Anonymous Horotiu factory worker the unexpected star of leaders' debate

Labour leader Jacinda Ardern and National's Bill English made big promises to an anonymous Horotiu meatworker at the TVNZ leaders' debate on Thursday night.

That factory worker was promised tax cuts, free education and was told they'd be replaced by a machine. Ms Ardern accused Mr English of lacking ambition when it comes to young people, which Mr English refuted. 

Mr English first invoked the meatworkers when going after Labour on their plan to cancel National's tax cuts and implement a free year of tertiary education.

Meatworkers usually start work on minimum wage. Qualified meat workers can earn up to $66,000 a year, according to the Meat Industry Association of New Zealand. The example of a meatworker taps into wider election issues - lower-income workers, housing inaffordability and the regions.

Ms Ardern said she has been completely transparent about where increased funding for education and health would come from - not implementing National's tax cuts, cracking down on multi-nationals, closing tax loopholes for speculators and paying down debt a bit slower.

Mr English responded with one of his fieriest statements of the night.

"Transparency would require Labour first to look in the eye those meatworkers I spoke to yesterday in Horotiu and tell them they are going to take $1000 a year off them - because those people will get $1000 from the taxcuts that are legislated - take it off them to spend on making tertiary education a bit cheaper for lawyers. 

"Transparency would require the Labour Party to say what the rate of capital gains tax is, what the water tax is, how much the petrol tax is, whether they are going to have wealth tax, whether they are going to have some new capital gains tax-" at which point he was interrupted by the host Mike Hosking, possibly for excessive repetition about a capital gains tax. 

Ms Ardern later made a callback to the meatworker, referencing Labour's ongoing focus on the future of work, saying factory workers deserve free education, especially if meatworkers are going to have to grapple with automation.

"Bill, let me tell you what I know about productivity - and it has flat-lined at best in New Zealand - the OECD has come in and told us exactly what we need to do. We need to invest in our people and that's exactly what an economy should be about, and that is how we will lift productivity," Ms Ardern said.

"That factory worker that you spoke about in Horotiu - who's one day potentially going to be replaced by a machine - they deserve access to free education as much as a school-leaver. That's how you deal with the productivity challenge. That's how you change our economy."

But Mr English said business isn't run on "vague education promises and very expensive tertiary policy."

"They run on getting their costs down and their incomes up. That's something we understand. That's why New Zealand is one of the better performing economies in the developed world."

The debate also swung to the state of New Zealand's rivers, which both agreed need work. Ms Ardern said our rivers are "dying" and they should be cleaned up with a water tax on industry users instead of being paid for by every New Zealander.

"We don't need a water tax to clean up our rivers… I think what they'd like more is clean rivers where we don't need a water tax," Mr English said.