Ben Thomas watched the Stuff Leader Debate and, unlike The Spinoff’s editor, calls an emphatic win for English.
If the ghost of any of Canterbury’s rugby greats had appeared to Jacinda Ardern as she prepared for tonight’s debate it would have reminded her, “You can’t win without the ball”.
Yet the Labour leader found herself in trouble early at the Stuff Leaders’ Debate debate by giving away possession to a newly confident Bill English. Questioned by moderator Joanna Norris, Ardern would almost immediately then throw over to English by interrogating his record. It was a baffling tactic, perhaps intended to put him on the spot. But if English has anything, it is answers. Exhaustive, list-like recitations that attest to both the Prime Minister’s policy knowledge and lung capacity, and which smothered Ardern in the first half of the debate.
On water quality and tax, even when given a platform to move the crowd on child poverty or rile it up over Steven Joyce’s budget disaster, Ardern instead opted to give English a pop quiz that he has been studying nine years for.
He challenged her, substantively, once: to explain why migration flows with Australia had been reversed, and she was found genuinely stuck for an answer for the first time in the campaign. In full flight, his familiar line about “a confident country that can grow on the back of that diversity and that dynamism” sounded suspiciously like a vision. It was English’s best debate so far, and Ardern’s worst.
Both out of towners were flayed by the audience during the final, Christchurch-focused stage of the debate. Ardern failed to excite with a promise of $300 million and “more project managers”, while English faced outright hostility over his assertion that the future of the cathedral was the most important issue facing the city, because “that’s how the rest of the country sees you”.