In the most obscure yet symbolically important debate of recent elections, Ardern attacked English with a pitiless fury. Duncan Greive recaps the massacre.
Christchurch has lately been where Labour’s dreams go to die. Phil Goff and David Cunliffe both walked into The Press (now Stuff) debates with faint hopes and left with them in tatters, wandering off to sit on the log of despair for three more desperate years.
So this debate is a dichotomy: by far the least-watched of the major engagements (at peak there were a little over 14,000 on the YouTube stream), but also the most consequential, thanks to the echo of what happens in that hall.
This year: same again. Only now it was National leaving bloodied and bowed. Ardern came in transformed – aggressive, confident, on the balls of her feet and bursting. Boxing analogies are both horrifically clichéd and irresistible, so closely did it resemble Mayweather’s waiting and watching and, when the time came, striking.
The first two debates will now be remembered as a feeling out process: finding range, assessing weakness and strength. But from the first tonight Ardern was fired up: turning to face English, interrupting him constantly with short, pointed phrases designed to disorientate.
“Who agrees with you Bill?” was the first, as he tried to defend Joyce’s beleaguered $11.7bn hole. Over and over, and he had only limp answers. That grenade of an attack on Monday looked like brutal realpolitik tactical genius on Tuesday; it has now exploded in their hands, attacking the very core of the party’s strength: its economic credibility.
Next, “take a breath, Bill”. This came after he stumbled – at her prompting – in a mealy-mouthed defence of Joyce’s attack. It wasn’t even necessarily fair: English is calm to a fault, near unflusterable thanks to that epic command of facts and his cinder block-solid argument construction. Yet the jabs winded him, and with her mic significantly louder it made the generational divide yawn: the slick young contender against an opponent who had seemed in the midst of his prime, suddenly creaking with age.
That’s the thing with power: when it’s in your possession, it feels like you’ll hold it forever. Like no one can wrest it from you. English and his party and his generation have had it for so long they no longer remember what life is like without it. The instincts which brought it to you, how hard you had to fight for it – they atrophy through lack of use. In this way Labour’s years of internecine squabbling, giving way to bland incompetence – that functioned as a kind of rope-a-dope, training National to forget that Labour could ever be good again, or that youth might ever rear up and take what you hold the way you once did.
Ardern was helped by brilliantly subtle moderation from The Press’ editor Joanna Norris. She asked well-framed questions, but knew when to get out of the way. The town hall format, facing out to the audience, meant that to address the opponent was a very deliberate act: Ardern turned to face English over and over, interjecting so frequently it walked right up to the edge of obnoxiousness. What it conveyed was “I am not afraid”.
English, by contrast, kept his eyes mostly ahead. Where in the first debates that came off as a prime ministerial remove, now it verged on fear: not wanting to see the creature alongside him. They talked about rivers and Christchurch and Winston, and there was a dissonance. English was squarely where he lives, surrounded by that epic command of facts and detail. Ardern, meanwhile, was over-reaching, walking past accusing government of water intransigence and into suggesting farmers have done nothing. English pounced – “that is an insult” – and yet nothing happened. Ardern adroitly manouvered out and recommenced her aural assult.
The whole section was breathtaking as political theatre. Ardern was using all the tools employed by predominantly male politicians to upset their adversaries: the interjections, the jeering, the sarcasm. In their hands it often comes off as patronising. In hers it felt furious, imperious.
There was a prolonged break prior to Tracy Watkins tagging in, during which they apparently drank a lake’s worth of water, though the reality was technical difficulties were at play. It’s debatable whether Ardern’s camp or English’s would have been more insistent that the mics were sonically levelled – she was in danger of hectoring; he of disappearing entirely.
During the break, at one stage he wandered – as he tends to on breaks – off into the darkness, away from the spotlights, while Ardern remained at her lectern. It felt poignant: this thoroughly decent man donating a perfectly doomladen metaphor to all watching.
The moment was seized upon by Ardern, who dialled back the intensity but not the pressure. Watkins helped her cause, using a quote from Mainfreight’s executive critiquing his government’s accountant’s approach to governance. “It’s a bit ironic coming from a freight operator benefitting from the biggest roading increase New Zealand has ever seen,” he replied, without any great passion or logic. Later he began to respond to the audience’s heckles, even though they were inaudible.
Again, a sadness crept in.
By the end Ardern had relaxed. It’s not in her nature to be cruel, to overplay a hand. She did as she has done so adroitly this past month, and turned the closing moments into a kind of one woman This is Your Life. “You’ve seen tonight two passionate politicians”, she said with sincerity, “and I don’t doubt Bill English’s passion for this country.”
Outside of the truly tribal, few would. But the way she said it made the event feel like a retirement ceremony. Like she was giving English his gold watch and thanking him for his years of devout service. Such is the way she’s responded to this moment that all of Labour’s myriad problems – its deputy’s shakiness, its tax policy’s absence, its MOU-partner’s implosion – they just melt away.
Ardern really didn’t say a lot that was concrete tonight. English would doubtless have uttered dozens more numbers. But she turned the visionary advantages of challenging into a far greater weapon that the doughty work English made of his incumbent’s tools. Most of all, she made you feel like he’d had his turn – “it’s been nine years, Bill” – and now, by rights, it was hers.
When coupled with that savage poll result, placing National in the thirties, it felt like a night when the shift calcified. Which is ludicrous, with over two weeks to go and all kinds of water to flow. But National is under a brilliant sustained attack, essentially from one woman. It needs to relearn how to fight – and quickly.