Jacinda Ardern and Judith Collins at the 2020 Press Leaders Debate

Third leaders’ debate: The verdicts

Who came out on top in the online Press Leaders’ Debate tonight? Here are our debate watchers’ verdicts. 

Duncan Greive: Ardern is the superior communicator. Tonight, she finally showed it

The hoary boxing cliché says that styles make fights – that different yet complementary techniques will produce a better spectacle. Through the first two debates both leaders seemed reluctant to play to type, Ardern excessively restrained, Collins too moderate. At times they were almost comically agreeable, as with the grand coalition which closed out Gower’s rapidfire questions last week.

In Christchurch each reverted to their more natural posture, perhaps due to an extremely ill-tempered opening cracking their cool. And in so doing, Collins played right into Ardern’s hands. Ardern had incredible control of her voice and body language, and deployed an expression which read as a kind of polite exasperation to masterful effect. Collins, by comparison, had the air of a head teacher dressing down the school for an end of year stunt, a dismissive, humourless scolding.

As Matthew Hooton noted, Collins was trying to win over (and often ended up battling) the audience in the room while Ardern wanted the one at home. As the debate wore on the gap between them yawned, and the room grew less and less fond of Collins’ combative style, warming to Ardern’s poise and precision.

In the last few minutes Ardern unleashed, sending a breathtakingly crisp volley of taunts about the “nine years” National had to fix the problems discussed on the night. It whipped the crowd into a frenzy, every fresh phrase landing on target. Afterward she beamed as the crowd roared, relaxing into the knowledge that this was the first encounter in which she had operated somewhere close to her potential as a communicator.

Collins had been baited into treating it like parliament, playing to the town hall pugilism – it was the first time they’d gone at it in front of a full room, and she misread the moment.

She looked like she was having the time of her life for much of it. Yet when Collins and her team watch the highlights it will be clear that she radically underperformed, stumbling and hectoring as the night grew long, while Ardern maintained a rare calm, biding her time until her opponent was wide open. Despite what Collins has insisted on calling her throughout the campaign, Ardern didn’t miss.

Duncan Greive is managing editor of The Spinoff

Madeleine Chapman: Faafetai, Judith, we get it

I know there was a whole political debate but I can only think about one thing and that is the fact that Judith Collins can’t get through one whole debate without talking about Sāmoa. Sāmoa is Mariah Carey and Collins is Eminem and this is doubly funny because National were successfully sued by Eight Mile Style and Martin Affiliated for ripping off an Eminem song in a 2017 campaign ad.

Tonight it was a rehash of last week’s claim that Sāmoa closed its borders a month before New Zealand did. In reality, Samoa closed its borders one day after New Zealand did. When Collins brought up Sāmoa’s Covid response again tonight, Ardern (correctly) disputed it and Collins responded by snapping “DON’T DISRESPECT SĀMOA”. Kalofae. Here I was thinking that I could make a pretty penny out of producing “my [blank] is Sāmoan“ t-shirts and then Collins comes out with an even more marketable slogan. I will personally give Collins 500 tala (NZ$283) if she can refrain from mentioning Sāmoa until the election. We’ve all taken a gag too far so I can empathise but seriously, we gettt itttt.

Collins has been embracing her combative side since last week’s debate and tonight she may have oversold it, arguing with hecklers and so on. In Sāmoa, this is described as“botsing it”, but Collins already knows that.

Madeleine Chapman is a journalist and meme-based political commentator

Toby Manhire: No ‘unity moments’ here

Shortly before the break, after testy exchanges on freshwater reform and climate change in which Judith Collins and Jacinda Ardern talked all over each other, co-moderator Luke Malpass switched tack to the question of a four-year term: could they find consensus on that? “Thank you for segueing to a unity moment,” Ardern said, welcoming something they might find common ground on after the election.

Collins was having none of that. “Miss Ardern couldn’t even talk to us about flouride,” she snapped. “So I’m not sure she’s going to talk to us about anything.” The crowd booed. “And the unity moment has gone,” laugehd Ardern.

That exchange summed up a boisterous, uneven and entertaining debate hosted by Stuff and the Press newspaper in Christchurch. Collins started well, with a series of acknowledgements beginning with Ngai Tahu and ending with Gerry Brownlee, because “I know he and the Press have such a close relationship” (Brownlee loathes the Press). On the Covid response, Ardern’s accurate rejection of Collins’ claim that Sāmoa acted a month earlier than New Zealand prompted “Don’t disrespect Sāmoa!” In keeping with the policy making process of recent weeks I half expected her to announced retrospective legislation to outlaw a lack of respect for our Pacific neighbours.

Having no doubt studied the previous three Press debates, Ardern looked to trap Collins by asking what the party’s fiscal plan had as operation spending for year one. Collins had the number: $800 million, but Ardern had a question. “What will be cut?” she demanded, twice. Show me the cuts, she might as well have said.

But the combativeness that served Collins well in the first and especially the second debates this time tipped into untrammelled negativity. Troubled, perhaps, by some heckling from the audience, Collins’ buoyant energy was missing. Where Ardern looked focused throughout, Collins was at times untethered, as if surprised she was there at all.

Toby Manhire is editor of The Spinoff and a third of The Spinoff’s politics podcast, Gone By Lunchtime

Leonie Hayden: A firmer Ardern and a meaner Collins

God love a lively crowd. The energy in the room was clearly a driving force in tonight’s debate, with the audience getting into the panto spirit and booing the answers they didn’t like, along with plenty of heckling. John Campbell would never allow it. Good thing he wasn’t there.

What I thought were the wheels falling off for the moderators early on was actually a well-planned strategy to give the leaders plenty of runway rather than having them quickly rattle off bullet points and move on. This also gave a little more space for some of the traits we’ve glimpsed in the previous debates to really develop, the result being a firmer Ardern and a meaner Collins. Where Collins seemed delighted with everything that came out of her mouth in the last debate, she seemed exasperated and aggro this time; the bon mots were replaced with barked interruptions and the audience didn’t like it at all.

Can a lowlight also be a highlight? Because Collins incorrectly asserting that Sāmoa closed its borders and/or went into lockdown a month before New Zealand and then yelling “Don’t disrespect Sāmoa!” when challenged, like a drunk person that has been wronged, was very funny but also completely deranged. She needs to stop using the country as her personal campaign football, it’s becoming quite distasteful.

Elsewhere she returned to her deeply held belief that National’s tech policy can fix everything – education, the economy, find a cure for AIDS presumably, and now it’s their single biggest response to climate change. Ardern named the Zero Carbon Act, of course. The section on EVs, climate and green energy was the most those subjects have been discussed so far, and it was refreshing to hear some decisive policy leadership from Arden, and to find that she herself drives an EV.

Hats off to the Stuff team for the line of questioning about what every day items cost and how much teachers and nurses earn (Collins’ favourite societal tide mark) – a really simple and elegant way of assessing whether our leaders live in the same world we do. Both leaders did better at the Price is Right quiz than I expected, but neither aced it.

I’ll give credit to Collins for acknowledging Ngāi Tahu in her opening statements, but for me it was a resounding win for Ardern.

Leonie Hayden is the editor of The Spinoff’s Ātea section

Ben Thomas: Canned lines edge out substance

The Press Leaders Debate was born out of the wreckage of the Christchurch earthquake. Its rowdy and parochial live crowd, with a sense of often deserved grievance as the city rebuilt, made it the most confrontational of the campaign clashes for prime ministerial hopefuls.

This year, the audience was well behaved (except for some awkward heckling of Judith Collins). The confrontation came from the candidates themselves. CNN and the Guardian web staffers will have a much harder task this week piecing together a kindly and condescending supercut to contrast the lovely antipodeans with America’s presidential chaos.

Collins got the crowd most animated on the subject of Covid-response, blaming the second lockdown on poor testing and “letting people come in on planes with Covid”, and by slamming the Green School funding. Ardern made the most impact talking about the economic response and, incredibly, received applause for thundering that a poor Covid plan would mean “we-will-lose-our-brand!”

Perhaps it says something about the debate that (in keeping with last week’s revelation that the candidates are barely acquainted with a red meat diet) neither had any clue how much lamb cost at a supermarket. But both knew the price of a Netflix subscription. Going back through my notes I found there wasn’t a lot of substance, but a big increase in prepared lines, interjections and thundering denouements. In a battle of brands, Brand Ardern came out on top tonight.

Ben Thomas is a public relations consultant and political commentator, and a third of The Spinoff’s politics podcast, Gone By Lunchtime

Stewart Sowman-Lund: A bloodsport debate, with a clear winner

Tonight’s debate was as fiery as the last, but for the first time this election season Jacinda Ardern came out on top.

Perhaps thrown by 24 hours of leaking from within her own caucus, Judith Collins seemed on the back foot from the get go, eager to throw herself defensively at any statement the Labour leader made. It made for compelling television, but did little to prove Collins should be our next prime minister.

It was most noticeable, for me, during the audience questions at the end. Collins was asked if she would ban conversion therapy if elected. She was happy to speak around the issue, but refused to say definitively if a ban was on the cards.

Moments later, Ardern refused to say how she voted in the cannabis referendum. Suddenly, the issue of needing to give a straight answer became important to Collins – who latched on and went for the jugular.

Collins has previously said that politics is a bloodsport: from tonight’s debate she made it clear she truly believes that, and it did her no favours.

Stewart Sowman-Lund is The Spinoff’s live updates editor



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