Just as gathering dark clouds are a sure sign of rain, politicians promising to cut taxes and get tough on crime is lock-it-in, damned certain signal that an election is on the horizon. So a flurry of headlines in New Zealand over the past week screaming “Nats tax cuts put more in pocket” and “Life means life promises Nats” left Kiwis in no doubt that Campaign 08 has finally begun in earnest. A hard rain’s a-gonna fall.

Three minor parties set the tone, launching their campaigns with speeches and as many balloons as their minor budgets could afford. New Zealand First led off, with leader Winston Peters describing National and the Maori Party as “Merchant bankers and Maori separatists. One lot will be trying to sell the country from under us, while the other will be setting up a separate state”.

New Zealand First risks oblivion in this campaign if it can’t lift its current polling of around three percent up over the five percent threshold required to enter parliament. Peters seems to think he can find the two percent he needs amongst Maori voters, and so is turning his guns on the Maori Party at every opportunity.

Peters wants to cut GST from 12.5 to 10 percent, but as luck would have it the Maori Party trumped him, promising to remove it altogether from “essential items” such as food and petrol. Yet it’s most telling comments came when co-leader Pita Sharples said that if National wants a coalition deal, it will have to abandon its plan to phase out New Zealand’s seven Maori seats by 2014. The Maori Party holds five of those seats and expects to win one or both of the remaining ones this year.

The Greens are promising no income tax for the first $5000 of personal income, replacing the lost government income with an eco-tax, but at their launch co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons said the country’s obsession with tax cuts was a lot of hot air. The real question was, “who’s going  to look after our children’s future?” They then did what no other party will do, releasing a 12-point list spelling out on precisely what grounds they would negotiate a coalition deal. Their criteria include cutting climate change emissions, protecting worker’s rights, reducing child poverty and violence, and making education free. Er, not National in other words.

Despite those launches, it was National which stole the headlines, however, with its announcement of a “two strikes” crime policy. Forget America’s namby-pamby three strikes. As the Dominion Post newspaper reported it, “Anyone convicted of murder who has previously received a prison sentence of five years or more for violence will be denied any opportunity for parole, meaning they will spend the rest of their life in prison.”

Yep, that means another new prison, costing $315m, to add to the four new ones Labour has built in the past decade.

Yet even that doozie was soon replaced with more tax talk. National revealed its long, long awaited tax cut package, and it was, to quote respected New Zealand Herald commentator John Armstrong, “a fizzer”. In the face of the global credit crunch National had no choice but to back away from earlier promises of tax cuts “north of $50”. It means a Kiwi earning the average wage would get just $10 more than under Labour’s already-locked in tax cuts.

The bigger problem for National is that it has ripped $3 billion out of KiwiSaver, the government’s work-based saving fund, to pay for the cuts. That means Labour can bash it for irresponsibly promoting short-term spending over long-term saving, and over the next few days that’s exactly what it’s expected to do. It’s as predictable as rain.