Key and Goff go head to head

Labour leader Phil Goff and Prime Minister John Key have crossed swords for the first time in the 2011 election campaign in a head to head debate tonight.

The management of New Zealand's recent disasters were a focus - the Pike River mining tragedy, the Canterbury quakes and the Rena grounding - and there was a heated exchange about whether Mr Key was a "liar''.

It was the first chance for voters to see how Mr Goff performed in such a forum - and Mr Goff spent much of the debate addressing Mr Key directly, calling him "John'' and challenging him on his record, saying 100,000 more New Zealanders had moved to Australia under Mr Key's watch and he had given himself a big tax cut while giving little to the poor.

In response, Mr Key said Labour's policies would rack up $17 billion of debt, force businesses to lay off staff to meet higher Kiwisaver contributions and a higher minimum, and that Mr Goff was "spending like a drunken sailor.''

The pair got into a tense exchange after Mr Goff accused Mr Key of being a "liar'' by promising not to increase GST after the election.

Mr Key responded angrily, saying he did not call Mr Goff a liar because he had respect for the office of Leader of the Opposition.

Mr Goff responded by saying that he did not do so lightly.

"But you have to respect the truth.''

The subject also came up later in the debate, when the politicians were asked whether it was ever all right to bend the truth.

Mr Key said it was a 'dynamic' world and he had tried to keep every promise he had made - but National had to abandon some policies, including a round of tax cuts, because of the global environment.

"Sometimes circumstances change .. but I've been very careful about keeping my word to New Zealanders.''

However, Mr Goff said there was never a time when a politician should lie. He believed his record was based on integrity, but said Mr Key had gone back on promises not to touch Kiwisaver, Working for Families and GST.

After the debate, Mr Goff said Mr Key introduced a new word to the English language "dynamic.''

"That means you can actually change your story, promise one thing and do the opposite, but that's because the environment is 'dynamic.' Those are weasel words.''

He said he had enjoyed the debate and had tried to directly challenge Mr Key because it was the first chance to confront Mr Key one on one.

"I think John Key spent too much time making up excuses rather than giving solutions.''

Mr Key said he took exception to being called a 'liar,' saying Mr Goff had misrepresented what he had said about GST.

"It's a very strong term and I don't believe I've every used that about Phil Goff. I'm not a liar.''

He believed he had defended National's record well _ and cast questions on Labour.

"They do have a $17 billion hole in their policies.''

During the debate, when asked what his biggest mistake in office was, Mr Key said it was the handling of the buying of the new Crown BMWs.

Mr Goff stuck to message more closely - saying that the biggest mistake from his time in politics was selling state assets, something he learned from.

"John Key, you haven't learnt that.''

The debate covered the more controversial policies fronted by the two parties for the election - with Mr Key saying Labour's promises were costly and would rack up $17 billion in debt.

Mr Goff said leadership was about having the guts to make the hard decisions - a reference to his policy

"I'm not doing it as a form of self flagellation - it's because I know, and New Zealanders know, that we cannot go on the way we have.''

Inside the TVNZ studio, both appeared slightly nervous when they first entered the debate in front of an audience.

They did not look at each other or interact at all during the first two ad breaks, but after that they began to interact with the audience.

One of the Pike River miners' relatives, Neville Rockhouse, asked what would be done to recover the bodies from the mine.

Mr Goff said it should be a precondition of any sale of the mine.

Mr Key said money was not an issue, but it was a dangerous matter.

"I don't think politicians can make that decision to go in - it was one of the saddest days of my life going to see those boys off at the memorial service - but I am not going to overrule the experts and send another 15 brave men in there to lose their lives.''

Mr Goff said he did not believe the safety rules had been strong enough.

Mr Key said he did not believe the Government could have done more to prevent the damage caused by the Rena's grounding, despite Mr Goff's claim that Transport Minister Steven Joyce "sat on his finger'' rather than act.

"Yes, people get frustrated, and I share their frustration - it's very, very annoying.''

However, he said everything possible was done. He also did not believe the Rena incident should warrant a ban on deep sea mining.

Asked what he felt strongly enough about to march in the streets, Mr Key said "equality of opportunity''.

Mr Goff said he had marched to stop mining in national parks, to support low fees for ECE, and ACC fee hikes. He also had some sympathy for the Occupy Wall Street movement that had spread through the world.

- The New Zealand Herald

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