NZ Election 2020: Paul Goldsmith faces off against Grant Robertson on finance, crystal balls and the 19th century

Labour finance spokesperson Grant Robertson says his National Party counterpart Paul Goldsmith must have a crystal ball, to be able to confidently set an unemployment target of 4 percent.

National has promised to get unemployment back to where it was before the pandemic by 2025. But Robertson says "nobody can" promise that, with both the local and global outlook so uncertain due to COVID-19.

Treasury's latest forecast has unemployment peaking at 7.8 percent in March 2022, "before easing to 5.3 percent by June 2024" - unlikely to reach 4 percent by the following year. 

Even by 2034, it's picking unemployment could remain above 4 percent - the COVID shock is that bad. 

Robertson and Goldsmith went head-to-head on the economy on Newshub Nation on Saturday morning. They started by discussing National's promised 16-month tax cuts.

National has claimed its tax cuts are aimed at middle-income earners, a line Goldsmith reiterated.

"It's absolutely targeted at middle-income earners. The average full-time gets about $64,000 a year - they'll get about $3000 in the hand. If there's two of them, they get $6000. So we're targeting middle New Zealand - people who work hard - and giving them some of their own money back."

For someone on $64,000 a year, they'd get an extra $47 a week. But while statistics show $64,000 is the mean, it's not the median - only 25 percent of people earn more than this, most earning less. The median income is about $55,000 - people earning that will only get $26 a week.

Those on minimum wage or not working fulltime will get about $8 a week. 

Paul Goldsmith.
Paul Goldsmith. Photo credit: Newshub Nation

'Completely unaffordable'

Robertson said Goldsmith's plan is "completely unaffordable".

"What we need to be able to do is invest in the public service that all New Zealanders rely on in health and education," he said.

"And actually, doing things like lifting the minimum wage is likely to have more of a stimulatory effect because we know people on low incomes spend the money that they get. Lifting the minimum wage would put $44 a week into someone's pocket - Paul's plan would put $8 a week into that same person's pocket."

Asked if targeted cash grants like those given in the US would work, Robertson said they don't.

"The research is now coming through that particularly the people Paul's focused on, those on the upper-income bands, actually just kept the money. They didn't spend it - they saved it." 

Goldsmith said he preferred tax cuts, even if they gave more back to higher-income earners.

"We think when people work hard... we think those people are finding it tough, and some extra money in their pocket will make a real difference to those families." 

Grant Robertson.
Grant Robertson. Photo credit: Newshub Nation

'Zero empathy for the needs of small businesses'

As for Labour's plan to give workers more sick leave - 10 days, double the present five - Goldsmith said it was just "piling on" more costs for small businesses they can't afford. He added that the Government has "zero empathy for the needs of small businesses".

Robertson rejected this, citing the recent wage subsidy, cashflow loans and support for taking their business online, and said giving Kiwis more sick leave would actually help small businesses.

"New Zealanders are pretty stoic - they go to work when they're not well, they actually make their colleagues unwell at the same time... COVID-19's shown to us it will be good for all New Zealanders." 

The wage subsidy was praised by some for being simple, quick and easy to access, but has come under criticism for perhaps being a bit too easy. Some firms that took it have since posted massive profits, faring better than they might have expected when the country first went into lockdown in March.

National leader Judith Collins recently said they'd change the law to claw that money back.

"The leader said, quite rightly, New Zealanders are very upset at the prospect of companies having taken the wage subsidy and turning out to still be very profitable and laying off workers," said Goldsmith.

He said it would be a "last resort".

Robertson said it wouldn't happen under Labour, as it would undermine confidence.

"It's really important for the Government to stick to its word and provide certainty. If they met the criteria then they were eligible for the funding. If they then choose to return it because things are looking better for them out in the future, that's a good thing." 

Nearly $500 million has already been given back. 

'This isn't the 19th century'

As for the looming rise in the minimum wage if Labour holds power, Goldsmith again said it would hurt small businesses. National has promised a two-year moratorium on "changes in regulations and policies that add costs to Kiwi businesses".

Robertson said it wouldn't be a cost because minimum wage earners spend their money at local businesses, so they'd get it back.

"We flagged this increase as far back as the end of 2017 - so there's an element of certainty here. People know that this is coming and they know they'll be able to absorb it because that money gets spent again."

The pair also bickered over how much the world has changed not just in the past 10 months, but two centuries, after Goldsmith accused Robertson of living in a fairyland.

"The only fairyland is one where trickle-down economics actually works," said Robertson.

Goldsmith replied: "This isn't the 19th century".

"The problem is, it is for you. That's the problem," said Robertson. 

Voting is underway, with the nominal election day in a week's time.