The two assumed protagonists for the 2023 election have fired their opening salvos. Their language is similar on economics and social policy, but they are at the opposite ends of the spectrum on the so-called culture wars.
Jacinda Ardern's three signature issues are child poverty, climate change and housing.
Three and a half years into her prime ministership, she has achieved almost nothing on any of them.
Sadly, child poverty doesn't matter electorally. Labour has long since given up its search for the alleged "missing million" and now assumes those living in poverty are either locked in for Labour-Green, or so disenfranchised from mainstream society that they'll never vote.
Labour's new friends are the 500,000 former National voters who switched sides six months ago. Regular expressions of prime ministerial angst about poverty are perfectly adequate substitutes for action.
Climate change is even less important. Inspiring prime ministerial homilies about looming challenges and opportunities are much bigger vote winners than higher electricity bills and petrol prices. Stand by for three more years of consultation and report writing.
In contrast, property prices are now a genuine political crisis for the Labour regime. In November, Ardern declared house prices "just cannot keep increasing at the rate that [they are]". But she made it clear that she didn't want house values to fall. "Sustained moderation" in house-price inflation was her goal.
That was four months ago. Since then, average property values have jumped $75,000, compared with just $55,000 over the previous year. Hopefully, Ardern intended to give home owners a last $75,000 bonanza, because the alternative is that she didn't know offering a one-way bet would further fuel the boom.
Either way, activists' frustration at Ardern's failures to seriously tackle the issues dear to them boiled over in recent weeks, with the Auckland far left and others pushing rumours she was threatening to resign unless Finance Minister Grant Robertson put a bigger housing package before Cabinet.
Such speculation was surely baseless, but the very fact it achieved a certain credence itself indicates the discontent on Ardern's left.
Realpolitik makes "sustained moderation" Ardern's only safe choice. The percentage of residences that are owner-occupied may have fallen since Ardern's election from the roughly 65 per cent maintained through the 2010s, but is still a strong majority.
Any material price drop would not just be immediately politically disastrous, but would also provoke an economic crisis, with even more catastrophic political consequences.
Tuesday's housing package was roughly what the Beehive signalled four months ago, making a mockery of Treasury's extraordinary claim that it hadn't been given enough time to consider it.
Economists are mixed on its impact, with some picking a 10 per cent price drop, roughly back to before Ardern's November declaration. Others worry that increasing income thresholds for government grants could further stimulate demand. On the supply side, property experts say the $3.8 billion for supporting infrastructure isn't enough for even 10,000 new houses — and then only if built as a single undertaking.
More important than expert analysis is market sentiment. If the wisdom of crowds decides the package will reduce prices in the medium term, then they'll fall immediately. We'll know by winter whether Ardern has crashed the market, hit her "sustained moderation" sweet spot, or failed to achieve anything.
The surety of Ardern's re-election depends on which of these plays out, and also what happens across the aisle.
In his maiden speech on Wednesday, Christopher Luxon made his opening bid for the top job.
While supported by John Key's political network, Luxon distanced himself from the previous Government's record, saying New Zealand has suffered a "productivity disease" for the last 30 years.
Reflecting widespread concerns that immigration was used by the Key-English Government to boost headline GDP instead of per capita GDP, Luxon declared "economic growth has largely been driven by having more people in the country and more people working harder". The existing population needs to work smarter.
Consequently, Luxon called for new investments in education and training, R&D, innovation and infrastructure. The last, he said, "is at crisis point", another implicit criticism of Key.
To address the crisis, Luxon called for "an overarching vision, new funding and financing mechanisms, upgraded legislation, and better project management and execution". Who, in the shambles of Auckland or Wellington, could disagree?
Luxon said he stood for "National Party values of freedom and choice, rights and responsibilities, limited yet better government, competitive enterprise, and equal opportunity and citizenship", but he made it very clear he backs a strong welfare state.
"Governments," he proclaimed, "must make powerful and targeted interventions on behalf of those with the most complex and challenged lives. With the right resources at the right time, in the right place, the state can help people make positive and sustained changes." Ardern would surely agree.
Luxon claimed his strong Christian faith "is personal to me [and] not in itself a political agenda". But this was itself raising his faith in the most public place possible, along with confirmation that "it has anchored me, given my life purpose and shaped my values".
"I see Jesus," he said, speaking in the present tense, "showing compassion, tolerance and care for others. He doesn't judge, discriminate or reject people. He loves unconditionally."
Luxon aligned himself with other Christians he said have made a difference, including Martin Luther King, Kate Sheppard, slavery abolitionists and others who "educated the poor and challenged the rich to share their wealth and help others less fortunate".
This public fusing of his religion with liberal economic and social policy mimicked failed National leader Todd Muller's efforts, in contrast to Simon Bridges, who was more shy about his faith.
Luxon will need to be careful about fusing his politics and faith. He has already shown himself more doctrinaire than the likes of Muller, Bridges or Bill English, voting with just 11 other MPs against legislation to ban protesters from intimidating or interfering with women and girls within 150 metres of abortion clinics. That was a step too far for Muller, Bridges, Gerry Brownlee and almost every other MP who would usually vote against liberalising abortion laws.
Still, it at least marks him out as principled. And it would provide one point of difference with Ardern should he be the one to take her on in 2023.
- Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based PR consultant.