Vernon Small: Labour may have tacked too close to National to spark voter ardour video

Labour leader Andrew Little playing 'the same but different' with National on family policy.
CHRIS SKELTON/STUFF

Labour leader Andrew Little playing 'the same but different' with National on family policy.

OPINION: So the two big parties have set out their Family Packages and are at each other's throats over the details.

Who gains, how many and by how much. Who pays, how much and to how many.

But it is no surprise there is no baying from the crowds in the stands.

Chris Skelton/STUFF

Labour will prioritise families and public services but scrap tax cuts.

Because in the big scheme of things, the argument is really being played out in a very small ball park.

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Neither party is exactly breaking the bank or splashing cash they don't have. And neither is running a significantly looser fiscal policy than the other as a result of their packages. (Labour's slower debt repayment plan and National's lower debt target means Labour does have a little more to spend, however.)

Both are working within fiscal white lines that deliver chunky surpluses. They will likely be reinforced when the pre-election fiscal and economic update on August 23 factors in the recent surge in tax revenue.

The core of the packages match the expected political hues – more for those earning less, less for those earning more under Labour than National. Labour's Best Start policy, based on a $60 a week payment per baby in their first year - is the only totally new concept.

But that aside, line them up side by side and the striking difference comes down to the last $600m a year – and then, not whether to spend it, but what to spend it on.

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For National it is ensuring that a tax cut, peaking at just over $20 a week, is spread as widely as possible. For Labour it is meeting the need for what it sees as underfunding of social services like mental health and education.

The party will reveal how that money will be spent next week, when it unveils the balance of its fiscal plan, plus how much more than $600m it plans to spend. Convincing voters that it is needed where it is spent – and that it will make a measurable difference – will be key.

Labour's package, released on Tuesday, looked at times like a plan designed by committee. But it also looked like a plan devised to minimise the number of its core voters who could be peeled away by a National appeal to their wallets – a tricky ask given National's foray into Labour territory with its boost for Working for families and a movement to only the lower tax thresholds

Take the amount each is promising for superannuitants – as vote rich a constituency as you can find – and the "same but different" impression jumps out at you.

Under National's package a couple on the state pension would get about $682 more a year because the payment is linked to wage rates that are boosted by the tax cuts.

Labour's "winter energy payment" delivers the same couple $700 a year to help with their heating costs – though the payment is not tied to power bills so really it is an "energy payment" only in name.

The names may differ, but it's virtually Tweedledee and Tweedledum on the outcome. Just 35c a week between them.

As for the Budget's generous increase in the $380m a year accommodation supplement, worth $380m a year. Well, snap. Labour has left it untouched.

Which brings us back to that last $600m in an $80b Budget.

Labour has been running a strong campaign arguing huge underfunding in various social spending areas – health, housing, mental health, education – and it has to be paid for somehow.

It seems there was a heated "debate" in the party's caucus about whether Labour should just accept National's tax cut package holus bolus. But that would have either left little room for other spending or opened a separate line of attack; that Labour is feeding a spending binge on a diet of debt.

Accepting that Labour's fiscal plan next week may change the story, Labour may have a problem; that the two plans are not only similar, they are too similar to make a difference. That while they have different ideologies at their core, those different world view have not taken them far enough to energise the voters.

Look at any of the recent polls, including this week's TVNZ Colmar Brunton one, and the message is clear. The electorate is roughly divided between the Government and the Opposition parties. But with NZ First "floating" in the middle that gives Labour and the Greens a less than even playing field. heading into September 23, against National in the mid-40s. 

The polls also show that while punters are not exactly falling over themselves in favour of Bill English as preferred prime minister – down 3 points at 26 per cent in the TVNZ poll - he is streets ahead of his rivals including a fourth-placed Andrew Little on 5 per cent.

Little has been insisting all week that the people he meets around the traps tell a very different story; that they want change. Attitudinal surveys by Ipsos MORI and Massey University/Stuff support that view – with the added sense that many are looking for a strong leader..

Bu there's no real contradiction there.

It may just be that he and Labour are not offering change that is significant enough to energise them – and that Little doesn't personify the change they want.

 - Stuff

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