Toby Manhire watched the second leaders’ debate among a crowd of undecided voters at Q Theatre.
Maybe the afternoon meal of pulled teeth and gravel soup in the presidential debate emphasised it but, shit, that was a good debate.
Whether it was a motivational speech or a few Red Bulls, Jacinda Ardern had a different energy from last week’s first election 2020 leaders’ debate. She was up for it. In the first 10 minutes she interrupted Judith Collins three times as often as she did in the entire first clash. The muted not-angry-but-disappointed Ardern was gone.
Collins was up for it, too. She was poised to pounce whenever she got the chance (but not in a Trumpy way). In the eight days since the TVNZ debate the National leader has operated as if with a fresh set of batteries, and she didn’t let up tonight. She’s having the absolute time of her life and she doesn’t care who knows it.
Newshub had the advantage over TVNZ’s debate last week in the form of an audience – 100 of us sitting in the round at Q Theatre. I don’t know how that played on television, but it felt like there was a cheerful adrenaline in the room.
Patrick Gower was excellent: concise, organised and funny. He cast the debate frequently into the near and middle distant future. Such as a hypothetical Covid outbreak at Christmas, or a world without a vaccine. There was little to separate them there: both leaders backed the elimination strategy.
At times it felt like something out of Jane Austen. “Manners,” chided Collins at one point.
“Judith Collins!” declaimed Ardern later, saying she was “modelling a little good behaviour on the stage”.
Collins overplayed it, however, when Ardern demanded, “What’s your plan?”, responding, “What for, dear?” Such viscous condescension might have worked five years ago, but the undecided voters in the room didn’t seem to like it much at all.
Collins said the health system was “generally good”; Ardern said it was “broken”. How long would she need to fix it? “I need another term,” she said. “We’ll hold you to it, see you back here in three years,” said Gower, as if to acknowledge the reality of the polls.
Ardern struggled, however, on defending her refusal to state a position on the cannabis legalisation referendum. Here, Collins’ strongest suit – the conviction politician – showed Ardern up.
There were newslines, even: Ardern said she backed the spending on the Green School that landed James Shaw in such trouble – whereas Chris Hipkins had earlier seemed to disavow it. Judith Collins said a National government would jettison the firearms register. It would also legislate to seek reimbursement of greedy recipients of wage subsidy, which as Ardern noted is not something she’s said in the past. Both leaders indicated support for an inquiry into Pharmac, and for a four-year term.
And there were some excellent lines. Ardern on supporting a parliamentary term extension: “We don’t want to see you for another four years, Paddy.” Collins on whether she’d work with Winston Peters if he could pull off a miracle: “I do believe in miracles but he ain’t one of them.” Ardern: “The world is changing. Unfortunately Judith Collins doesn’t want to change with it.” Collins was very funny in her unbridled enthusiasm at the idea of appearing on the cover of Vogue. She almost toppled the podium at the thrill of the possibility.
There wasn’t a massive amount of philosophical territory to separate them – certainly there was plenty on either side for Act and the Greens to swim in. But there was, too, on the economy, on justice, on Ihumātao, and on style, a real sense of choice. There were moments of consensus, too. On period poverty, for example, they agreed that changes needed to be made. That’s several universes away from Trump and Biden. After the toxins of this afternoon, this was a tonic.
Read more the on the second leaders’ debate from Annabelle Lee-Mather, Ben Thomas, Madeleine Chapman, Leonie Hayden, Duncan Greive and Justin Giovannetti here.
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