If - as the participants keep insisting - this election
is really about ''the things that matter'', then the question
of which of the two major parties has the economic agenda with
the most foresight would be dominating the campaign.
That question should, in fact, be dominating the campaign.
But it is not the case.
The campaign has instead been consumed with the ''dirty
Just about everything else has been shut out.
That has hindered Labour by drawing attention away from its
But it has also forced National to delay what it must surely
have been planning - an all-out assault on Labour's planned
capital gains tax.
It might surprise some voters, but Labour has no intention of
relaunching that policy, which first appeared in its 2011
Labour is not stupid. It can claim to be winning the
theoretical argument for such a tax.
But that could easily unravel if the argument shifts to the
detail of how the tax will be applied in practice - and to
what extent dollars-wise.
Labour is highly vulnerable on that score as John Key briefly
demonstrated during last Thursday night's televised leaders'
debate when he noted that farms would be subject to a capital
David Cunliffe's rejoinder that farmhouses would still be
exempt was one of his few weak moments.
The concentration on ''dirty politics'' ironically might also
have helped National this week.
It obscured the tangle the party nearly got itself into over
The prime minister was at serious risk of talking them up too
much, whereas his finance minister has been emphasising there
are other things which a surplus in the Government's books
may need to feed - such as debt repayment, extra spending or
resuming contributions to the Cullen superannuation fund.
That means any tax cuts will be modest.
Mr English will be acutely conscious that National cannot
have it both ways.
It cannot pat itself on the back for exercising fiscal
restraint, then claim its opponents will go on a spending
binge if they get anywhere near the government benches in
Parliament, and then suddenly start hyping generous tax cuts.
That is even more the case following the release of the
Treasury-produced pre-election fiscal update, which had lower
growth forecasts than those in May's Budget.
Mr English's caution will be reflected in the ''fiscal
announcement'' expected on Monday, which will lay out the
fiscal criteria and conditions required to be in place before
tax cuts can be implemented in the next term of Parliament .
The trick will be sound definite that they will go ahead
without being absolutely definitive that they will happen.
With the Treasury warning a slump in dairy prices, slower
growth in incomes and a drop in private consumption could see
the country not getting back into surplus before 2018, Mr
English will be reluctant to commit himself to tax cuts he
• John Armstrong is The New Zealand Herald