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RNZ’s Caucus: Inside the leaders’ debates

This week's Caucus podcast is all about Winston Peters, his Super spin, bottom lines and how he chooses coalition partners. But it's also about the scrap for the family vote and what it's really like behind the scenes at a leaders debate. Tim Watkin introduces the RNZ podcast with Guyon Espiner and Lisa Owen.

Listen to the podcast on RNZ here.

It's been Winston week, so far. That changes tonight, with the first head-to-head major party leaders debate on TVNZ between Bill English and Jacinda Ardern. But thus far the NZ First leader and his super-charged super payments have been the focus of discussion.

Winston Peters has adeptly turned the story into one about who leaked the information to journalists. That raises privacy concerns that deserve to be addressed and has seen Peters grab the opportunity to ask how his personal information made it into the public domain. At first, he was sure IRD officials were the source of the leak. Next, he was certain it was someone in or around National.

Investigations are under way and even Prime Minister Bill English has worried out loud about officials' use of private information. 

As Guyon Espiner says in today's Caucus, there's plenty of irony in this. Peters has built a career on using leaks to his political gain, and National is in something of a glasshouse itself, if it wants to pour scorn on the politicisation of personal information, given its track record recounted in Dirty Politics.

But that all has drawn attention away from the central question of how Peters was overpaid superannuation for so long and whether the man who so often calls for transparency from others, should release his forms so voters can see whether or not his story stacks up.

By and large the public reaction has been sympathetic to Peters and, as Espiner says, he's on the front foot. The bottom line is that all the recent polls still have New Zealand First as 'The Decider' - the party that will decide between a National-led and Labour-led government. Which raises the question of bottom lines.

As a long-standing student of Peters' bottom lines, I've drawn up a helpful list of what New Zealand First has said it will require before it offers its votes to either the red or blue team. 

- Amend the Reserve Bank Act to focus on more than just inflation

- Cuts to net immigration (New Zealand First policy is to cut it to 10,000, but the bottom line comments aren't quite so specific).

- Keeping the age of eligibility for NZ Super at 65

- Manned re-entry of Pike River mine

- A rail link between Marsden Point/Whangarei and Auckland  

- Moving the Ports of Auckland to Northport

- A referendum on abolishing the Maori seats

- A referendum on reducing the number of MPs from 120 to 100

- A referendum on repealing the anti-smacking legislation

- 1800 more police as soon as they can be trained

- Rebuild the Christchurch Cathedral

Two other bottom lines from the 2014 election not mentioned yet in this campaign - but which it's unlikely that Peters has changed his view on - are the introduction of a foreign buyers' register and the creation of a public KiwiSaver Fund (KiwiFund). Three years ago, when National had been selling shares in state assets, Peters also promised an immediate asset buy-back programme; specifically the power companies.

He's slapped down MP Richard Prosser this campaign for saying the party would buy back shares below market level. Rather, Peters says it wants to buy back shares over time, when the price falls.

Remember, these aren't all New Zealand First's policies. These are just the ones Peters has at some time or another called a bottom line. 

A constitutionalist

Of course trying to anticipate exactly what Peters and his party might choose, should they be the deciders come September 24, is a mug's game. You can argue, as I do, that Peters is a constitutionalist who is careful to ensure any new government has a clear mandate, prefers working with the biggest party and governments with fewer parties. Politically, you might consider he needs to be able to claim credit for certain policies (eg the gold card) and that, going by history, he's likely to get only one term in government out of National but would expect two out of Labour.

Yet as Labour says, the old constitutionalist promised to go to the cross-benches in 2005, before joining a Helen Clark-led coalition. 

So who can say? The Peters position on coalition deals is that he won't say anything about his priorities until he's heard the voters speak on election day. Only then, with a full deck of cards, will he begin to show his hand. Only then, will voters get a clear sense of what they've voted for. So while the bottom lines may give voters an idea of the party's negotiating stance, just where those negotiations end is anyone's guess.

For now, the focus of the campaign shifts to the TV debates. After the minor party leaders debate on The Nation this weekend, we move to prime time and the major parties. TVNZ hosts its debate between English and Ardern tonight, while Three hosts its on Monday. As the race has tightened, these are considered the most pivotal debates since at least 2008. With three weeks to go, pressure is building.

Listen to this week's podcast on RNZ here.

See all previous Caucus podcasts on RNZ here.

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