With an election looming, New Zealand lawmakers wrap up rowdy final session

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — New Zealand lawmakers rushed Thursday to pass legislation and criticize opponents during a rowdy final day of the nation's 53rd Parliament.

With an election looming in six weeks, lawmakers will now switch focus to the campaign trail. Opinion polls indicate the opposition conservatives hold a slight edge over the incumbent liberals.

Lawmakers took just two hours to introduce and pass a new bill to ensure some violent sexual offenders will be kept under long-term supervision. Then a fiery debate session began, with loud cheers, laughter and groans. At one point, environmental protesters interrupted by unfurling a banner saying there were too many cows, before security guards escorted them out.

Nicola Willis, deputy leader of the opposition, took aim at Grant Robertson, the finance minister.

“Does he think he has been a good steward of taxpayers' money when government spending is up 80%, our hospitals are in crisis, educational achievement is in decline, and many New Zealanders feel worse off?" Willis asked.

Robertson replied that the government was getting high marks from ratings agencies and had helped low-income families and beneficiaries.

“Confidence is rising, spring is coming, the member should cheer up,” he said.

Former Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern won the last election in a landslide. But the Labour Party’s fortunes have turned since then as many people wearied of COVID-19 restrictions and felt the impacts of high inflation.

Ardern stepped down earlier this year and Chris Hipkins took over as prime minister. Hipkins axed many contentious polices to focus on the rising cost of living.

Tax has become a major election issue, with both parties promising cuts.

Hipkins says his party will remove the sales tax from fruit and vegetables and cut taxes for lower-income families. The opposition National Party, led by Christopher Luxon, promises to cut income taxes, with relief aimed at the “squeezed middle.”