Collins edges Ardern, but Labour has formidable lead

Sam Sachdeva

Sam Sachdeva

Wellington, September 23, 2020

 Jacinda Ardern and Judith Collins at the first TV One Debate on September 22, 2020 (Screenshot)

There were no knockout blows in the first leaders’ debate of the 2020 election, and while Judith Collins may have just had the better of Jacinda Ardern, Labour’s continuing strength in the polls gives the Prime Minister some breathing space.

“I want to pull out because it seems like we are not having the conversation that we need to have at the moment.”

Fatigue shrouds debate

John Campbell’s plaintive attempt to get the TVNZ leaders’ debate back on track came as Jacinda Ardern and Judith Collins were facing off over DHB deficits – but it ultimately doubled as a recap of the night as a whole.

Neither Campbell, Ardern nor Collins brought their A-game, understandably so given the general sense of fatigue that has shrouded this odd campaign.

The National Leader probably edged the encounter, in part thanks to the lower bar that attaches to being the underdog and in part to a spikiness that contrasted favourably with the passivity on show from the Prime Minister.

But it is hard to see many, if any, votes moving between the two major parties as a result of the muddled proceedings – and the minor parties may yet have some hope of peeling some support away in the coming weeks.

Latest Opinion Poll

Ardern’s high point may have come before she even stepped on stage, as TVNZ released the first poll from either major network in almost two months.

While Labour had dropped five points to 48%, that had not been to National’s benefit.

It too was down: only by one point, to 31%, but taking a sufficiently large chunk out of that 17-point gap in less than four weeks seems unlikely to say the least.

Perhaps the Poll was to blame for Collins’ tentative start: she seemed somewhat stiff throughout the opening segment, trying – somehow – to argue that the second lockdown, which she attributed to a “failure at the border,” had made voters more likely, not less, to support Labour over National.

Ardern opened steadily if unspectacularly, trying to flip Collins’ opening remarks about National’s plan to turn the country into a case for her status quo.

“I know a plan is necessary, but so is optimism and that’s what Labour will bring.”

Government’s Covid response

Talk about the parties’ plans for the border elicited little new, Ardern arguing the Government’s Covid-19 response had allowed the economy and the country to get back to normal quickly – provoking a trademark arched eyebrow from Collins, who claimed Labour had failed to safeguard the border and provide a suitable entry process for overseas workers filling critical roles.

Going further into the night, both Leaders largely played to their strengths: Ardern seemed more authoritative on the issues of inequality and housing, while Collins took the government to task over the burdens it was placing upon business (even if her multiple references to having once been a small business owner felt a little forced).

The National Leader spent more and more time on the front foot, cutting into Ardern’s answers and audibly sharing her displeasure when she felt the Prime Minister had dodged a question or given a poor response.

Vague and extreme response

That did not mean she was perfect, far from it. Collins’ answers to some questions were vague in the extreme – she said National would create jobs by putting a greater emphasis on the tech sector, but pressed by Campbell on how exactly that would occur, then claimed the jobs were already there.

One faux pas in particular is certain to do the rounds on social media. Asked by Campbell, in the course of discussing a Capital Gains Tax, whether she owned a second house, Collins replied in the affirmative before offering an unhelpful clarification: “Oh, well, it is my trust.”

But overall, she offered up a level of aggression commensurate with her Party’s position in the polls without tipping over into needless hostility.

In contrast, Ardern seemed strangely defensive, even accounting for her role as the incumbent.

There was only the most fleeting reference to the tight operating allowances in National’s fiscal plan, and none whatsoever of the $4 billion hole in said accounts – perhaps double that, according to Stuff.

Nor was there any mention of the “nine years of neglect” under National, an admittedly cliched but nonetheless effective shorthand rolled out by Labour Ministers to argue why the government deserves more time to make headway.

Ardern has largely delegated the rough and tumble of politics on the campaign trail to senior Ministers like Grant Robertson, Chris Hipkins and Megan Woods who are more than willing to pick up the cudgel. But they cannot tag in for her on the debate stage, and while she may have calculated she was better off not allowing Collins to drag her into a bare-knuckle brawl, she seemed disengaged as a result.

Case for re-election

When Ardern did press the case for Labour’s re-election, it felt somewhat abstract.

The Prime Minister has grown fond of Joseph Stiglitz’s call for governments to focus on “double duty” in the Covid-19 recovery – ensuring their investments both stimulate the economy while reshaping it in a greener, more sustainable direction.

It is a relatively handy way to explain the post-Covid path to recovery – but without that explanation beforehand, Ardern’s repeated references to “double duty” did little to enlighten any viewers not already familiar with the term.

‘Party with a plan,’ or ‘strong and stable government’?

Neither leader was helped by Campbell, whose idiosyncrasies are now well-established in the public consciousness yet were less than ideal for an occasion when we wanted to hear most from the politicians, and least from the host.

“Less of me, more of you – that is a good thing,” he playfully told the pair early on, yet did not quite deliver on that promise, with unnecessary epilogues to the pre-recorded questions from ordinary Kiwis.

Offering her closing remarks, Collins framed the election as “a stark contrast about whether we muddle along and have lots of hopeful thoughts and statements, or whether or not you vote for a Party that has a plan.”

So far, it seems Labour’s “hopeful thoughts” are winning out over National’s plan, but there are still several weeks to run.

Ardern’s sign-off was a microcosm of Labour’s low-risk strategy to date, echoing – presumably unintentionally – John Key’s promise of “strong and stable government.”

“Now’s the time to keep moving,” she said – but she will be hoping the polls stay where they are if Labour is to coast to the finish line.

Sam Sachdeva is Political Editor at Newsroom. He covers Foreign Affairs, Trade, Defence and Security Issues. The above article and picture have been reproduced under a Special Arrangement.

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