Minor parties will almost certainly make up part of the next Government and the leaders are facing off over dinner tonight.
One of the leaders may well hold the balance of power after the September 20 election, and minor parties will almost certainly make up part of the next Government.
In a novel format, tonight's debate, hosted by TV3's John Campbell, has been set up as a discussion over dinner at Auckland's Grand Harbour Restaurant. Metiria Turei (Green), Winston Peters (NZ First), Colin Craig (Conservative), Laila Harre (Internet), Te Ururoa Flavell (Maori), Peter Dunne (United Future), and Jamie Whyte (Act) are attending.
Facing the issues
Answering viewers' question, Mr Flavell said his party would push to take GST off essential food items.
"It's one of the many bottom lines we're going to have."
Ms Turei said that the 90-day trial period made new workers very insecure, which in turn made families more vulnerable.
"It's got to go."
Mr Whyte said the party's main non-negotiable policy in coalition with National would be to cut the company tax rate.
"It promotes investment, it lifts wages.
"We don't have bottom lines."
Ms Harre said the TPPA would threaten NZ sovereignty, meaning NZ could be sued for passing laws to protect public health or the environment, if they impact on the profit of multi-national corporations.
Mr Dunne said child poverty solutions would be helped with United Future's income-sharing policy, and to extend paid-parental leave.
Mr Craig said the difference between him and Mr Peters was he openly supported John Key.
In answering the question on who will be the next Prime Minister, Mr Craig said: "Every single person gave an honest and direct answer except one."
Maori seats questioned
Mr Craig and Mr Whyte said the Maori seats should be abolished.
Mr Flavell disagreed.
"Because of a document called the Treaty of Waitangi, that set out the relationship between the tangata whenua and the settlers who came here."
Ms Turei said the Maori seats should stay.
"You don't just go to the minimum and say that that's okay.
"We need to make sure there is a strong Maori presence in Government ... There absolutely is [a need for guaranteed Maori representation]."
Mr Craig said the Royal Commission looking into MMP recommended the Maori seats be abolished.
Mr Peters said Hone Harawira had destroyed the mana of the Maori seats in a "deal with the German who should not be here in the first place".
"A whole lot of Maori people are deeply disturbed by that."
Mr Flavell said every election put the spotlight on the Maori seats, when poverty and other issues should be the focus.
Ms Turei said fixing poverty included a number of measures such as a high minimum wage, livable homes, free doctors' visits, and a children's credit as part of WFF that would put $60 a week to families of 250,000 children who currently miss out.
Mr Whyte said pumping up the minimum wage would lead to job losses.
"If you increase the price of labour, people will buy less of it ... they will go out of business."
Mr Dunne said the minimum wage should be about "what we can afford".
"You won't be able to fund your programmes," he said to Ms Turei.
He said families and parents needed more support.
Mr Craig said the Greens were about spending more money.
"Let's offer all these benefits ... it requires more tax. Our view is we have a tax-free threshold (up to $20,000) and people take home more money.
"It's a smaller, more efficient Government."
Mr Peters said Mr Craig's policy was economic lunacy.
"If you wanna pay higher wages, you've got to compensate business, otherwise you will send them broke."
Mr Dunne, a former revenue minister, said Mr Craig's tax policy "doubles the marginal tax rate for everyone earning over $25,000" - a 34 per cent marginal tax rate.
Laughter engulfed the table as Mr Craig tried to justify his tax policy.
Mr Flavell said people wanted to know about "kai on the table", insulation of homes, and tertiary education.
Ms Harre said changes to the minimum wage when she was an MP were shown to actually increase jobs, according to Department of Labour analysis.
Mr Whyte argued that issues of poverty were tied to tax policies.
"The only way for people to work their way out of poverty is to have a more dynamic economy."
Ms Turei counter-argued that productivity had increased in the past few years, but wages had not kept up.
Ms Harre said the point was to create better, high-value jobs.
Mr Whyte retorted: "Politicians don't create jobs."
Who will win?
Mr Craig said John Key will win the election, and the Conservatives could help that outcome.
He said some of Labour's policies "can't work".
"We're about less tax."
Mr Dunne also went with John Key, and said there was no mood for change.
He said he was against high taxes and a capital gains tax, meaning it would be hard for him to support Labour.
Ms Harre said the Internet-Mana roadtrip connected her with 17,000 people around the country.
"And I certainly feel a mood for change."
The next Prime Minister will "entirely depend on turn-out", and whether young people get out and vote.
"That may well be the difference. I hope it will be David Cunliffe."
Mr Whyte said John Key will win, though it is not as certain as it was a few weeks ago.
"It would be more certain if people gave their party vote to Act."
Ms Turei said she hoped the next PM would be David Cunliffe.
"National has been so destructive to this country ... our economy is getting narrower and narrower. They are not good managers of our natural resources."
Mr Peters said it wasn't a rock-star economy, but one that was on the rocks.
"If this is as good as it gets, then it doesn't matter who the next Prime Minister is."
New Zealand needed to grow the export sector.
Peters avoided the question.
"The people will decide that [the next PM]"
He said he believed the "explosive stuff" in Dirty Poltics.
"The left-wing didn't write the emails. The National Party did.
"We need to restore political integrity."
Mr Flavell joked that he could be the next PM.
He said "it doesn't fuss us too much" who was the PM as he was prepared to work with both sides.
Ms Harre said: "It concerns me that Winston is still not making it clear [who he would prefer as Prime Minister]."
Ms Turei kicked the debate off by saying the most important issues are climate change and inequality.
"My passion is ending child poverty which is a huge concern for the New Zealand public ... and we can solve it."
She said the Greens have a $1 billion plan to tackle it.
Peters said the biggest issue was the economy.
"The reality is the number one issue is whether we can be the great economy we once were when we lead the world.
"If we can do that again, then we can keep the promises some are making in this campaign."
Mr Craig said the most important factor was trust.
"People are looking for a safe pair of hands, and for people they can trust."
He said he and his candidates spoke their mind.
Mr Flavell said family violence was a key issue in three Maori electorates.
"Whanau Ora is where we believe the action is at."
Ms Harre said the most important issue was young people.
She said high unemployment for young people was a big issue, and the party's policy of free tertiary education would go some way towards fixing that.
"We want to fix that with our full employment policy."
Mr Whyte, who joked that he now knew what Whanau ora was, said New Zealand was open to the world that had embraced globalisation.
"What we need ... is by becoming a wealthier country. Our policies are focused on that through less Government involvement, not more."
Mr Dunne said stable Government would help the family unit.
The Government had brought the country out of the financial crisis, and stable Government was critical to keep going on the right path.
Smaller voices struggle to be heard
Many of the smaller parties have struggled to have their voices heard in the campaign with the ongoing fallout from Nicky Hager's book Dirty Politics, the ministerial resignation of Judith Collins, and the continued leaks of apparent emails from the hacker known as Rawshark.
In last weeks Herald-DigiPoll, the Greens were on 11.4 per cent, down from the previous week.
New Zealand First (5 per cent), Internet-Mana (3.4 per cent) and the Conservatives (3.3 per cent) were all on the rise.
Minor parties that do not win an electorate seat have to pass the 5 per cent threshold to enter Parliament.
Several of them have already signaled which major party they would or would not support. The left bloc is seen as Labour, the Greens, and Internet-Mana, while the right bloc is seen as National, United Future, and Act.
New Zealand First, which may hold the balance of power, has not ruled out working with either major party, or stated a preference. National closed the door on New Zealand First in previous elections, but is open to it this time.
The Conservatives would prefer to work with National, but have not ruled out Labour.
The Maori Party has said it could support either major party.
While Internet-Mana has called for a change of Government, the Green's have left the door to National slightly ajar in describing a deal as "highly unlikely".
United Future has not ruled out Labour, but it is an unlikely partnership given their great differences on major policy.
MediaWorks TV Director of News and Current Affairs Mark Jennings said there is an increasing focus on the minor parties.
"It is becoming more likely that they will play a crucial role in the formation of the next Government. Voters' appetite for hearing where they stand for is increasing. I doubt that that we will need to order any Sichuan dishes, the discussion is likely to be hot enough!"