time."

Sixty per cent of those surveyed also believed National's promised corporate rate of 30 cents was not sufficiently aggressive to maintain international competitiveness. Nearly 30 per cent opted for a 25 per cent rate; 24 per cent fo a 20 per cent rate.

Just seven per cent pushed for rates at 15 per cent or lower along the Irish Model that Key wants to investigate if he becomes Finance Minister.

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