The New Zealand media this week was able to announce for the third time that the country’s election campaign had begun. They first tried when the House rose three weeks ago, then bandied the phrase around again two weeks ago when the parties hit the campaign trail. Then last weekend, as Labour and National finally held their campaign launches less than a kilometre apart in downtown Auckland, journalists confidently announced that it was “day one” ) of the race to the election and that the campaign had begun “in earnest”.

After so many false starts you could almost forgive National its flat-footed launch, which saw leader John Key criticising the government’s lack of action on the global financial crisis, while down the road Labour leader Helen Clark was announcing, well, a whole lot of action on the global financial crisis.

Following in Australia’s wake, the government announced a bank deposit guarantee scheme that would “give assurance to New Zealand depositers”. In truth, the purpose of the move was to stop New Zealanders moving their savings to guaranteed banks in Australia and to give the appearance of action where some semblance of motion was required.

The government actually has complete faith in New Zealand’s banking system and doesn’t expect to pay out a penny. It will, however, get millions of dollars in fees from banks, which makes it a political win-win.

Labour’s launch was MCed by Samoan comedian Oscar Kightley and featured the Poly-rock sounds of Elemeno P and King Kapisi. National’s featured a medley of disco hits. As you can imagine, journalists swarmed over the obvious metaphors around which party was future-focused and which was fat, white and middle-aged.

Labour had begun the campaign (again) with a hiss and a roar, and two polls suggested that just maybe National’s double-digit lead had closed significantly. The next day Prime Minister Clark followed up her right jab with a left hook, promising a universal student allowance introduced over the next four years.

The Maori Party won a moment in the media’s bright sun on Tuesday, as it announced its economic policy. But co-leader Tariana Turia trumped herself by boldly proclaiming that she wanted to scrap the dole–something that isn’t in her party’s policy or likely to be popular with her base.

Clark and Key returned to the forefront, however, with the first televised leaders’ debate. The pair had united to force the minor parties off stage, and their first head-to-head debate was hyped by TVNZ as “revolutionary”, as it included video-questions from YouTube members.

Clark, the seasoned pro, was meant to pummel the upstart Key into submission, but Key gave as good as he got.

The National leader benefited from George W. Bush-like low expectations to be widely awarded a narrow points victory by most commentators. (Of course, your correspondent was one of only about three pundits in the country who awarded the debate to Clark.)

If New Zealanders were looking for tough leadership in troubled times, I thought Key was feeble. It was enough to get National back on track after a wobbly few days, but as I write the media are chasing Key over claims by Maori co-leader Pita Sharples that he told Sharples–nudge, nudge, wink, wink– that his policy to abolish the Maori seats was just for show and would never be implemented.

If National was hoping to sleep-walk to victory in an election that is its to lose, this week has left New Zealanders with the impression that it’s going to be another tight race.

Peter Fray

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