There were two election campaign visits to the west coast Northland town of Dargaville yesterday.
One from NZ First Leader Winston Peters was so low key the party’s local candidate, Shane Jones, wasn’t even there.
And the other from National’s Finance spokesperson, Paul Goldsmith, has left more questions about the viability of his party’s fiscal plan.
Goldsmith was there to speak to a mid-day meeting of National supporters.
About 60 — including the former Speaker and High Commissioner to London, Sir Lockwood Smith — turned up.
They heard Goldsmith define National’s economic philosophy as it was applied to their Fiscal Plan released last week.
“What we have very carefully tried to balance in our plan is, is the need for short term stimulus with our tax relief, plus the need to continue to invest in core public services and health and education and over the next decade or so set a path backed more prudent debt levels,” he said.
But how much National will be able to fund health is now a question.
In the TVOne Leaders’ debate on Tuesday night, National Leader, Judith Collins was asked by host John Campbell, whether National would “excuse” the $180 million deficit run up by the Canterbury District Health Board (DHB).
That deficit is part of a larger total deficit for all DHBs. estimated by the Ministry of Health to have been $497 million at June 30.
Collins responded: “Well, I think we also need to understand what they’re there for. They’re there to provide health services for the people of Canterbury. And we’re going to have to do that in some cases.”
However, bailing out the DHBs is not provided for in the Government’s Pre Election Economic and Fiscal Update nor is it provided for in National’s Fiscal Plan; the money would have to come from the new operating expenditure allowance.
National has reduced this to $1.8 billion and has already committed to new spending of around $1 billion which will leave them around $800 million still unaacounted for.
But the DHBs will take a big bite of this anyway.
The Pre Election Economic and Fiscal Update shows that since 2015 the new spending required to meet rising costs in the DJHB sector is now running at over $700 million.
In other words, just keeping the hospitals open would use up all of National’s available funding.
There would be no money to bail out DHBs, which would mean that the cutbacks in services seen in Christchurch would continue.
Goldsmith, however, believes there could be room to move.
“We think we’ve good managers,” he told POLITIK.
“We’ve been very conservative in our numbers in the sense that we haven’t assumed any sort of savings from day to day stuff, which only when we get into government and go through it line by line, I’m sure there will be things, money that we can reallocate.”
He said he thought National had allowed enough for new spending.
“But, you know, there also needs to be a real focus on the results that we’re getting and this government has done away with all the targets and things have just drifted,” he said.
“And we think we need to have good, clear signals from government about what we’re wanting to get for the investment.”
Nevertheless, the questions about the Fiscal Plan that continue to dog Goldsmith raise real questions about his political future.
He says that the questions about the numbers are coming from “trainspotters” — “and Grant Robertson is the chief trainspotter”.
Goldsmith told POLITIK that this was because Robertson did not want to talk about the real issue, which was who had the best plan to get the economy back on track.
Winston Peters, on the other hand, is promising to talk policy between now and election day. However, he wouldn’t tell POLITIK What policies he proposed to talk about.
Instead, he said this was an election for “true believers”.
That is a reference to former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating who told supporters on election night in 1993 when he surprised the pundits that it was a victory for the true believers.
And Peters who visited his old High School in Dargaville yesterday plainly doesn’t accept the One News Colmar Brunton poll rating this week of only 2.4.
“What we’ve got here is a classic case of a repeat of previous elections where everybody has gone according to what the so-called experts say,” he said.
“But out there on the street, in the hundreds of thousands of forgotten New Zealanders, that’s where the election’s being decided.
“And that’s what I’m campaigning for.”
It was hard to see how he arrived at that conclusion in Dargaville.
He cancelled his first visit to a community centre; had a barbeque lunch at his old’s schools innovative building academy then went on to a Kumara farm.
At the High School Peters told the young builders that he had captained the school first fifteen and had not had time to do much homework because he had to milk the family’s dairy herd in the morning and evening.
There were hardly hundreds of thousands – or even hundreds — of “forgotten New Zealanders” at those venues.
Later in the day, he visited The Mangawhai Tavern, which was the nearest he came to engaging with the wider public which is now possible in towns like Dargaville which are now in Level One.
That means public rallies are now permitted. But Peters did not hold one. \
Peters’ Dargaville visit was so low key that NZ First’s Northland candidate, Shane Jones, did not accompany him.
Instead the party’s Whangarei candidate, Dave Wilson, was there.
Though Peters wasn’t willing to talk policy, he did bring his trademark humour with him.
When he was introduced to the student builders, he said: “Maybe I could lend you guys to Twyford.” (A reference to former Housing Minister Phil Twyford and his failed Kiwibuild programme.)