Leaders’ debate #1, election 2020: the verdicts

Who came out on top in tonight’s leaders’ debate? Here are our debate watchers’ verdicts. 

Toby Manhire: Everyone is knackered

Given that most of the country, most of the Covid-battered world, is basically just knackered, is it any surprise that tonight’s opening debate felt a bit knackered, too?

Jacinda Ardern and Judith Collins walked down to the studio past a watching huddle of journalists, surrounded by their entourages. We (the huddle of journalists) watched on monitors; the leaders were permitted just two aides with them in the room.

Whether it was in an attempt to inject energy into a mostly empty level 2.5 room, or because TVNZ budget cuts don’t extend to a third podium, John Campbell burst into the studio with just a clipboard, and proceeded untethered and effusive, promenade style. On it went in little circles, Campbell pacing around his patch, Judith Collins rolling her eyes at the efforts from the Labour leader – or “Miss Ardern”, as she resolutely called her opponent all night.

We began on Covid and border measures, and quite right, there are few more pressing and important issues, but it was hard to distinguish from the hum of the last months. The debate livened up around the tax question, and on housing, and a casual observer would have got a decent grasp of the different positions on offer – which is important and welcome. At the halfway point, Ardern literally rolled up her sleeves. She animated suddenly in saying, “I am not done on child poverty.” Collins landed a dig on capital gains tax with a flex of the eyebrow.

There were no viral moments, though. “I tell you what, we’ve got a fight on,” said Collins. And: “I’m a fighter, I never give up.” But you won’t remember those in 10 minutes, let alone three weeks. She was effective and unrelenting, but anyone expecting the polling doldrums to spark a risk-taking high-wire act would come away disappointed. And, honestly, who can blame her. The predicament is real. Both of these are true: she needs to do something noisy to make a difference; people aren’t in the mood for noisy. A Covid-19 catch-22.

But, look, in tonight’s Colmar Brunton poll for 1 News, Collins registered 18% as preferred prime minister. A lot of people, no doubt, have in their heads the Crusher caricature. If she’s done something to disabuse that, then it’s a small victory in its own way. Ardern seemed, well, knackered – but she did nothing wrong, and had the lightest moment of the night. When Campbell looked lost for a moment she said: “You can be expected to lose your train of thought at this point”. Campbell said: “Time for a gin.”

A few shots at the outset might have helped. Things never quite fired up. So the when Campbell, who did a good job at keeping things rolling, at one point observed, “You sound like you’re both on auto-pilot,” he was mostly right, except that would have required leaving the ground.

Toby Manhire is the editor of The Spinoff


LISTEN: Toby Manhire, Annabelle Lee Mather and Ben Thomas discuss the leaders’ debate and more on this week’s Gone By Lunchtime


Trish Sherson: Collins was pitch perfect

I’ve always been a Collins fan girl. But I tuned in tonight worried I’d feel like an 80s Billy Idol fan at Western Springs when The Idol had lost his voice and I couldn’t get my money back.

I was wrong. The real Judith Collins turned up tonight. Collins talked straight, was pitch perfect, relaxed and in charge, warm and authentic. Jacinda Ardern seemed nervous, forced; it felt like a Covid-19 update.

It was real life practicality vs “hopeful thoughts” and feelings. This was not the Facebook Live broadcast format that Jacinda has mastered. Politics, at its heart, is about debate. Real politics is live, off script, a contest of ideas with tough questions. Collins owned it.

Will it win the election for National? It’s a long shot. Did it confirm to the National faithful that Collins is the woman for the hour? 100%. Did it turn the worm … absolutely. But the line of the night goes to John Campbell: “I wouldn’t mind a gin.”

– Trish Sherson is a political commentator, former Act press secretary and PR practitioner

Morgan Godfery: Ardern is impossible to beat

“I never give up – I’m a fighter,” Judith Collins said mid-debate, and she’ll need every bit of fight she can muster after a performance at the bottom of the ruck. The prime minister had it all over her: on the border, on housing, on education, and in personality.

“You’ll see no complacency and no assumptions,” Ardern said, bringing the necessary humility when – given the circumstances – she could blow her trumpet to everyone’s delight. She leads the global left. She’s storming home in the polls.

But, of course, Ardern is so much smarter than that. She is the most gifted communicator of her generation, emphasising the government’s coronavirus response and border protection boxing in Collins and her party who swing between “open it all for the economy’s sake” to “lock it all down for our poll numbers’ sake”.

It’s an uncomfortable position for Judith Collins, who you would expect to thrive in this environment, especially after Ardern’s flat performance in the TVNZ debate in 2017. The debate stage isn’t the prime minister’s natural home. It’s the community hall. It’s the school. Yet Collins still couldn’t take the advantage, only landing brief hits (like correctly pointing out the prime minister committed to ending child poverty and, well, she hasn’t). It’s half-time and Ardern is impossible to beat.

Morgan Godfery is a political commentator, writer and trade unionist

Ben Thomas: Ardern was strangely hesitant

Under the evolving MMP rule that major parties don’t deign to share a debate stage with minor parties, Labour leader Jacinda Ardern should probably have been standing in the middle of TVNZ’s Auckland studio alone last night. The earlier Colmar Brunton poll had National on 31% and Labour at 48%, on track to govern alone.

But Ardern was strangely hesitant. National leader Judith Collins started off slowly, with the fixed smile she’s worn for much of the campaign. But she soon warmed to the task, and seemed to effectively niggle and provoke Ardern with more of her traditional toughness. Collins’ best moment was child poverty, where Ardern (the minister in charge) struggled to explain herself, her worst when she kept repeating the acronym “RMA” to a probably large, oblivious proportion of the huge audience.

Around 45 years ago Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier met for their final boxing encounter in Manila. As Frazier backed Ali into the corner, Ali, the champ, mouthed to him “They told me you were finished Joe!”. The normally taciturn Frazier replied: “they lied.” Collins won, as underdogs often do in the first debate of a campaign, but faces a long road ahead.

Ben Thomas is a commentator, former National ministerial adviser and PR practitioner

Justin Giovannetti: Who’d have been swayed?

Labour’s Jacinda Ardern found herself often on the defensive, forced to explain why her party hadn’t lived up to the promises it made three years ago. Her answers were often technocratic and lacked warmth. Someone who has been called one of world’s best communicators struggled to explain her vision. Asked about how she’ll create jobs, she delivered: double duty, waterway projects, free school lunches. That’s for the cabinet table, not a fireside chat with the nation.

National’s Judith Collins was the better debater and certainly the better interrupter. Going in tonight her party has been sliding in the polls. Voters who have dismissed Collins were introduced to someone who spoke plainly and clearly. You can understand what she believes in, you’ll remember that she hates the Resource Management Act.

However, moderator John Campbell often found himself interrupting the interrupter. When asked about her plan for poverty reduction, Collins responded with ripping up the RMA. Campbell was incredulous, voters were probably confused.

Your take on the debate might come from where you watched it. If you were in the comfort of a warm home you own and worried about losing your job, Collins may have spoken to you. If you were in a rental apartment you can barely afford, losing a battle with mould, she probably left you seething.

Justin Giovannetti is the Spinoff political editor

Madeleine Chapman: Mālō, Judith

Debates are where many, many words are said and only the zingers are remembered. Unfortunately tonight’s debate was, quite frankly, quite boring. The only line from Ardern that stuck with me was “John, if I may” and “if I may, John”.

And from Collins, “I’ll tell you what, John” and “John, I’ll tell you what”. In a huge loss for anyone under the age of old, both leaders argued about who could commit the hardest to not taxing property. In my mind, we all lost tonight. And I will spend the next seven working days of my life fake-smiling and announcing “my husband is Samoan, so talofa” to everyone I meet.

In that sense, Judith Collins won simply by saying something so ridiculous that she’ll be living rent-free in my brain until the next debate. Mālō Judith.

Madeleine Chapman is a journalist and meme-based political commentator



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