Voters face a 'stark choice' in this election according to both John Key and David Cunliffe.

In particular, when it comes to the economy the two major parties are promising to take the country in very different directions.

Commentators have also celebrated the apparent growing differences of economic approach by the National and Labour parties. This week's Listener feature by Pattrick Smellie on economic policy argues that 'National and Labour's economic policy differences are starker than they've been for decades' - see: Mind the gap.

Smellie's excellent evaluation outlines some of the similarities and differences in Labour and National's economic stances. He notes, however, that National has shifted into some traditional Labour areas, which has blurred some differences.

Vernon Small has also argued that that there is a 'stark choice' on offer, contrasting Labour's 'radical reforms' with National's 'more of the same', and he outlines those key differences in his column Numbers men offer voters clear options.

Are the differences illusionary?

But are the parties really that different in their economic approaches? Or are the differences more about rhetoric, leading only to a mirage of choice? Fairfax's business editor, Rob O'Neill, has written a column titled 'Different styles but basically the same'. He essentially argues that Labour is just as business-friendly as National, and although Labour's economic policies are 'painted as loony', 'in fact they are entirely mainstream'.

O'Neill's observations about the similarities between the two major parties are worth quoting at length: 'one of the most interesting things about the two parties isn't their points of difference, it's their similarities. I can't help feeling Kiwis aren't being given a significant choice. There's no doubt National could and has been further to the right than it is now, and Labour further to the left. They have both moved so far towards the centre as to become indistinguishable on many important matters of policy. Both support free trade agreements, stimulus spending, balanced books and any number of other policies. Mostly the differences are in style, character and nuance rather than in substance'.

Business journalist Tamsyn Parker offers investment advice to those worried about a change of government - see: How to "Labour-proof" your portfolio. Although she points out that there are some industries and businesses that might be vulnerable to further regulation under Labour, the overall picture is that there's probably little for business to fear.

If that just sounds like the pragmatic business community talking, it's worth having a read of what the far left is saying. The World Socialist Website has a very interesting analysis that points out just how much of National's economic policy Labour has adopted, and how Labour fails to offer any genuine alternative to the parts of National's programme that it disagrees with - see Tom Peters' New Zealand election debates underscore bipartisan austerity agenda.

National's economic centrism

Today in the Herald, two commentators provide a bit more evidence of National's centrist shift towards Labour on economics. Josie Pagani argues that National has mostly capitulated on Labour's economic agenda, and is at pains 'to bodysnatch the look and feel of Labour' - see: National coasting on rival's policy.


Similarly, John Armstrong suggests that National's electoral success has come out of its economic centrism, and that the 'absence of big, bold and radical policies fits the "business as usual" image National is trying to project' - see: Key soothes voters with status quo.

In an earlier column on National's proposed tax cuts, Armstrong also argues that they are all about building up an electoral brand that enables a contrast with Labour - see: Tax offcut all that Key offers. And not only are the promised tax cuts designed to show a difference with Labour's tax increases, Armstrong suggests the policy has been designed to undercut Labour, by maneuvering leftwards and targeting lower and middle income earners: 'Key relentlessly keeps on invading Labour territory in search of any votes that might just - with a bit of prodding - swing National's way. And Labour does not seem to even notice it'.

Most commentators have criticised National's vague proposals. Duncan Garner has labeled it 'a poorly constructed bribe'. He says 'I don't buy it, and I'm not sure many people do. These are clayton's tax cuts; they're tax cuts when you're not having them. I sense Bill English doesn't even agree with them' - see: National's tax cuts like offering 'free sex' for all... Likewise, the Dominion Post has labelled them as Clayton's tax cuts aimed at 2017. It concludes that 'Cynics will point to the timing and jeer. And who could say they are wrong?'

Minor parties too?

What about the minor parties? How radically different are their economic policies? According to one economist, although National and Labour's policies are sensibly centrist, the rest are scarily extreme - see Christopher Adams' Fringe party policies 'mad'.

Yet some of the minor parties have shown signs of significant moderation on economics. For example, the Greens recently received praise for this from John Armstrong in a column titled Centrist economic policy a lesson in clever tactics.

And even more recently, Russel Norman came out with a statement suggesting that he might now be to the right of the National Party - see Hamish Rutherford's Greens pro-market: Russel Norman. Certainly the party is now very fiscally conservative - see Stacey Kirk's Greens eye bigger surpluses.

Strong feelings on the economy

If there are any doubts that the economy is now the big issue of this year's election campaign, two recent surveys show just how much it is dominating voters' minds - see TVNZ's Vote Compass first results: Economy the top issue, and Radio New Zealand's Economic issues still dominate - poll

However, it's not clear that the big and bold economic ideas are really being pushed and debated by the political parties. Instead it's being left to some in the blogosphere to outline and evaluate the more interesting economic ideas - see, for example: Stephen Keys' Why can't we have full employment in New Zealand?, Thomas Vautier's Universal Basic Income, and Andrew Chen's $20k Tax-Free Income and Flat Tax and Free Tertiary Education.

Finally, for an international evaluation of the economic differences of New Zealand's parties in this election, it's worth looking at the Political Compass website, which plots various parties and individuals on an economic left-right scale (as well as a social one). The site has pronounced that there are 'increasingly blurred lines between National and Labour over the big issue of economic policy', and they categorise the two parties as right-of-centre on the economy - see: New Zealand General Election 2014.