National leader Bill English says he is confident he is still the right person to lead his party against a Jacinda Ardern-led Labour Party after a poll showed Labour ahead of National.

English and Ardern had their first head to head debate on TV1 just an hour after the dramatic One News Colmar Brunton poll put Labour ahead of National.

Asked after the debate if he still believed he was the right choice as leader now Ardern was heading Labour, English said he was.

"I think as we get into the campaign it's pretty clear that the mix of experience I have and also the determination we've got around changing a lot of the things Government does ... is the right mix for New Zealand."


After the debate, both English and Ardern said the poll did not tally with their own internal polls and neither were taking it as gospel.

English said the election had turned into a "drag race" between the two big parties.

"And anyone who was unclear about that is now really clear about it. They will get to choose now."

He said the change of leader to Ardern had helped galvanise National's support base out of any complacency "and I think a poll like this definitely will."

Ardern said the poll was "a surprise" but she was not taking anything for granted given the polls could change so quickly.

"It did surprise me. So at the moment I don't want to rely on any one poll because ultimately there's only one that counts, and they're so changeable at the moment that probably both of us are going to make sure we keep campaigning hard and don't take anything for granted."

The debate was a good old fashioned stoush between left and right with English trying to poke holes in Ardern's economic policies, scrapping tax cuts and lack of clarity on tax policy and Ardern pointing to English's record on social issues such as housing and the environment.

English said he believed he had been able to highlight the "stark choice" between National and Labour.


"I think tonight that became a bit clearer with the pretty vague and confused approach Labour are taking on the economic policy, and we are very pleased with the strength of our economic policy."

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Housing, immigration and tax dominate debate

Jacinda Ardern said she rejected English's claim of
Jacinda Ardern said she rejected English's claim of "vague and confused economic policy." Photo / TVNZ

Ardern said she rejected English's claim of "vague and confused economic policy."

"I stand by what we are doing, I am proud of my policies and we have a strong rationale for doing them."

She said if she had taken over as leader earlier, there might have been more time to consider issues such as capital gains tax more thoroughly and present a fully formed policy.

"I accept people have questions on it, but all I can do is be transparent about my intent, the reason we are looking at this."

On her own performance in the debate, she said she was her own harshest critic and was certain she would find improvements in her performance. She said it was important it was a civil debate.

"I felt pretty happy with the way I managed my own decorum."

English said the debate atmosphere was "civil"and it was a contest of ideas.

Asked if National would now look at further big spending policies to try to address the polls, English said an election was not all about money.

"It's important to indicate to people what your plans are but one of the differences here is that we focus on reducing taxes across the board and being pretty careful with how we focus the use of taxpayers' money. We are not going in for the Labour recipe, which is to put income taxes up by cancelling tax cuts, lifting debt and throwing money around."

English had criticised Ardern in the debate for failing to be clear on whether she would impose a capital gains tax and Ardern fired back, saying English himself had a water working group ready to report back in December on whether National should impose a levy on bottled water.

Afterward, English said he would not charge a levy on water use, but a levy on exports of bottled water remained a possibility, saying there was high public support for bottled water charges.