Jacinda Ardern and Bill English during the Newshub leaders debate. Pic Michael Bradley/Newshub
Jacinda Ardern and Bill English during the Newshub leaders debate. Pic Michael Bradley/Newshub

PoliticsSeptember 4, 2017

Ardern v English, round #2: Ben Thomas, Annabelle Lee, Simon Wilson and more on the Newshub debate

Jacinda Ardern and Bill English during the Newshub leaders debate. Pic Michael Bradley/Newshub
Jacinda Ardern and Bill English during the Newshub leaders debate. Pic Michael Bradley/Newshub

Bill English and Jacinda Ardern met this evening in their second big campaign set-piece, this time with Patrick Gower moderating. How did they fare? 

Ben Thomas: The drag race is on

Jacinda Ardern’s second debate and probably her whole campaign could be summed up by her response to Bill English rattling off statistics about impressive wage growth with, “My question is ‘how do people feel?'”. Her performance was assured, strong and emotionally intelligent – a step up from the more formal and nervy TVNZ contest – and short on detail. She lampooned English for lacking a vision – “a tunnel is not a vision” – but her campaign remains more impressionistic than hi-res.

English countered that you can’t just “close all the tunnels and have a vision instead”, an opportunity to reprise his “shopping with values” zinger from the first debate, which foundered as he warned that we would have to give up “projects” and “orange cones”.

However, he debuted what appeared to be a new child poverty reduction target of 100,000 fewer children in poverty under OECD measures. This seemed to involve accepting Labour’s long demanded measures for child poverty, but allowed English to be an unlikely winner in that segment.

Unlike the minor leaders’ debate also hosted by TV3, there was no toast to absent friends: the Greens and the memorandum of understanding went unmentioned, Winston Peters was summarily dismissed by both leaders, national’s coalition partners were forgotten. The drag race is on.

The lasers emanating from Ardern’s coat-tails were turned off early in the piece. Grab: Newshub

Annabelle Lee: Conviction and passion

“I think Jacinda was the winner tonight. It’s one thing to be relentlessly positive, and it’s another thing to debate with conviction and passion, and I think that’s what we saw this evening, as opposed to her last performance.

“I think the biggest change has come from Jacinda. We’ve seen her interject more, we’ve seen her defend her policies, instead of standing at the lectern shaking her head. It seemed that Bill was still going after her weak spot, being tax, but I think perhaps that he also runs the risk of people becoming a little bit jaded by that argument.”

She said this on the television and we wrote it down

Toby Manhire: Much more direct and dynamic

After the pick-up sticks of Thursday night, this was a much more direct and dynamic affair. It benefited from having a bigger audience, from the length, and more than anything from the fact that Bill English and Jacinda Ardern had some match-fitness. Patrick Gower was good, too, even if he disappointed a nation by failing to say, “This is the fucking debate”.

The second phase of the debate centred on Steven Joyce and Bill English’s assertion today that there is an $11 billion hole in Labour’s manifesto numbers. While on Thursday the amazing poll numbers pumped a sedative gas into the first debate, tonight the row over fiscal mathematics hovered in the air. While experts including Brian Fallow and Keith Ng had substantially backed Labour’s accounting, and the central claim of an “$11 billion hole” was left looking shaky at best, English chose to stand by that. “I tracked every dollar for eight years as the finance minister… I know that how they’re counting it leaves a huge gap,” he claimed.

Ardern rejected the claim – a “complete fiction” – and held aloft a folder full of Labour’s audited costings, but to my mind she was too quick to shift to the suggestion that ordinary people just saw “two politicians bickering”, and then the customary gear shift to values. That felt like a concession. Still, there will surely be more analysis of the fiscal duel. More experts will say their piece tomorrow, and if it’s shown to be at core baloney, then English has to own it.

Then there was the child poverty commitment – 100,000 children to be brought out of poverty, came English’s surprise pledge, apparently on the hoof. We’ll see whether it amounts to more than smoke and mirrors, particularly given National’s long-standing obstinacy on agreeing to a formal measure of the problem, but under the lights of the debate it deprived Ardern of a clear win on her strongest subject. That said, she did round out the exchange with one of her strongest lines: that eradicating child poverty was the fundamental reason she was in politics in the first place.

There were lots of good lines. The best of the night was when Ardern found herself questioning whether English’s appeal to Auckland’s strength via the Wateview development amounted to a vision. “It’s, ironically, a tunnel,” she said. And when English attempted to navigate the conversation towards the social investment approach, Ardern leapt in with, “Bill, it’s called early intervention, and Labour was built on it.” (She addressed him as “Bill” maybe 20 times; he used her name just once: “This isn’t about me and Jacinda.”)

English was quick, too, such as in brushing off Winston-based questions by saying, “Paddy, this isn’t some sort of auction.”

English over-reached on the fiscal hole scare tactics and at times his new-found energy tipped over into barking. Ardern sometimes overegged the “but how do they feel” approach. Both were very good. But neither is likely to have nicked many voters from the other.

Madeleine Chapman: Jacinda flakey but Bill dragged to doom by bad Young Nat memes

I watched this debate with three people who were using it as their first look into this election ie a completely neutral audience. As far as yes or no questions, Jacinda won easily. No to abortion being in the Crimes Act, no to Trump. These are easy questions to answer when you’re the leader of the opposition and don’t have to hold a current relationship with the world’s most powerful nation.

They’re also emotional questions. Things that people are either strongly for or strongly against, and she came out on the right side of both. But when it came to actual policies, Jacinda is still too flakey. Most of the policies, present and future, that Bill put forward, I didn’t like. But at least I know what they are. Unfortunately for Bill, his Young Nats put out two more terrible memes (one ‘borrowed’ from a bipartisan meme account – see below) so he loses just because of that.

Two bad memes (left) and one good one from an actually good meme account

Revisit the first debate, with verdicts from Guy Williams, Annabelle Lee, Ben Thomas, Emily Writes, Simon Wilson, Toby Manhire, Morgan Godfery, Duncan Greive, Madeleine Chapman and Tom Sainsbury, here

Simon Wilson: Ardern won, but the big issues were allowed to evaporate

Twice in this debate, Bill English identified a really big idea. Twice, it wasn’t spotted by Paddy Gower and was allowed to drift past by Jacinda Ardern.

The first was when English said Ardern wants to “get rid of the orange cones, stop the projects, just live on the vision”. English was saying his government’s construction programme meets the needs of our fast-growing population, especially in Auckland, but Labour has no plan.

In reality, National’s road cones represent a massive programme to keep private vehicles on the roads, while Labour wants to fast-track light rail and other public transport projects. It’s definitely an alternative plan. This is a debate about how cities work, how people and freight can move around efficiently and, yes, about climate change. Ardern managed to say the words “light rail”, but Gower was moving on and that was that.

The second time was when English tried to explain social investment, his government’s radical approach to welfare. That got shut down by Gower. The corollary came later, when he also refused to let Ardern explain why she is opposed to the super-targeted approach of social investment.

Both transport and welfare should be at the heart of this election. The parties’ policies are strikingly different and they help define the kind of society we want to live in. But with all the glamour of the fight, they were, yet again, cast into the shadows.

FWIW I think Jacinda Ardern won, again, because nothing happened to undermine her claim to credibility as a PM in waiting. And that’s become the only real issue now. Bill English did very well, but he needed a knockout and he didn’t land it. Astonishingly, the $11 billion dispute over Labour’s budget costings, which could have given him that knockout or could have knocked him out, was simply put to one side. That was hardly believable at all.

Bill English and Jacinda Ardern trade vision and values. Paddy’s just watching. (Image: Michael Bradley/Newshub)

Duncan Greive (watching live in Manukau): do they secretly like each other?

It was a brutal setup. Essentially debating in the round, a small stadium full of people stacked and staring – a far more multi-dimensional environment than the intimate, focused situations typical for big televised debates. The crowd was at once big enough to roar and small enough that a botched line hung helplessly in the air.

I’d seen Paddy Gower play warm-up at The Nation’s minor leaders’ debate, and he was electric – playing a hapless, meandering character. He killed. Here though, he was focused, maybe too tight. He’s been exercising, off the drink for a week, preparing like Conor McGregor. Three has been slightly behind in this election – TVNZ’s polls are a few days early and containing bigger shocks. Gower, ferociously competitive, will be seething.

He’s right to be a ball of nerves. This moment is sufficiently rare that he might might well only get one in his prime. You could tell that he and Ardern were very conscious of that. English can be a little too unflappable, and seemed near-oblivious to his predicament. He soldiered on after a slow start, and stretched to a halfway lead (I kept a tally of applause lines, because there is something wrong with me*).

But this was a 90 minute grind, so a deficit was eminently recoverable. English seemed comfortable with his progress, checking in briefly with advisors before wandering the crowd. He chatted with young voters (“make sure you’re enrolled” he said, without much conviction) and with the editor of an online publication (“oh, it’s you” he said, without much conviction). Across the room, Ardern thumbed her notes.

Something clicked. She gave, respectively, sharp and nuanced answers on abortion and drug law which brought heat from a youngish crowd, while English and his cursed Catholicism equivocated their way to a silent room. Ardern snuck away, connecting emotionally to the audience, while English, despite asking fair questions of his opponent, appeared the remote technocrat of his unfair stereotype at times.

Then it was over.

Just before the end came, during the quickfire round at the end, each was asked which of the other’s MPs they’d take for their own team. Each took an easy out  in naming a retiring member, but watching the debate at times, you wondered if they wouldn’t have been happiest to have their opponent on their side. English, the National PM setting shockingly steep poverty reduction targets. Ardern the Labour leader, adamant, she won’t raise income tax.

These events have been remarkable for the knife-edge backdrop, and adroitly hosted by both Gower and Hosking. But it’s hard to escape the sensation that, despite the growing gulf between their parties, these people secretly have a lot of time for one another. And the debates are held in check as spectacles as a result.

*For the record, I had Jacinda (23) winning a tight one over English (19.5) on applause-line points

Emily Writes: A big moment from Jacinda on abortion

This debate was bleak. It really just felt like three people arguing at each other. Not only does Paddy speak in monotone punctuating. Every. Single. Word. But he just couldn’t get answers. He needed to be harder. His questions were great though and I thought Bill English waffling about whether politicians can lie really set the tone for the whole debate.

It wasn’t enjoyable to see him pushed into finally acknowledging child poverty in New Zealand. It was awful watching him smile through answers about how we should be proud to be “fifth lowest” for the gender wage gap. I was appalled when he said he needed an extra $1000 for his six kids, how am I supposed to have faith in his budgeting abilities if he can’t get by on his enormous wage? Calling the pre-fabs our children are stuck in “modern learning environments” was a grim joke.

For me the biggest moment of the debate was Jacinda Ardern categorically saying she would take abortion out of the crimes act. This is huge for those women who have been fighting for abortion law reform since the 70s. Having Bill English suggest the current law where women have to lie and say they’re mentally ill was working seemed a telling way to end the debate. He seems to think that is just what we should all have to do sometimes and that’s OK apparently. I know who I trust and it’s not Bill “Giggles” English.

Keep going!