Jacinda Ardern and Judith Collins at the second TVNZ leaders debate, 15 October 2020

Final leaders debate: The verdicts

Two days out from the election, what did we learn from tonight’s final leaders debate? Here’s what our debate watchers thought. 

Justin Giovannetti: The tank is empty

Judith Collins is done. The feeling that will stick with me from that debate came afterwards when the leaders faced the media in the atrium of TVNZ. Collins, the National leader, looked to tap her final burst of feistiness and couldn’t find it.

The tank is empty, she’d so clearly like this all to be done.

The last time I saw Collins in person was a week ago in Christchurch after the Stuff debate. She was the Collins I was used to seeing, full of quips and eyebrow. Always a response for every question. Since then she’s had a bad walk down Ponsonby Road, faced questions about obesity and falling polls.

I came tonight with questions to ask her but just let her go. She so clearly didn’t want to be there.

Labour leader Jacinda Ardern had been there moments before. She fielded questions in the same way she has in recent weeks. She was present and ready. She even seemed ready to increase the fight. If National continued, as it has for the past two weeks, to attack Ardern with the Green Party’s tax policies, then Labour would fire back with the public service cuts proposed by Act.

“A blatant campaign of misinformation that I’m putting an end to,” said Ardern during the debate. Collins, who has either won the debates before tonight or fought to something near a draw, didn’t rise to the challenge. “I would never stand here and blatantly call someone a liar and that’s what Judith Collins is doing right now”.

Then came Collins’ moment with the media. She had dropped internal polling showing that her party’s previous leader Simon Bridges had been in the mid-20s. She’s refused to talk about the polling before, why now? It was previous polling she said, next question.

Did she win the debate? She’ll let other people decide. It was better than last week’s debate in Christchurch where the crowd was fighting her.

Justin Giovannetti is political editor of The Spinoff

Madeleine Chapman: Dear God, let this be over soon

Did anyone watch this debate? I genuinely fell asleep at one point, I suspect somewhere around the point when both leaders were fighting over who would more successfully not bring down the price of housing. Maybe I’m just fatigued but the whole debate felt like a rerun of an episode you didn’t really enjoy the first time around.

A new topic was the issue of fruit pickers, or rather the lack of them. Both Collins and Ardern agreed that finding pickers (likely from the Pacific) was a priority and something they’d look into. What neither mentioned was the pay or conditions that would be offered these now ‘essential’ Pacific workers. Maybe I’m being cynical but I suspect the desperation currently on display from growers won’t translate into higher pay for migrant workers, nor will it be a priority for whoever’s in government.

Line of the night goes to Judith Collins who answered a question at length and ended with “Do you know what? There’s nothing wrong with having a sense of humour.” I agree, Judith! Turns out the question was “Will your faith play a role in governance?”

Forty-six more hours and we’re all done with this.

Madeleine Chapman is a journalist and meme-based political commentator

Toby Manhire: Exhaustion – and a rare moment of tenderness

Tonight Collins and Ardern were seated at the 1 News desk in Studio 3, and for much of the debate they might have been reading the 6pm bulletin. The occasional glimpse apart, there was little interaction, and they proceeded about their tasks in a focused, serious mode.

There was no interaction between the women in the commercial breaks, either; Collins chatted with some of her team while Ardern looked at her phone and checked her notes, though there was, of course, the obligatory snap for the ‘gram.

Things heated up a bit in one of the final segments, when the question of the Greens’ call for a wealth tax walked into the studio. It’s been the primary attack line of National’s closing campaign chapter, and Ardern had clearly practised her response: she went straight down the barrel, saying Collins, in an act of desperation, had called her a liar. The message was delivered not to Collins, nor moderator Jessica Mutch McKay, nor those of us in the audience, but straight into the living rooms. Ardern’s calculation, a calculation backed by poll after poll, is that New Zealanders trust her.

Collins had moments, but in the stand-up afterwards appeared to have lost the energy that she seemed to absorb from the first two debates, as if personifying Ardern’s remark in the debate that “some people will actually be done with the election”. Ardern, too, like everyone, will be glad to see the back of it, but for her it’s different. She can confidently say that she won’t stay on as leader if she loses, because she knows she’s not going to lose.

There was a tender moment at the end of play. Mutch McKay asked each what they’d like to say to one another. Ardern lauded Collins for her speech after March 15. Collins lauded Ardern for the sacrifices made in taking the role of prime minister. And for the first time across the four debates, as best I can recall, she called her not “Miss Ardern”, but “Jacinda”. “I love you, Mr Lange”, it wasn’t quite. But it was something.

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

Trish Sherson: Collins crushed it

I wasn’t looking forward to tonight. This week the election campaign jumped the shark and I wasn’t interested in the final episode. But, wow. The self-styled “Crisis PM” appeared to be on high alert. Judith Collins, in contrast, was lethally calm. I enjoyed every minute.

In the four-match series of leaders debates it’s 3-1 to Collins, I reckon. The gap in the polls might be massive, but Collins has managed to get under the skin of Jacinda Ardern and rattle her. Non delivery, Phil Twyford, wealth tax – after weeks of Collins tapping these soft spots, Ardern seemed pissed off tonight. Judith Crushed it.

This debate had a new plot twist we haven’t seen before, when both leaders were asked “will faith play a role in your government?” I hope not, or we’ll be into the type of weird reality show that is US politics. But the show’s over, folks, and frankly I’m pretty proud that we have had two strong lead actresses in this series of NZ elections. Jacinda might be back in the PM’s seat for the new season, but Judith has also cemented her place in the leading role for National.

Trish Sherson is co-owner of corporate affairs firm Sherson Willis and a former press secretary of Act.

Ben Thomas: A muted debate, and a foregone conclusion

Is there anyone else here? Was there ever anyone else? And where am I?

I can hear sounds, distant, like through water. Two voices. Fruit can’t rot on the vine. Strong and stable. Failed to deliver. Miss Ardern. Jessica. Jessica!

How long have they been talking. How long have I been here. Jessica?

The final leaders debate was a muted affair, Jacinda Ardern and Judith Collins seated at a desk, and seemingly too tired even for interjections any more. Well rehearsed lines about border security, about housing, about everything, had the effect of comforting political ASMR.

Unlike the mid-campaign promise-bonanza of the Newshub debate, host Jessica Mutch McKay could not goad the candidates into nationalising the St John ambulance service on air.

Perhaps that’s because while much is still at stake for the leaders and their parties, the prime ministership is not. Collins’ clear pitch was for deserters from the National cause, a plea for centre-right protest voters to come home from the New Conservatives, New Zealand First and Act. She spoke much more about what needed to be done than what National would do in government. As an opposition display, it was top class, especially during the one high energy exchange where she lashed Labour’s lack of delivery under the guise of concern about the wealth tax.

Ardern was prime ministerial and gracious, as well as evasive on key questions like border exemptions for seasonal workers from our Pacific neighbours. The debate was a no contest, each leader had left the campaign behind and already started on the next term.

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: Was there really any point?

If you are an undecided voter, I’d be surprised if tonight’s affair changed your mind. After the Newshub and Press debates, it felt a bit timid.

That being said, there was one new revelation: Jacinda Ardern will not stay on as Labour leader if she loses the election. Ardern said she’s been around politics long enough to know that if she doesn’t win on election night, she won’t be wanted by her party.

The other biggie in tonight’s debate was Ardern finally putting a nail in the wealth tax coffin. It’s been canvassed a lot in the media, but it’s largely been an issue that’s arisen in the period since the last leaders’ debate. Ardern took the opportunity to call out the “misinformation” regarding a wealth tax and whether it will be implemented under her leadership, and it was the first moment in tonight’s debate where things almost took off. If you are an undecided voter, it’s possible you missed the media discourse over the past week about the Greens’ wealth tax, so Ardern’s choice to go hard against it was wise.

But, of course, 1.56 million of you have already voted. Does any of this even matter?

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



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