Politics

The final battle: A fight to the death in the last English-Ardern debate

It was make or break for Daenerys and Stannis Jacinda and Bill tonight on the back of a horrorshow poll result for Labour. So did either deliver a knockout blow?

Duncan Greive: this election is going to be incredibly close and I don’t know who will win

An original take, I know, but to be fair I spent much of the debate’s preamble and first half talking with Mike Joy and Sean Plunket. The TOP versus Greens tension is ricocheting into quite fascinating places, a mini-drag race (albeit with wildly unequal polling) which is, in truth, as interesting as the big show. What we saw tonight was essentially the entire campaign, distilled. English: dogged, stolid, indefatigable. Ardern: passionate, idealistic, frustrated.

Neither could claim it as a win, though in the aftermath of a freaky poll Ardern had a greater need to dominate. In that vacuum Hosking again edged the politicians – weakened by the flu and gassed in the second half, he was nonetheless often brilliant. It was an intimate physical setting, mirroring that of his ZB desk setup, and he looked the most at home of any of them. During that first half he hectored and harangued them both, impatient to snap them out of prepped lines. As the end drew near the politicians took over and he glazed a little.

Who could blame him? It’s been a long campaign, and even the most hopeless political addict is now running on fumes. Bring on Saturday, and Saturday night – on tonight’s showing, Tom Sainsbury has had the most accurate view into exactly how our prospective PMs are feeling

Screengrab: TVNZ 1

Simon Wilson: Ardern failed to land a death blow.

Jacinda need to crush Bill tonight. Land those body blows, leave him looking like he wasn’t sure what day it was.

She was never going to do that with reason or calm reassurance, and certainly not with relentless positivity. The defining characteristics of her campaign have been phenomenally successful, but at this point, like the campaigns of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, they have not been successful enough.

She needed to go, This man is a liar. She needed to go, This man is lost for ideas. All the National Party does is nothing, they do nothing until they work out what people are upset about and then they copy our ideas and pretend they are their own. They’re fighting poverty? Give me a break, they discovered poverty last week. They’re building houses? They still won’t commit to building houses. They’re putting money into mental health? They have no idea what to do about mental health.

She didn’t really do that. She needed to go, Booya! I see through you! And have Bill, even for a moment, lost for words.

She didn’t do that either. She did say “You discovered poverty last week” and it’s a good line. But she didn’t build it into a great moment.

She didn’t nail him on the fuel pipeline fiasco, which is surely an outrageous failure for a government that’s been so proud of building resilience. She was good on free trade agreements and foreign buyers of NZ property, and pretty good on the town and country divide that National is stoking, and very good on health.

But Bill sat there projecting a settled confidence. This battle is either the adult vs the smug and stupid old fart, or the flighty young thing against the adult. Blow for blow, I thought Jacinda won easily. He had nothing. Really, nothing at all. But he still sat there, projecting himself as the dependable adult. She didn’t knock him out.

Meme: Madeleine Chapman

Annabelle Lee: The winner on the day was… that giant desk

It’s amazing what a difference a desk and a couple of tūru can make. The seated format changed the dynamic of the leaders debate – English forced to face Ardern instead of ignoring her in his peripheral vision. Ardern used the seating arrangement to her advantage, interjecting with her own questions about National’s policy and at one point challenging English to look at her and state that he stands by the assertion that Labour has an 11 billion dollar hole, which he did sheepishly.

When it came to talking about the actual hole (the one in the fuel pipeline) English sounded like the leader of a party running on E. But as you would expect from the Southlander, when it came to the rural divide he was able to evoke the wairua of the good old Kiwi battler, passionately championing the cause of hard working, salt of the earth farmers who are being unfairly picked on by meany environmentalist and townies. It was great to see a reasonable chunk of time dedicated to the issue of health, but even the Hosk seemed unconvinced by the PM’s arguments. Both Ardern and English gave as good as they got and played well to their respective strengths (him: it’s the economy stupid. Her: kids are living in cars stupid) so no clear winner other than the desk which could double as the iceberg in the remake of The Titanic.

Ben Thomas: A plodding draw

Jacinda and Bill English completed their respective Hero’s Journeys tonight – returning to the TVNZ headquarters where this year’s excruciating debate series began approximately one million years ago.

Both have grown through the campaign. At that debate, English admonished the audience that you can’t go to the supermarket with values; the next week that we couldn’t replace our tunnels with a vision. Yet within minutes tonight he had enthused to Hosking about how interested voters were in his vision on the campaign trail, and closed the evening by talking about the two visions on offer in the election. The blind now, can at least, see.

It was also a harder English that emerged. Rightly challenged on his characterisation of Labour scrapping planned tax cuts as a “tax rise”, he doubled down. Asked about the now-notorious $11 billion, he nakedly misrepresented the argument and its outcome saying economists agreed there was a “hole” (no economists agreed, either on the accounting or the metaphor). Hosking slumped in his seat exasperated, but Ardern’s response of surprise rather than fury failed to settle the matter for anyone unfamiliar with the facts (still a possibility even after the last few exhausting weeks). She called him “mischievous”, which fed into English’s narrative that it was all just a typical politicians’ semantic playfight.

Ardern’s own vision, expressed during the election period as a concern for the children in poverty and locked out of homes, didn’t make an appearance until the dying minutes. It was her strongest moment, but not enough to save the debate from being a plodding draw.

Madeleine Chapman: Please, god, can this be over now?

This debate was so boring. Usually I can do screengrabs while also remaining engaged but by god, I felt like I was watching a family argue at dinner. Interesting to hear Bill (followed by the National Party twitter page) double down on the “Labour is going to raise income tax” line despite being told in no uncertain terms by both Jacinda and Mama Mike that that was untrue. Mike Hosking was the most engaging yet again, asking all the follow up questions that each candidate wanted to ask but were too slow to articulate. When Jacinda told Bill “look me in the eye” regarding his insistence that Steven Joyce (very much wrong) was right about the non-existent $11.7b Labour fiscal hole, I expected her to follow up with an “I’m the captain now” to make all my meme dreams come true. Instead I could only manage some uninspired memes from an uninspiring debate.

Meme: Madeleine Chapman

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