Opinion: No 'gotcha' moment in leaders' debate

Some have complained that the election campaign has been too focused on personalities, but that was no the case in last night's debate.

By Associate Professor Grant Duncan

Bill English must have gone into last night’s leaders’ debate with that choking feeling. How can he forget the 2002 election when he led National to their most humiliating defeat ever? And, one hour before last night’s debate was due to kick off, TVNZ published an opinion poll with Labour streaking ahead on 43 per cent.

Jacinda Ardern, on the other hand, needed the discipline not to gloat. Before Andrew Little fell on his sword, Labour’s polling was heading below 25 per cent. Even if the surge to 43 per cent under Jacinda’s leadership were to fall away before election day, what we have witnessed this last month is a truly astonishing political shift.

Against that backdrop, then, how did the debate go? Moderator Mike Hosking asked the Prime Minister, “Why are you losing?” English insisted that National is “not losing.” That left him with a lot of explaining to do, however.

Jacinda said the poll does not mean “a done deal,” and public opinion could still turn. She would not be drawn on the question of a coalition with NZ First. The agreement with the Greens means that they get the first call after the election, if Labour is in a position to form a government.

Both leaders began the debate looking tense. But Bill seemed to have relaxed into it more by half-time. Some pundits had commented that he needed to reveal more “personality,” and what we saw was his usual solid and dependable style, but with an effort to smile.

Jacinda seemed to be expending more energy to get heard. She didn’t look as relaxed as Bill.



Associate Professor Grant Duncan says the two leaders showed an equally sound grasp of complex policy issues.

More policy than personality

The content of the debate was policy-heavy. Lots of numbers about migrants and house-building were bandied about. But the two leaders showed an equally sound grasp of complex policy issues.

Both agreed that the economy is going well. Bill was focused on what can be done to drive things forward for business and to get better results that way.

Jacinda was more concerned about how people feel in their own lives. The economy should serve the people, and yet incomes are not keeping up, she argued.

Some commentators have complained that this election campaign has been too focused on personalities. Last night’s debate should silence those complaints. For many viewers, there may even have been too much attention to numbers and policies. They came so thick and fast, it was hard to follow.

A wide range of topics was covered, from water rights to medicinal cannabis. The best impression we got of their differing styles came at the end with the question of New Zealand’s involvement in overseas conflict. The responses were a typical Labour–National divide over a critical issue that defines us a nation. And it gave both leaders a moment to look primeministerial. 

Crucially, there was no pratfall or “gotcha!” moment. Neither leader stumbled. They both held their own under pressure and addressed critical questions clearly.

The tone was mostly civil. Bill tried a few jibes at Labour, such as claiming that their pay-equity policy would take the country back to “1970s industrial relations”.

Bill has the advantage of having been in office for the last nine years. That gives him in-depth understanding of issues. It also makes him vulnerable to questions about his government’s actual performance (or lack of performance) over some outstanding problems, such as river-water quality and housing supply. His belated interest in these election issues was less than convincing.

Jacinda, on the other hand, is riding a wave of desire for change. She was able to demonstrate her ‘guts’ and her concern for the issues that people care about. But she is vulnerable to attack for lack of experience and detailed knowledge.

The moderator, Mike Hosking, had an agenda to tackle her early in the debate about Labour’s fiscal and taxation plans and how the numbers add up. Jacinda said, “I want to be absolutely transparent and upfront with New Zealanders.” But Mike denied her the chance to explain Labour’s proposal for a working group on tax and its “fully costed plan”.

On technical competence and communication skills, I call the debate a draw. Both leaders performed well. Bill got an edge, however, as I felt that the moderator went easier on him over his government’s record, compared with the attack on Labour’s fiscal policy. Bill got more breathing space. Once he got over his nerves, he looked more prime ministerial. At times like this, craggy features and a little grey hair may be a perceived advantage.

Finally, I can’t resist a comment about the leaders’ outfits. Bill sported a dark blue suit and light blue tie, conveying party loyalty and deep conservatism. Jacinda wore a jacket of pastel-pink. There was no trace of socialist red.

Associate Professor Grant Duncan teaches political theory and New Zealand politics at Massey University.

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