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leaders debate feature

PoliticsAugust 31, 2017

Debate #1: Guy Williams, Annabelle Lee, Ben Thomas, Emily Writes, Simon Wilson and more on English v Ardern

leaders debate feature

Who won – Jacinda? Bill? A surprisingly competent Mike? A range of commentators from The Spinoff and all points on the political spectrum weigh in.

Duncan Greive: Mike Hosking is still really good at this one thing

Everyone from party leaders (with some justification) to activist movements wanted him gone. I myself wrote recently about his style being from a different era, that of the supremely confident and airily dismissive Pākehā broadcaster. But there are some things that Mike Hosking is really good at, and one of them is hosting debates. What we saw tonight was, if not quite a masterclass, then close to it. He had hard facts, cut off waffle, hit them both in their sorest and most vulnerable points. He even had the temerity to ask Bill English “where’s my wage increase?” – easily the best gag of the night. Mainly though, that arrogant self-regard which can curdle so insufferably day-to-day meant that he faced down our next prime minister with the confidence that they were no better than he. It might not be true. It probably comes from a bad place. But it meant he did an extraordinarily good job tonight.

Annabelle Lee: Was Ardern just too nice?

English controlled the debate, adroitly steering the argument towards the economy and agricultural sector while throwing jabs at Ardern. But he came across as out of touch with the challenges of ordinary New Zealanders while simultaneously reminding us that he’d just visited places like ‘Horror Chew’ (Horotiu I presume).

Ardern tolerated the constant interrupting and mansplaining by both Hosking and English to put in a strong performance. However her supporters might wish she had toned down the relentless positivity. At times she came across as overly deferential to English and not assertive enough. In short she needs to ‘Ardern Up.

Final thoughts: Hosking’s tie could be used as a parachute brake for NZ First’s bus.

Ben Thomas: Bill was the winner on the day

The first debate is always awarded to the underdog: Expectations, the narrative goes, are so low of the challenger that by not being obliterated they manage to squeak out a win. Thus commentators have asked us believe over the years that Brash bested Clark, that Cunliffe beat Key and that Trump outsmarted Clinton in their first match-ups.

This is a roundabout way of saying that there is a case to be made that newly crowned underdog, New Zealand’s second most preferred prime minister and leader of its most-popular-but-one political party, Bill English, won tonight’s TV One debate.

English had the better command of figures and policy, and got away the best zinger: telling Labour leader Jacinda Ardern that “people can’t go shopping with your values”.  Ardern’s insistence she was being “transparent” and “clear” about her refusal to reveal any detail on tax – or really anything much at all – started to grate as the hour progressed.

English became more animated as he warmed to his task, filling the air with thick detail of policy initiatives. But as hard as Ardern found it to answer questions meaningfully about the future, English found it equally difficult to explain how this forest of facts in any way explained away the past nine years of inaction on house prices, homelessness and sorting out water allocation.

Tom Sainsbury

Morgan Godfery: The Jacinda Effect in full effect

For an election where everything seems new, Bill English and Jacinda Ardern are, in an odd way, same old same old.

To the right, English is bragging about a construction boom and promising more roads, presumably so the government can bus more young offenders to Waiouru. To the left, Jacinda is promising 100,000 affordable homes, cheaper visits to the doctors, and three years of free education. It’s 20th century conservatism against traditional Labourism.

Whose vision will win out? If the polls hold, Labour’s, though English did his best to make the case for conservative realism over social democratic promises. “People can’t go shopping with your values,” he told Jacinda, neatly contrasting her “relentless positivity” with his nine years at the top of government. Perhaps where Jacinda fell short is articulating precisely why those nine years were not the “brighter future” that was promised.

But it didn’t matter. She spoke to people lives, acknowledging the economy’s numbers are good – “and most international experts will agree” – but she’s concerned about how people are experiencing “The Economy” rather than what international experts or others are saying about it. This is what wins elections, and this is what the Jacinda Effect is about.

Guy Williams: Both leaders struggled to defend their worst policies

I thought Bill was going to destroy Jacinda from the start banging on about the $1000 he was giving to some meat workers in Horotiu. But she held her own and in my biased opinion looked more smooth and together than Bill on the big stage. It’s a shame she wasn’t debating Key.

My biggest takeaway was how desperate both leaders seemed when trying to defend clearly antiquated dog whistle policies. Bill talking about weed was embarrassing, Jacinda struggled to defend her party’s position on immigration.

What really pissed me off was English being so dismissive of the housing crisis and struggling more than the poor bastard trying to make memes for the young Nats. God bless that poor poor bastard.

The literal floor (image: Tobias Manhire)

Toby Manhire: the view from the floor

As the floor manager counted down for the debate to start, Bill English was practising his smile. Jacinda Ardern was practising her serious, prime ministerial face. Mike Hosking – who was a very good and sharp moderator, even better than last election – deleted the prime minister’s grin in a hurry. First question: “Why are you losing?”

Sitting in the front row in the TVNZ studio, my instinct was to watch though fingers. Poor Bill! To suddenly find yourself behind Labour, the laughing stock of a National Party for so long, in a poll released exactly an hour before the biggest debate of your life. He is of a stronger disposition that someone like me, of course, and soldiered on. He even scored the first discernible hit of the night, telling the Labour leader that it was all very well to have “values” while promising a working group on tax, but “people can’t go shopping with your values”.

In the ad breaks, the leaders wandered around the studio, chatting with the audience, shaking off a few nerves. As they spoke, Ardern looked across at English a lot, almost plaintively at times. English barely glanced at her. She alternated between gripping the lectern (with a few notes on it) and holding her hands clasped together in front. He held the lectern, occasionally slotting his left hand in his pocket.

Ardern managed to get in a couple of references to the generation factor, including “your generation” directed at her opponent. He pushed hard at the tax nerve, and Ardern’s response was all about being “absolutely transparent”, which is evidently a cousin of relentlessly positive. English resisted, however, any temptation to attack Ardern on questions of experience or aptitude.

At the media stand-up afterwards, English said it had been a “civil” encounter, which, both agreed, is what people wanted. He hardly put a foot wrong. But nor did Ardern. Neither wanted to risk a fall. It seems strange to say it, but the one who may need to take a risk is now English, if polls keep trending as they are. And tonight’s poll hung in the air throughout.

Emily Writes: Is our favourite couple on the rocks?

Is this how many ads there are in free to air TV? No wonder nobody watches it anymore. Bill English looked furious that Mike Hosking wasn’t being nice to him. He went from smug basset hound to furious chipmunk in seconds and I really felt for him. I hope they patched it up afterward because they’re a really nice couple. Jacinda did well considering she was barely ever allowed to answer a question.

Simon Wilson: Was that really Mike?

Love that disruptive quality, the pace of it. If politicians are going to say something they shouldn’t, reveal something they don’t want us to know, about their party or themselves, it will be when they get flustered. Good on you Mike Hosking, if that really was you. Arya Stark in one of her masks is my guess.

Bill (we can all call them by their first names now) said Labour’s approach to equal pay would take us back to industrial relations in the 70s, and Jacinda said that was absurd because Labour does not propose compulsory unionism. But Jacinda did not say hang on Bill, do you support equal pay or not? She missed a trick there. But then she “absolutely” ruled out big strikes, even though she’s really not the boss of the unions.

Bill’s got a computer full of statistics but he barely used any of them. He missed a few tricks there, or has National given up on the record of good news?

Jacinda said yes, medicinal cannabis and Bill could not give a straight answer.

Mike, or possibly Arya Stark, said to Bill, “It looks to me like you turned around and said, ‘Oh Jeez, the rivers are dirty, I better do something about that.’ You’ve been caught with your pants down again.” That must have hurt.

At the end, Bill tried on a laugh and it turned into a throwaway grimace. Jacinda said “going forward”. Just once, but for me it was a personal disappointment.

The big takeaway? She needed to show she could be prime minister and he needed to show she couldn’t. She did that and he didn’t.


Madeleine Chapman: please save us from these terrible debate memes

This was the first New Zealand election debate I’ve ever watched and it was surprisingly engaging. The great thing about the strange breaks they have in between rounds (ad breaks?) is that it gives you time to go online and check out the hot reckons. Unfortunately for National, their hip young contingent, the Young Nats, managed to put out two of the worst memes I’ve ever seen. If Bill insisting that housing has become more affordable didn’t lose what little youth vote they had to begin with, these two atrocities most certainly will.

Cross-formatting, too many words, redundant logo placement. An absolute mess.

Please read more of The Spinoff’s excellent election coverage here

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