English still to come out of his corner swinging hard at Ardern during televised debates

During three television debates National's Bill English has given the appearance of a man brought up in a household where he was taught it is "not okay" to punch girls.

He's admitted to being scrapper during early years.

But he has held himself in check when it comes to going hard against Labour's Jacinda Ardern even when she indulged herself with a shrill, finger-pointed style of questioning. "Bill ... Bill ... Bill."

This was good politics during the media love-in with the new Labour leader when it appeared that any -- even the mildest criticism -- of Ardern would provoke a Twitter storm.


Commentators have mostly chalked up the debate victories to Ardern. She has appeared to have had English on the back foot, which is hardly surprising given the baggage that accrues for any Government which has spent three terms in office.

But Ardern's debate tactics have also resulted in English getting more primetime to talk about what National has achieved.

Not simply the big-spending promises that the party is making at this election in areas such as housing and infrastructure -- a loosening the purse strings strategy which leaves it open to criticism -- but also the opportunity to talk about what he in particular has achieved during nine years in office.

English has displayed a stronger campaign mettle than in the disastrous 2002 election where he led National (which was then in Opposition) to a significant defeat. He is now much more comfortable in his own skin.

Pertinently, he has a significant track record behind him as NZ's finance minister and subsequently nine months as prime minister.

Labour has initially been more successful in defining the issues in the 2017 campaign -- housing, inequality, education and generational change.

This paid off for Ardern in the political polls.

But intriguingly while English was wrong-footed in two debates by the release of major polls showing National's ratings had declined, there is now evidence that disgruntlement over Labour's own proposals when it comes to capital gains and other wealth taxes has gone beyond the beltway.

The latest Newshub-Reid research poll showed National at 47.3 per cent -- an increase of 4 per cent from its previous poll.

Labour had scored a 1.6 per cent drop -- but at 37.6 per cent it was clearly still a major contender to win the September 23 election. Particularly as contrasting polls are showing extraordinary volatility as New Zealanders decide whether to cast their list votes for either of the two main parties and not to "waste their votes" on minor parties.

Commentators have mostly chalked up the debates to Ardern. She has appeared to have English on the back foot.


The problem English faces is that much of the public has already banked the successes of the Key/English Government.

National's campaign videos were initially stodgy and clunky.

In contrast, Labour has been edgy, modern and agile. They have milked the Jacinda brand and executed a skilful social media strategy.

National has finally cottoned on that it also will have to sharpen its advertising strategy -- and its "let's tax this" series is evidence of that.

While Labour has broadly focused on the big issues identified by CEOs in the Herald's Mood of the Boardroom survey -- infrastructure, housing, productivity, education and inequality -- its refusal to come clean on its tax plans have left it vulnerable. And from a business perspective there are concerns that its planned industrial and employment changes are a reversion to the past.

The chief executives in the Herald survey have made clear that it has never been more important for our politicians to communicate the direction of social policies.

As one CEO pointed out, equality, fairness and cohesion are inexorably linked in creating an environment in which business can prosper.

But for English to stay in the game at this election he must also convince the electorate that he will ensure that a fourth-term National-led Government will tackle the major investment issues in front of New Zealand, that he will reinvigorate his team and communicate a much bolder and ambitious direction for New Zealand.