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Jacinda Ardern and Judith Collins at last year’s Newshub leaders’ debate (Photo: Michael Bradley/Newshub)
Jacinda Ardern and Judith Collins at last year’s Newshub leaders’ debate (Photo: Michael Bradley/Newshub)

PoliticsSeptember 30, 2020

Leaders’ debate #2, election 2020: The verdicts

Jacinda Ardern and Judith Collins at last year’s Newshub leaders’ debate (Photo: Michael Bradley/Newshub)
Jacinda Ardern and Judith Collins at last year’s Newshub leaders’ debate (Photo: Michael Bradley/Newshub)

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

Duncan Greive: Collins finds her voice

The second debate was superior in every way. The staging and lighting more dramatic, the question lines more urgent, the leaders more determined to clearly demark the territory between them. Within the first half hour we had already witnessed two pin-down moments from a brilliantly prepped Gower which produced surprising reversals of the stock positions of Ardern and Collins’ respective parties. 

The second was Collins being comfortable admitting that “in some cases house prices are going to have to go down”, saying that would be a natural consequence of her RMA reforms. This only came in passing, but is a huge departure from a long-held National position that the only direction they should ever move is upward. Ardern, who resisted commitment throughout, would only go so far as to ask for stability. 

Still more dramatic was Collins’ response to a question regarding the wage subsidy. Gower asked whether the big corporations that received it prior to announcing redundancies and large profits should have to pay it back. Both leaders said they should, but Ardern believed that the moral obligation was enough, while Collins said she would be willing to change the law to make it happen. (The Warehouse was unfairly singled out by comparison with many other listed companies, and its ad that ran in a subsequent break felt cruelly timed.)

Tax lawyers I’ve spoken to are uncertain about whether a law change to force the subsidy to be returned is even possible, but it was still a breathtaking moment. This was National flanking to the left of Labour on an issue impacting many of New Zealand’s largest employers for the first time since Roger Douglas was finance minister. 

Collins is likely betting that there’s nowhere else for the big business vote to go – but the populist tack she signalled here continued throughout, and showed that after an oddly tentative campaign to date, National’s leader might have finally found her voice.

Duncan Greive is managing editor of The Spinoff

Madeleine Chapman: Line of the night goes to Collins

I have never laughed so much during a political debate. Some of it was good, like when Collins and Ardern exchanged petty quips about behaving and Collins called Ardern “dear” (a lovely variation on Miss Ardern). Some of it was in shock, like when Ardern confidently proclaimed that the $12m given to a Taranaki green school (a decision widely acknowledged to have been a mistake by other ministers) was a good thing. Or when Collins went out of her way to praise Donald Trump. And some of it was truly joyous, like when Collins very earnestly answered moderator Paddy Gower’s quickfire question about investigating allegations surrounding Gloriavale with “can I tell you I just think it sounds really weird.” She has never been more relatable than in that moment.

Outside of the clear winner above, the line of the night still goes to Collins, describing Phil Twyford as “my asset and Miss Ardern’s liability”.

Madeleine Chapman is a journalist and meme-based political commentator

Justin Giovannetti: Collins’ jarring defence of Trump

National leader Judith Collins dipped her toe into global politics near the end of the debate, with a defence of US president Donald Trump. Pointing towards a recent series of “peace deals” between Israel and first the United Arab Emirates, then Bahrain, Collins said that Trump’s diplomacy was “better than any of the other presidents that have been there before”. The question from moderator Patrick Gower was whether or not Trump is a dangerous influence in the world.

Labour’s Jacinda Ardern stayed with a safe answer and said she’d work with the winner of the US election. “I can give you something a bit more than that. I agree with Miss Ardern, you’ve got to work with whoever the leaders are, you don’t get to choose foreign leaders. But what I can tell you, he has done some quite recent stuff with Israel and UAE and also others. Actually, that’s better. That’s better than war, don’t you think? He hasn’t been ready to rush into war,” she said.

The recent deals between Israel and the two Arab states, despite being largely called “peace deals”, aren’t actually ending any hostilities. The so-called Abraham Accord is about establishing normal relations with the Jewish state, which means more trade, tourism, direct flights, scientific cooperation and an exchange of ambassadors. Most Arab states have until now refused to establish those relationships before an agreement is struck to create a Palestinian state. Trump’s “deal of the century” to create a Palestinian state has been a failure.

Beyond increasing trade, the reason for the normalisation agreements is to contain growing Iranian power in the Middle East. Trump has agreed to sell the UAE the most advanced fighter jet in the US arsenal, along with other military goods. Those fighter jets will now be a short flight across the Persian Gulf from Iran. The deal isn’t so much about avoiding war, as building a coalition to wage one on Iran if necessary.

The final quip from Collins about Trump was more enthusiastic in her support for the American president. “It’s a damn sight better than any of the other presidents that have been there before, including those that you admire Miss Ardern.”

Justin Giovannetti is The Spinoff’s political editor

Listen: Toby Manhire, Annabelle Lee Mather, Ben Thomas and guest Mihingarangi Forbes discuss the second leaders’ debate on this week’s Gone By Lunchtime:

Annabelle Lee-Mather: A couple of clangers, but nice moments too

Collins oscillated between her bossy school ma’am and petulant teenager personas. Ardern presented as a young leader comfortable in her own skin.

This is the Covid election and in that respect, Ardern has a massive advantage. She was able to draw on lived experience. It was powerful and believable and it made Collins’ references to an as-yet non-existent but failsafe border patrol agency seem fantastical.

Both showed a lack of innovation and detail on how to reboot the economy or address deprivation. While farmers came up over and over, the welfare system and beneficiaries were not mentioned by either leader.

Unlike the first debate, Māori were discussed by both leaders. Unfortunately it was mostly in terms of the problems they face rather than the solutions they can offer.

The lowlight of the evening was Collins referencing the Kahui twins and Delcilia Witika. It was unnecessary and disrespectful. Murdered tamariki are not political fodder.

Ardern’s clanger was refusing to answer honestly about which way she will vote in the cannabis referendum. Clearly she doesn’t want to alienate conservative supporters but implying it was because she didn’t want to influence voters does them a disservice.

A nice moment came towards the end when both agreed on addressing period poverty.

Judith Collins won the laughometer. Jacinda Ardern won the clapometer. Newshub won the debate.

Annabelle Lee-Mather is executive producer of Three’s The Hui and a third of The Spinoff’s politics podcast, Gone By Lunchtime

Ben Thomas: A higher-voltage affair

Judith Collins called the leader of the Labour Party “dear”; Jacinda Ardern denied using the name “Crusher” even in private, but did issue a curt “Judith Collins!” to break the National leader’s interruptions. The Newshub debate was higher-voltage affair than last week’s first effort.

Host Patrick Gower can take much of the credit. Short, direct questions resembled cross examination, and kept the candidates ruthlessly on topic. Things never got nasty; Paddy mixed up accusatory yes/no demands with light-hearted moments, but avoided fluff. Collins and Ardern were more energised but more relaxed, with both their personalities and concrete illustrations of policy clearly on display.

Collins seemed more willing to throw caution to the wind: saying that some house prices would have to fall, and committing on the fly to an inquiry into Pharmac (along with Ardern), a statue of Kate Sheppard, and a possible deputy prime ministership for David Seymour. She also seemed more willing to improvise, picking up and running with Gower’s questions about wage subsidies for large profitable companies for almost an entire segment.

This week the benefits of Ardern’s incumbency were more apparent, alongside the disadvantages. Her empathy seemed slightly off-key, with some emotive flourishes sounding more like set pieces, and flat answers on the costs of housing (even Collins said some prices must come down). Ardern was, however, much more statesmanlike and authoritative than last week, and particularly strong on early Covid questions – emphatically confirming she would be prepared to lock down on Christmas day in the case of a new outbreak.

Collins’ derisive laughter and sighs were an unnecessary distraction, but unlike the first debate the National leader did at times show her genuine emotional range, talking about a relative with cancer and guilty families closing ranks on child abuse.

The leaders were several steps up from their earlier performances. Collins probably edged out the contest of policies and answers; Ardern looked more prime ministerial by the end. It was a draw, but standing as an equal with Ardern in close to full flight raises her standing as challenger more than winning last week’s flat effort.

Ben Thomas is a public relations consultant and political commentator, and a third of The Spinoff’s politics podcast, Gone By Lunchtime

Leonie Hayden: Some big reveals as both leaders spill blood

What a spicy meatball. A far more interesting debate, with both leaders prepared to spill a little blood this time. Arden finally debated her opponent instead of the moderator, although annoyingly, Patrick Gower spent much of the first half interrupting each of them while they were answering questions to tell them they weren’t answering questions.

Ardern smoked weed. Collins has never met Dr Ashley Bloomfield. Systemic racism doesn’t exist, just racist people in systems. A tight 10 from Collins might actually be funny. These were the big reveals for me.

Māori were actually acknowledged this time, although depressingly our first mention was “Māori are arrested at three times the rate of non-Māori for cannabis offences”. A conversation about te reo Māori (tay ray-yo) was attempted for about a minute, but all three seemed slightly embarrassed and keen to move on (and I can only hope an apology is on it’s way to Harete Hipango for what Collins did to her name on national television).

One point that threatened to send me into histrionics was Collins repeating the lie that Ihumātao was sold to Fletchers by mana whenua. Considering National and NZ First have strong views on the subject, they’d do well to actually learn the timeline (Ihumātao has never been part of a Treaty settlement and was sold to Fletchers by a private owner).

My highlight was Ardern telling Collins to take a deep breath, and Collins replying with an “ooOOooooh!” so exaggerated you could hear it clutching a handbag. While Collins’ mirthless laughter will haunt my dreams tonight, slightly-tipsy-mum humour was the winner on the night.

Leonie Hayden is editor of The Spinoff’s Ātea section

See also Toby Manhire: How the second leader debate washed away the bile of the US presidential clash

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