(Reuters) – New Zealand holds a general election on Oct. 17, with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s centre-left Labour Party holding a wide lead over the centre-right main opposition National Party.
Below are the main issues in the election.
Ardern has called this a “COVID election” and focussed her campaign on her government’s “go hard, go early” response to the outbreak, which has helped boost her popularity and make her an international celebrity.
New Zealand has reported 25 deaths from COVID-19 and around 1,500 infections after Ardern’s swift response, far less than in other developed countries. That’s about 0.05 death per 10,000 people, compared to the United States at 6.49 or India at 0.78, according to Reuters calculations.
New Zealand placed the most significant restrictions on public movements in modern history in the initial phase of the coronavirus outbreak by closing its borders, imposing self-isolation and shutting down most of its economy to contain the spread of the virus.
Labour says it would continue tight controls and quarantines and would strengthen the contact-tracing system.
National says it would establish a border protection agency within 100 days of forming a government to prevent future outbreaks. It blames Labour’s border rules for allowing a recent flare-up in the country’s largest city, Auckland.
Ardern has said climate change is “my generation’s nuclear-free moment”. Labour vows to phase out single-use plastics and replace coal-fired boilers with electric alternatives, and says it would end the use of carbon by public buses by 2035.
It aims to create 11,000 jobs in regional New Zealand to restore the environment, including cleaning up waterways to allow safe swimming.
Ardern says she would accelerate New Zealand’s target of 100% renewable electricity generation by five years to 2030, responding to criticism from opposition leader Judith “Crusher” Collins.
Collins, leader of the National Party, says Ardern’s policies would raise electricity bills 40% and cost thousands of jobs.
Climate change, a key issue in the election, has pitted the parties against each other on policies on oil and gas exploration – National wants to lift a ban on exploration and seeks “responsible mining”.
The government, in which Labour is joined by the smaller New Zealand First party, announced in May a record NZ$50 billion ($30 billion) in spending to revive the pandemic-hit economy, saying it would help businesses hire at least 40,000 who had lost their jobs or seen their working hours reduced.
Labour promises to extend a loan scheme for small firms and invest more than NZ$300 million to help the unemployed find jobs.
National says it would provide companies NZ$10,000 for each new employee hired and pay higher-education and vocational training centres NZ$4,000 for every unemployed person they retrained.
Ardern vows to raise individual income taxes on the top-earning 2% and plug loopholes for big foreign companies. No changes have been proposed for tax rates of companies and trusts but the individuals making over NZ$180,000 annually would pay 39%, up from 33%.
National promises short-term tax cuts worth about NZ$4.7 billion to revive the economy. The party says its temporary tax relief would put more than NZ$3,000 – nearly NZ$50 a week – into the pockets of average earners over the next 16 months.
Collins promises NZ$430 million in one-year tax incentives for businesses that invest more than NZ$150,000 on new equipment and machinery.
Labour wants to invest NZ$600 million to raise wages of early childhood teachers and to boost funding for the most disadvantaged schools by NZ$320 million over the next four years.
National would spend NZ$4.8 billion to build schools and colleges. It proposes a four-year NZ$1.9 billion package focussing on learning support and teacher aides.
Labour promises to double sick leave to 10 days a year with an additional NZ$200 million to be spent over four years to cut waiting lists for surgeries. An aged-care commissioner would be established as a watchdog over the sector.
National would spend NZ$800 million more on the health sector during its term and promises faster elective surgeries and more money for cancer treatments.
Ardern says her government would create a NZ$350 million fund for residential housing plans and reform decades-old laws in the sector to speed up approvals.
She promises to deliver more homes, replace a 30-year-old law that limited cost increases for urban development, support first-home buyers with loans and introduce regulations for property-management services.
Collins promises to scrap that law which is blamed for high housing costs. She dismisses Ardern’s housing plans as copying National’s.
Collins vows to pass emergency laws – similar to those used to rebuild the city of Christchurch after a 2011 earthquake – to build homes and curb rising home prices.
(Reporting by Renju Jose in Sydney and Praveen Menon in Wellington; Editing by William Mallard)