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Media heavyweights rate Jacinda Ardern a chance

Leading media figures rate Labour leader Jacinda Ardern's chances of becoming Prime Minister as 50/50 or better with three and a half weeks to go until the election.

At a lunchtime panel discussion in Auckland yesterday hosted by law firm Bell Gully, the consensus was that the momentum Labour had gained since changing leader to Ardern on August 1 could now be enough to carry the party to victory.

The event, chaired by Newsroom Pro editor Bernard Hickey and attended by 100 business people, covered the latest developments in what has become a volatile election campaign - and analysed what the critical swing party, New Zealand First, might need in order to work with either National or Labour after September 23.

RNZ's Morning Report co-host Guyon Espiner believed momentum was "certainly with Labour".

"I think the odds are probably at least half and probably better," he said when asked if a change of government could occur. "It is possible that the red team and the blue team might meet in the middle around 40 percent or so."

Espiner believed a pent-up desire for change might have found its outlet through Ardern's elevation to lead Labour. 

Former press gallery reporter and current affairs host Heather du Plessis-Allan agreed Labour could now get there, if New Zealand First leader Winston Peters chose to support them.

She believed he would prefer Labour, given historic enmity against National - including a personal grudge against Bill English for seconding a motion to exclude him from the National Party caucus in 1992.

"All things being equal, it would be Labour."

The first televised leaders debate is on Thursday night on TVNZ. Panellists felt Ardern would be hit hard by English over her plans to introduce new taxes, including leaving open the prospect of a Capital Gains Tax on property other than the family home. Newshub political editor Patrick Gower had noticed that in the past two elections Labour leaders David Cunliffe and Phil Goff had both been most tested in the debates when former Prime Minister John Key took them on over tax policies.

Hickey told the audience Ardern didn't need to open Labour up to the capital gains debate and wondered why she had allowed it to be on the table.

Espiner said tax would be English's best shot at dominating the debate. He was at his best when aggressive but at other times "could be like a rhino in mud - he just cannot move and his eyes are going everywhere".

du Plessis-Allan did not think National knew what to do to counter Ardern and it was unclear how English could approach the debate.

Hickey displayed graphs showing clearly that when migration was high, so was the vote for New Zealand First - and the party historically out-performed most public polling. 

Given current polls putting National and Labour close and consistently making New Zealand First pivotal to post-election negotiations, panellists assessed what that party might need to agree to form or support a government. du Plessis-Allan said there were numerous "dumb" policies that New Zealand First would be willing to abandon - such as re-carpeting public buildings with New Zealand wool products, and building a new Christchurch stadium entirely from New Zealand wood.

"He will walk away from these policies and he will go for the symbols - the health care for under 5-year-olds and the Gold Cards. And this time he will go for something like a legacy item like developing the Northland port."

Espiner didn't accept du Plessis-Allan's view that Peters could not work with English. "He doesn't really like anyone that much. It's not really worth wasting your time on who he likes or doesn't like."

He doubted Peters would hold out for too much in policy terms, either. "In 2005 there wasn't too much policy-wise. A thousand police and he took the foreign minister job. If he's up to 12,13 or 15 percent of the vote at that level we might see a formal coalition agreement but if they're at 7,8 or 9 then I don't know what effect he's going to have at all."

Panellists believed an Ardern-led government would be similar to the three terms of Helen Clark's Labour. Espiner said Ardern and her finance spokesman Grant Robertson had worked for Clark. "I don't think it would be a lot different. [Former Finance Minister] Michael Cullen has been mentoring Robertson and I'm sure Helen Clark must have advised Jacinda Ardern."

The panel agreed Robertson was the policy powerhouse in the Labour team, a leading strategist not just on financial policy but across the range of key issues.

du Plessis-Allan thought Ardern could be a good Prime Minister but as a reasonably young voter "I worry we could get more of the same, the incrementalism we have experienced through Clark, Key and English for my cohort [and under]."

*The political panel host, Bell Gully, is a foundation supporter of this site, Newsroom.co.nz

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