By Alex Tarrant
Labour Party leader David Shearer says talk of any leadership challenge is merely rumour, and that this weekend's party conference will be a chance for the party to showcase its policy platform, which could be boosted by the announcement of new housing policy.
While Shearer on Monday would not be drawn on any possible policy announcement at the conference, there is talk that Labour is looking to loosen restrictions around KiwiSavers buying a first home.
Whether that will be the big policy announcement touted for the conference is yet to be seen. However, housing was "obviously an issue that affects many, many New Zealanders," Shearer told media in Parliament buildings.
Currently, KiwiSavers who have been in the scheme for more than three years can get a subsidy of NZ$1,000 for each year they have been a member, up to NZ$5,000, to contribute to a deposit on a first home.
To be eligible, buyers must have a combined gross annual income earned in the last 12 months of NZ$100,000 or less (before tax) for one or two buyers, or have a combined gross annual income earned in the last 12 months of NZ$140,000 or less (before tax) for three or more buyers.
Houses are also subject to maximum price caps, which are: NZ$400,000 for Auckland, Wellington City, Selwyn District and Queenstown Lakes District, and NZ$300,000 for all other areas.
KiwiSavers also cannot currently withdraw the NZ$1,000 government kickstart or any government 'member tax credit' contributions when withdrawing their savings for a first home purchase.
Meanwhile, Shearer said the party conference was a chance for New Zealanders to hear about Labour Party policy stances, rather than just the usual reactive responses to government announcements.
But media coverage is still likely to focus on Shearer's hold on the top job, and potential leadership challenger David Cunliffe, particularly if Shearer fails to fire in a major speech at the conference on Sunday.
"It's an opportunity for us to put our agenda across. Whereas normally in opposition you're reacting to the government," Shearer said.
"It's also about being able to express ourselves and our policies and get them out there for people to hear," he said.
Shearer was not expecting any challenge to his leadership.
"It's not about a challenge. There is no challenge, so there's no issue," he said.
"They're rumour and talk."
The conference was a chance for Labour to express its stances on jobs, education and a new way of approaching the economy.
"I see it as a real opportunity. We don't get very many opportunities in opposition. This gives us a real chance to get our message across to New Zealand."
Shearer did not accept the party had been sluggish in the opinion polls.
"We've halved the gap between National and Labour in about eleven months. We are closer together than we have been in the last five years. So that's a pretty good record. I'm very happy where we're going and where the trends are going," he said.
The speculation about the leadership was due to "bloggers talking to each other."
"And I'm surprised that others have been asking these questions," Shearer said.
"I am doing a good job as leader because Labour has come up in the opinion polls, and National have come down. The gap between us is only about ten or eleven points now. That is closer than we have been in the last four or five years," he said.
Shearer would not be drawn on what the touted policy announcement at the conference would be.
However, "we will be talking obviously about jobs, housing is obviously an issue that affects many, many New Zealanders," Shearer said.
"It's on the minds of lots of New Zealanders as well. The affordability of housing and being able to get into that first home," he said.