John Campbell moderates the first debate between Jacinda Ardern and Judith Collins on TVNZ. Photos: Getty; TVNZ
John Campbell moderates the first debate between Jacinda Ardern and Judith Collins on TVNZ. Photos: Getty; TVNZ

PoliticsSeptember 22, 2020

Ardern v Collins: What to expect from the first leader debate of election 2020

John Campbell moderates the first debate between Jacinda Ardern and Judith Collins on TVNZ. Photos: Getty; TVNZ
John Campbell moderates the first debate between Jacinda Ardern and Judith Collins on TVNZ. Photos: Getty; TVNZ

John Campbell hosts Jacinda Ardern and Judith Collins on a crunch evening in the campaign. Here are 11 things Toby Manhire reckons you might see.

Tonight at 7pm the 2020 election campaign will – with a bit of luck – spring into life. A triangle of Js will take the stage at TVNZ’s central Auckland headquarters: Judith, Jacinda and John. It will be the first time, outside a few weeks of parliamentary question time, that we’ll get to see Collins and Ardern go head to head, with Campbell at the apex.

With the campaign to date operating under levels two and 2.5, opportunities to reach a crowd have been limited. There’s no crowd in the studio tonight, either, with Covid restrictions putting paid to that, but it’s nevertheless the first really big stage, and for all the inarguable appeal of Bondi Rescue on Three, the audience will be very big.

What sort of thing can we expect to see?

The poll wind 

Ending a six week desert, there will be an opinion poll unfurled at 6pm on 1 News tonight, serving both to whet the appetite of the audience and set out the stakes for the debate.

In 2017, the pre-debate poll was a humdinger, the peak of Jacindamania, suggesting Labour could govern with just the support of New Zealand First. The opening question from Mike Hosking to Bill English was: “Why are you losing?” Tonight, again, it will set a kind of momentum – which could on either side provoke either defensiveness or desperation. Unequivocally, Collins is the underdog. If she trails dramatically in the Colmar Brunton poll, she may decide to take any available risk.

Which Collins turns up?

On RNZ on Sunday morning, the doyenne of New Zealand political commentary, Jane Clifton, said she’d been waiting, so far in vain, to see the “charm and menace” that Collins is famous for. With the occasional exception, the National leader has been playing things carefully, almost subdued. That’s not without reason: in a time of such instability, and as the third National leader in as many months, some calm and continuity is arguably just as important to your base as tough Tory rhetoric. But if there’s a time for fire, it’s tonight. Will we see it?

The zingers

Given all of the above, Judith Collins could really use a killer line, and you’d expect her sharpest wordsmiths to have been hard at work in the zinger lab all week. John Key famously had “Show me the money” in the 2001 campaign debate – it was hardly Oscar Wilde and he was hardly Tom Cruise, but it hit the spot. Collins has four billion reasons not to attempt anything about showing the money, but a pithy, viral-optimised line would still go a long way. Shane Reti had a good line at the campaign launch on Sunday: Hard and early? More like “late and lackluster”, he said. Maybe borrow that. Or, I don’t know, show me the year of delivery?

It’s neither as necessary nor as on-brand for Ardern to go for the jugular, and Grant Robertson will no doubt accept the burden of reminding voters at every available occasion of National’s $4 billion fiscal miscount, but she’s sure to try a line or two prodding the nerves: the team of four billion, anyone?

Killing with kindness

Ardern is unlikely to deviate from the demonstratively nodding statesperson-like image she’s forged over the years of being prime minister. But kindness has its own venom, sometimes. The famous “I love you Mr Lange” croaked by Rob Muldoon at the end of the famous 1984 leaders debate is sometimes misunderstood as a response to the debate as a whole, rather than to Lange’s mischievous concluding remarks, in which he showered the incumbent PM in praise, saying how he admired the National Party and that Muldoon’s skills must be put to use in the difficult times ahead for the country – etcetera. It was disingenuous but brilliant, utterly disarming, leaving Muldoon to reply with a deeply sarcastic affectation.

This campaign has witnessed a version of that from Labour: Ardern and Grant Robertson have notably been busy praising the contribution and party of John Key and Bill English. The implication: you, Judith Collins, are no continuation from those halcyon days. It’s also infuriatingly condescending. And, as with Lange’s trick, it says to the voter who has ticked blue for years: don’t worry, it’s OK, come with us.

The details

A time-honoured tradition of political debates are the everyperson questions, and both candidates will be firmly drilled in the price of butter, milk and bread. Campbell may press for detail on a range of other areas: do the rivals for the most powerful job in the country have their heads around benefit levels, accommodation supplements, the farm-gate price?

Yes, Covid

It might be just about virally eliminated in the community, but it haunts every part of our lives. Unavoidably, too, it will be addressed directly in the debate – border operations, timing of loosening, vaccine plans – and transcend pretty much everything else. And yet …

The social gap

There has been endless talk about fiscal holes and debt ratios over the last seven days. There’s been a lot less about another part of the picture painted chillingly in the books laid out last week: a decade of high unemployment, and the terrible deprivation that comes with it. John Campbell has devoted a good part of his journalistic life to the human reality of all that. I’d be amazed if he didn’t want to talk about it tonight.

Short-term tax plans aside, both parties are gravitating to the centre; economic stimulus is essential, yet a lot of it further enriching the asset wealthy. Global gusts threaten flattening almost everything in New Zealand, but there is one mighty tree that will never blow down: house prices.

Look out for a decent focus, too, on the area Ardern cites as her political raison d’être – child poverty. Expect the Labour Party leader to be grilled on what’s been achieved and what hasn’t. The overarching question: is this transformation?

Ordinary people

Whatever the limitations of the campaign, be assured that everyone the leaders have met is filed into the “possible debate anecdote” part of the brain. Expect both to relate what they heard from a small business owner in Tauranga, or a preschool teacher in Carterton. Who’d bet against Ardern playing the jazz standard of mentioning all the letters she’s received from children.

The outriggers

Last time around then host Mike Hosking parked this issue for the first debate, but whether tonight or in the debates to follow, Ardern and Collins will be asked to answer for their would-be government partners. Ardern will be asked how much of the Green manifesto she could tolerate, with a particular emphasis on tax. Collins will be asked whether the harder edges of the Act Party platform are acceptable.

The globe

It is no new thing for political wannabes to draw comparisons with other parts of the world, whether upbeat or shameful, playing to New Zealanders’ pride. Tonight Collins will point to economic comparisons, arguing that the impact of the Covid crisis has been more painful here than elsewhere. Ardern will counter that New Zealand is much better placed economically than many others, and highlight particularly the relative freedoms afforded by elimination.


A lot of people like to get sniffy at voters who make their decisions based on character, on personal trust, on the way they feel about the rival contenders. What the last three years, from Christchurch to Covid, have unequivocally proven is that leadership is ineffably important. Tonight the candidates are likely to be asked to speak to that directly, and how they’ve shown leadership in the past. If that sounds a bit like the job interview from hell, good. It’s a pretty big job they’re applying for.

Keep going!