• Ben Thomas is a former National Government press secretary and a consultant with Exceltium, whose clients include the Act Party. These are his personal views.

As the campaign draws to a close at seemingly the speed of light, party leaders are reaching for the stars.

Labour leader Jacinda Ardern announced a very ambitious target for New Zealand's notoriously high suicide rate on Sunday, which was Suicide Awareness Day.

"The target's got to be zero," Ardern told a crowd in Hamilton, having been moved to tears during a Suicide Awareness Day rally outside Parliament earlier in the day. "How can we ever say we have any tolerance for loss to suicide at all?"

Advertisement

It's a statement that's morally true and in practical terms impossible, especially given Labour's welcome but modest policies, which tinker with mental health services in high schools and fail to match the sweeping rhetoric.

Ardern went on to explain that it was not actually a target at all, and that instead it was a pledge that she would "focus" on the issue in government. But by then the message was sent.

If National candidates find this gulf between Ardern's emotive rhetoric and her policies infuriating, they have no right. The problem is of their own making.

Health Minister Jonathan Coleman resisted setting a target for suicide reduction against officials' advice, apparently because the government did not want hard numbers against which its performance could be held as an "accountability measure".

This was because the National Government did not have "all the levers" to affect suicide rates. Which is true, but beside the point. Government does not have "all the levers" to affect anything that depends on complicated interior states, such as criminal re-offending, smoking or employment. But it's also not a helpless bystander.

More importantly, as a tide of reporting broke over the past few years on the perilous state of New Zealand's mental health services, the minister refused to front up. It's no surprise that in a choice between a conscious moral vacuum and unrealistic aspirational promises, the latter will win out as more appealing.

The Government has made moves to catch up after years of inaction. Following a barrage of media coverage, the Government allocated $50 million for "innovative" approaches to suicide in the budget, but this seemed ad hoc and reactive. Coleman said he would be open to a target of a 20 per cent reduction on a televised debate during the campaign to match Labour, but the rhetorical stakes had already lifted again.

National has released a video online outlining PM Bill English's story from humble beginnings to the big role. Source - Youtube/NZNats

Too little and too late is becoming a common theme of a National campaign forced to react to the new Opposition leader. A new, high production value online video juxtaposing Bill English's virtues as a father with his handling of the global financial crisis seems to have arrived a week late for Father's Day. But the understandable attempt to make the Prime Minister personally relatable arrived the same day as Ardern crying in public about a public health crisis, leaving National a number of steps behind on the emotional campaign trail.

She is likely to make further personally charged appearances this week.

This speaks to the wider problem that faces National in what, thanks to advance voting, is now really the sudden death extra time of the campaign.

Bill English attacks Jacinda Ardern as more "stardust" than substance. She has said that she has "a vision" while "you have a tunnel".

This is not the case with Bill English, even if his southern man temperament leaves him embarrassed about proclaiming his intricate plan for the future of New Zealand social services a "vision".

But the same can't be said for all of his team after nine years in government. In mental health for example, the Government frequently kicked for touch and avoided interviews by referring to reviews and working groups. In other words, the same official-led abdication of responsibility that English himself eschews and criticises in Labour over its mysterious tax plans.

Similarly, Steven Joyce's botched attack about the $11.7 billion "hole" in Labour's budget plan undermined one of National's key attacks on Labour, the opposition's supposed lack of fiscal credibility.

And so, even aside from the clumsy tweeness of the jab, National cannot be angry at the rise of "stardust". What else did they expect to fill a void in space?