New Zealanders go to the polls

Only taking the Labour leadership weeks ago, Jacinda Ardern’s popularity has seen pollsters put her party equal with the ruling National party, with each taking the lead in different recent opinion polls.

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New Zealand is gearing up for an election showdown: Labour’s youngest-ever leader versus the sitting Prime Minister.

Labour’s Jacinda Ardern is 37 and admits she’s young to be bidding for the country’s top job.

She acknowledges that sexism in politics is alive and well, with this exchange with one radio host rocketing her to international attention.

“It is totally unacceptable in 2017 to say that women should have to answer that question in the workplace …”

(Interviewer) “This is my point -“

“It’s unacceptable inb 2017. It is a woman’s decision about when they choose to have children and should not predetermine whether or not they are given a job or have an opportunity.”

(Interviewer) “Hold on! What-“

Since she became Labour leader just last month, her popularity has spawned its own phrase: Jacindamania.

The National Party’s Bill English has dismissed her as “stardust”.

At 55, and a career politician, he became Prime Minister when long-term leader John Key stepped down in December.

The last time Bill English was leader of the National party, they lost the 2002 election – badly – but this time around he’s hoping to galvanise the party’s base in this farming nation.

He has his own farm and conservative views and describes himself as “an active Catholic and proud of it.”

But he’s also open to changing his mind.

“I’d probably vote differently now on the gay marriage issue. I don’t think gay marriage is a threat to anyone else’s marriage.”

A former Finance Minister, he wants this election to be about the economy, something he feels the country trusts him with.

This election has become a choice between change and trust.

Do voters want the sort of social change Labour is promising?

Or do they trust the party who’s been running the show?

In Wednesday’s final leaders’ debate, those tensions were laid bare.

Ardern: “I think people looking forward to the future will already know what National will deliver. They’ve had nine years to test what it looks like. But has meant we’re left with issues now around some major areas of concern. So the question is, do we have vision around how to tackle those or will we just stick with the status quo?”

English: “Well we’ve got better solutions that you, which has become quite clear through the campaign…”

Ardern: “You’ve had nine years to trial your solutions and they haven’t worked very well.”

English: “Thge housing market is now going faster than it’s ever gone. We’re cracking into some of the most difficult social problems with social investment that no government has ever -“

Arden: “You discovered poverty last week, that’s what happened.”

English: “No we didn’t, no we did not.”

In their final statements, both were still trying to win over undecided voters.

English: “National has a p lan to take New Zealand forward, to build on our economic strength, which is now so well-established compared to the rest of the world.”

Arden: “I fundamentally believe that New Zealanders are united and agree on resolving some of the big, tough issues that we face. Under my leadership, we will have action – there’ll be no more auto-pilot.”

In this race to the finish, every little counts.

Political analyst Mark Boyd says perceptions of Jacinda Ardern have changed.

“Certainly in the earlier debates, two and three weeks ago, all she needed to do was be there. She needed to hold her own against Bill English and that was a win because she was the underdog. Now she’s not so much the underdog, she’s been ahead in a couple of polls and people have got to know her. I think she held her own, he held his own. I’d call it a draw.”

But on the streets of Auckland, opinion remains split after the debate.

“I think they both supported their arguments really well, I think for me personally it’s just about her fresh perspective and the energy that she’s bringing to it and her level of passion and commitment.”

“He had the best answers. He came across as the mature politician and Ms Ardern came across as a wee bit soft, needs a bit more weathering.”

It’s a view that many National supporters share and which appears to have pushed the governing party back into the lead in this week’s opinion polls – something Bill English is drawing comfort from.

“Confident but knowing there’s an awful lot of hard work to go. This is a very tight election. It’s a drag race bewteen the main parties and I don’t think anyone can be really confident until they’ve seen the numbers come in, and even then it may be sufficiently close that it takes a couple of weeks of countinmg to determine where the country goes.”

Still, Labour’s Jacinda Ardern remains optimistic.

“Absolutely hopeful. We have given this campaign everything and we believe we’re in a good position to win.”

Unlike Australia, voting is not compulsory in New Zealand and Ms Ardern has told SBS voter turnout will decide this election.

“We’ve certainly had the suggestion that there’s a lot of youth support out there. We know that traditionally they’ve been less likely to vote. Time will tell whether or not this election will be any different but I think if they do turn out, they’ll determine whether there’s a change of government.”

Despite Labour’s apparent energy and appeal, many first-time voters say their friends don’t share their interest in politics.

“Half of my friends either don’t want to vote or they can’t be bothered or someone’s told them not to vote so they won’t. It’s hard to create your own opinion.”

“Some of them have voted but a lot of them – probably more – haven’t and just can’t be bothered. A lot of them don’t really care, they’re not really involved with politics and everything.”

Both party leaders have already cast their own ballots alongside what political analysts estimate to be more than one million advance voters.

It’s a huge proportion of the just over three million people enrolled to vote, out of nearly five million New Zealanders.

The country operates on a Mixed Member Proportional System – what they call MMP.

Each voter will actually vote twice: once for who they want to represent their electorate, and once for the party they want to see in power.

Although some of the Parliament’s around 120 seats go to electorates, most are divided between parties in a complex system designed to make sure representation is proportional to votes.

It means small parties can wield enormous power as king- or queen-makers, depending on who they choose to form coalitions with.

So even as results emerge in the hours after polls close on Saturday night, it could take weeks to form a government and identify the Prime Minister.