Truth or fable: Fact-checking the Stuff finance debate video

Stuff hosted Finance Minister Steven Joyce and his opposite number from Labour, Grant Robertson, in a fun and feisty debate in Wellington on Thursday night.

As in each of the three leaders debates so far, we applied our fact-checking eye to proceedings.

Here's what we found:

Steven Joyce and Grant Robertson are set to battle it out in Stuff's finance debate.

Steven Joyce and Grant Robertson are set to battle it out in Stuff's finance debate.


It didn't take long for the first disagreement of the night to surface and surprise, surprise it was over taxes.

Robertson accused National of introducing 18 new taxes since 2008.

Here's how the exchange went down:

Robertson: "Because you increased taxes 18 times, Steven, in the last nine years".

Joyce: "That is absolutely false."

Grant Robertson (far left) clashed with Steven Joyce (far right) in the Stuff Finance Debate, moderated by Stuff's ...

Grant Robertson (far left) clashed with Steven Joyce (far right) in the Stuff Finance Debate, moderated by Stuff's Vernon Small and Tracy Watkins.

After some more back and forth, Joyce claimed National had only added one new tax.

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"We have put maybe one new tax on. The bright line tax, which you have endorsed, in the last nine years," he said.

Of course a tax can increase without having to be a new tax, but let's first zero in on the claim of 18 tax increases.

Our debate hosts, Stuff political editor Tracy Watkins and deputy editor Vernon Small addressed this very question on Wednesday.

They point out that while you can technically argue that yes, there have been 18 tax increases under National, some of the examples included in this argument from Labour are "very marginal".

These include cost increases for filing company returns, the "paper boy" tax - which was eventually dropped and six petrol tax increases.

Less contentious are a GST increase from 12.5 to 15 per cent (albeit income taxes were cut at the same time), a capital gains tax on investment properties sold within two years, a new tax on employer KiwiSaver contributions, a $22 border levy, tobacco tax rises, tax on digital purchases and a $2 rise in prescription charges.

And what about Joyce's claim of only one new tax? The list above includes at least three that appear to be completely new - capital gains tax on speculators, tax on employer KiwiSaver contributions and a border levy. In Joyce's defence he did say "maybe one".


This subject came off the back of a discussion about tertiary education policies, when Robertson said: "I think the priority right now is rebuilding the health system you've underfunded, investing in houses and giving families a fair go."

Joyce responded: "We actually put more money in this budget, extra money for health, than Labour have put in their fiscal plan for each of the next four years."

Several times, Robertson attempted to ask a version of the same question: "Are you going to put more money into health and education for the impact of inflation and population?"

"We do that," Joyce responded. "We have done that every year."

Robertson disagreed: "No you haven't. You're $2.3 billion short."

Joyce, again, disagreed.

First, it's clear there's no real answer to this disagreement. It's a political question, with different answers depending on who's side you're on. But it's worth providing context around where that $2.3b figure came from, considering it gets bandied around so much.

It originally came from the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions, who in May this year said health funding "has not kept up with total costs, including the increasing costs of technology, growing health need and, to some extent, personal costs, let alone total costs plus new initiatives".

One of its key points was that "for the Health vote to regain the spending power of the 2009/10 Health vote and pay for the initiatives and additional costs announced over that time, it would need to increase by $2.3 billion in the 2017 Budget to $17.6 billion."

Labour then also commissioned a study, which threw up the same numbers: "The funding needed for health to be restored to the level it was seven years ago to keep pace with cost pressures has widened to a massive $2.3 billion."

When Labour's health spokesman, David Clark, brought this up during an urgent debate in the House, Health Minister Jonathan Coleman called the $2.3 billion figure "complete fiction".

"There is a record allocation this year - $888 million - and, more important than that, out of the hundreds of services provided across the New Zealand health system, you will struggle to find one that is not better than it was nine years ago. We are doing more of everything."


The pair later clashed for a second time over tax. On this occasion it was over whether Labour will increase income taxes.

Robertson: "You keep saying we are raising income taxes Steven, we are not."

"Well you are," replied Joyce.

"No New Zealander will pay more income tax than they are today [if Labour are in Government]," Robertson shot back.

Before Joyce clarified his position: "They will pay more income tax than they would have been on the 1st of April [2018] if you change the law, that's the reality of it," he said.

Here's the lowdown:

In the Budget earlier this year National announced that they would cut income taxes in April 2018, if re-elected (technically it's a tax bracket adjustment, but we digress). The effect will be an increase in take-home pay for workers of up to about $1000 a year.

Labour plan to cancel these tax cuts and spend the money on Working for Families and public services like health and education.

So, will Labour increase income taxes?

In short, no. You can certainly argue that they won't cut income taxes or that taxes would be lower in future - and that is essentially where Joyce went with his later clarification. But the claim that income taxes will increase is false.


In talking about poverty, again, those child hardship statistics came up.

It was just a line, near the end, but we didn't miss it: "We've actually had a reduction in 40 per cent of the number of children growing up in hardship and that will come down by 50,000 next year," Joyce said.

That's simply not true, or, if it is, it's only true after being very manipulative with the numbers.

Data collected in the New Zealand Household Economic Survey (NZHES), which informs the Child Poverty Monitor, shows the number of poor children in New Zealand - that is, the number of children in households with incomes below the selected thresholds. In 2008, it was 260,000 and in 2016 was 290,000. That's actually an increase of 10 per cent.

But going by material hardship rates, in 2008 there were 170,000 children living in hardship and in 2016 there were 135,000 children in that category. And that's a decrease of 21 per cent.

Of course, it has to be said, this isn't a nuanced way to discuss poverty, or policy. There is no single low-income measure which satisfactorily divides children into the poor and non-poor, as both leaders have previously tried to do. 

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 - Stuff


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