Election called for September 17

New Zealanders will go to the polls on September 17, Prime Minister Helen Clark announced today.

Helen Clark said she had advised the Governor-General that Parliament be dissolved on August 11. Labour would launch its official campaign on Sunday August 21.

Labour will be seeking a third term in office after sweeping to power in 1999 and returning with a large number of seats in 2002.

The Prime Minister's announcement comes a day before Parliament resumes after a four week recess and heralds eight weeks of intense political campaigning.

Helen Clark kicked that campaigning off today, saying voters faced "stark choices" between Labour and National in both policy and style.

Leadership, credibility experience and trust - areas where she believed Labour had an edge on National - would be crucial, she said.

Labour had kept its election pledges - unlike previous governments - and it did not "overpromise" like some of its opponents.

The experience of Labour's leadership team dwarfed National's, she said.

She and Finance Minister Michael Cullen had a joint 48 years' experience in Parliament, whereas National leader Don Brash and his finance spokesman John Key had just 6 years.

"Leading a government is not a game for amateurs. Credibility, experience and a proven ability to get results for New Zealanders as our government has, do speak volumes."

Helen Clark said:

* In several key policy areas voters would face a choice between stable government and "radical change".

* Labour had strengthened the public health and education sectors, whereas National would increase private provision.

* Labour had managed the economy in a sensible and sustainable way, while National's yet-to-be announced tax policy would either lead to cuts in core services or rises in inflation and interest rates.

* Whereas Labour had a principled independent foreign policy, National had not committed to keeping troops out of Iraq, or keeping New Zealand nuclear free.  Foreign policy would be a "defining issue", Helen Clark said.

Other parties welcomed the election date announcement.

Dr Brash said National's campaign would focus on "the important issues affecting ordinary New Zealanders".

They were Labour's "PC social engineering", incentives in the tax, education and welfare systems for people to work hard, and ending the "Treaty grievance industry".

But voters may have to wait another month for the main part of National's tax cuts policy.

A spokesman said National would continue to stagger the release of its policies, with the main part of its tax policy likely to be released about four weeks out from the election.

Labour will also announce new policy before the election, starting with an announcement in the education area tomorrow.

But Helen Clark said the new initiatives would not amount to "billions" of dollars.

Despite several recent polls which put National ahead of Labour, Helen Clark said she felt confident and optimistic.

"I'm absolutely confident that New Zealanders do not want a radical change of direction in their government and they will become increasingly aware as the campaign goes on that there is a radical change on offer if there's a change in government."

She said she had always intended for the Government to run "full term" and September 17 was the last practical date.

Although the election could legally be held on September 24, it was the start of the school holidays and many families would be on the move.

- NZPA

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