How long would Joyce and Robertson spend at the barber?

Jenesa Jeram
15 September, 2017

For the politically-inclined, last night's finance debate has been one of many. Over the last couple of weeks, Steven Joyce and Grant Robertson have had time to rehearse their talking points, refine their responses to perfection, and anticipate each other's every move.

But it is because of these rehearsals that I was expecting, well, a little more from the two.

Of course, both Joyce and Robertson proved they were highly skilled and knowledgeable in their portfolios.

What was missing from the debate was a real dichotomy between the two parties. While Joyce and Robertson have become experienced in debating the facts and stats, they have become less attuned to communicating to voters how they are different.

What was missing was a clear articulation of how their fiscal approaches will lead to different outcomes for New Zealanders.

As others have pointed out, the parties' fiscal forecasts are so close that the gap between them may be as narrow as two years: Labour would take two more years than National to pay down debt.

It is great both parties agree on some sound basics, like paying down debt. But there are others areas that could do with some vision.

Housing is a big issue of this election, but again, both parties failed to truly inspire. Joyce challenged Robertson on the lack of evidence that a Capital Gains Tax would be effective (Robertson said the evidence was mixed).

A dichotomy could have been created between Labour 'doing anything' and National 'doing nothing'. Except National seem to be buying into the 'do anything' narrative too. Increasing the KiwiSaver subsidy for first-home buyers would almost certainly simply increase house prices in a market of constrained supply.

Housing policy should not just be about taxing and spending, but easing the regulatory barriers that are artificially choking off supply. Central government must also work with local government on these issues, yet neither Joyce nor Robertson talked at great length on how that relationship could be improved.

My main disappointment with this debate, though, was the overwhelming focus on spending by both parties. Both parties talked up their spending on major areas such as education, housing and family subsidies. This is a departure from Bill English's fiscal approach of not necessarily spending more, but spending wiser.

Yes, spending is important. But equally important is spending taxpayers' money more effectively.

Even National's tax cuts have been framed as a way of "supporting" families and workers, rather than an acknowledgement that people can spend their money better than the Government deciding how to spend it in their best interests.

When English was finance minister, he talked about government success being measured by what outcomes it has achieved, rather than how much it spends.

While this change in approach may be in practice, it did not shape the debate and therefore the public's expectations of how we should be thinking about fiscal issues.

For viewers watching at home, I'm not sure they would have gained more insight than the points-scoring Joyce and Robertson gained over each other.

For the party announcing a mood for change, it was not really clear what sweeping changes voters could expect. For the party worried about putting the economy at risk, it was not really clear what was so risky about the alternative.

Joyce gave an anecdote about talking to his barber, and Robertson responded that it must not have been a long visit. And really, that pretty much sums up the debate: both were essentially the same person, one will just take longer at the barber than the other.

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