Assessing Grant Robertson and Nicola Willis’s prickly finance debate, conducted in the narrow realm of what their leaders made possible.
Q+A devoted its full hour to a debate between Labour’s finance minister Grant Robertson and National finance spokesperson Nicola Willis, one which featured moments of lucidity and contrasting visions presented, all interspersed with regular bursts of jarring crosstalk. Host Jack Tame opened it with a result from Wednesday’s 1News/Verian poll which leaned on National’s most important political advantage this election: a powerful bad vibe sweeping across the country. The question showed a net 46% of New Zealanders think we’re on the wrong track, a number that was reflected in different ways by other poll results throughout the show, revealing an antipathy toward more taxes paying for climate change, or to reduce poverty.
It meant Willis was operating in relatively comfortable territory, and in keeping with its small target strategy, she stayed wherever possible with the National theory of this current government. Which is that it has swollen the back-office state, the branch of government that thinks about itself, while being indifferent to the delivery of frontline service.
Still, she came prepared for the big plot points of this snoozy election. After Luxon’s wobbly performance on Q+A last week, she came ready for Tame to press her on the underlying projections of her foreign buyer tax – but even he seemed to have become exhausted by the storyline and raised it somewhat half-heartedly.
Willis ploughed on anyway, picking up various documents from what seemed like maybe a full A4 ream in front of her. The visual gag of bringing printed receipts is becoming a meme within our politics, most recently seen with Chris Hipkins’ response to the critique of the CTU’s attack ads. Willis made it work visually by contrasting the analysis of National’s policy with a skimpy table associated with Labour’s GST cuts on fruit and vegetables (“carrots” continues to be National’s favoured vegetable to denigrate the policy).
Robertson has a structural advantage in having been finance minister for six years and possessing a near-total command of the government’s books. He has accomplished that Sir Michael Cullen trick of being respected if not exactly liked by the business community as a result. Given the bad economic vibes and the fact National brands itself as the party of fiscal discipline, it’s to his credit that a debate like this shaped as a steep task for Willis.
Tame opened with a question about the frequency with which Robertson has stayed within his operating allowances – somewhat technical, but crucial to his credibility in critiquing National’s tax plans. He parried it deftly with a nod at the wild events his government has faced – “when there’s a cyclone, you have to respond to that”. Robertson was most impressive when pressing Willis on how 6.5% savings could be found across government agencies without cuts to frontline staff. But more often he came off a little grouchy, regularly interjecting with muttered retorts while Willis spoke – a parliamentary style of debate that felt off, given their close proximity, seated around a table.
Tame was as well-prepared as ever, but occasionally struggled to rein in the pair, with all three talking over one another for uncomfortably long periods at times. He mentioned his distaste for “will you resign if…” as a question formulation, but still asked if Willis would “resign if you don’t raise the revenue you project” through the foreign buyer tax (she won’t, citing spending buffers). He was at his best when guiding them toward questions of reflection and philosophy, and away from the combative minutiae, but those moments were relatively rare.
At the end, the two finance chiefs shook hands, but it felt a little forced. There was none of the relative warmth that characterised the debate between the two Chrises earlier in the week. Both represent a different vision for their party than the more sanded down Hipkins/Luxon version, a point made when Robertson heckled Willis for having to climb down from prior support of a housing density accord. She could just as well have said the same of him on a capital gains or wealth tax. Ultimately that was the underlying sadness of this prickly encounter between two smart, principled people: that the country might have been better served if they were instead fronting the leaders’ debate.