The country had its first long look at its potential next Prime Minister last night and she did not disappoint.

Labour leader Jacinda Ardern probably narrowly lost the first leaders’ debate on TVNZ to incumbent Bill English but she showed enough of her positivity and agility to call it success in any case.

Her debut was something like Jordie Barrett’s first start for the All Blacks against the Lions. Young, a bit lopey and occasionally off balance, not quite all there yet but showing every sign of being the real deal.

English was as good as he gets. Loath as we all are to comment on leaders’ appearances, he looked energised and even a little perma-tanned (perhaps National practised outdoors yesterday in Auckland’s brilliant sunshine).

More importantly, he was warm to the camera and in key moments like the final, 30-second statement he was animated, nailing his messages.

The debate was relentlessly policy focused. There was one personal question on what both leaders had learned about themselves moving from deputy to leader. But no personal attacks, no allegations of dirty tricks, no text messages or leaks of inflated superannuation payments or aspersions on Grey Lynn liberalism or Dipton smugness or being out of touch.

You don’t tip National, or English, over without a fight. 

And it was all in the great red shadow of the TVNZ Colmar Brunton poll – one hour old to the public but known to the leaders sometime earlier in the day – which had Labour ahead for the first time in 12 years, by 43 to 41 and with New Zealand First back on 8 and falling.

Ardern must have been buoyed by that result, confirming the surge of the past month, which started with Labour on 24 and National on 47 in the same poll. She didn’t seem over-confident, however, which was important for the big audience of Kiwis who don’t like people to get ahead of themselves.

Having said that she was nervous, her occasional ‘resting face’ facial expressions a watch all in themselves as she pushed her tongue inside her bottom lip and frowned at English when in split camera on screen. Heaven knows how on-edge she would have been had the poll not given Labour its moment.

You don’t tip National, or English, over without a fight. 

He came with at least one new line of policy attack. He several times tried to claim Labour intends to take New Zealand back to 1970s industrial relations, with national awards binding industries and the implication of nationwide strikes. It wasn’t a feature of his campaign opening speech just five days earlier. Presumably National’s campaign strategists have decided the spectre of unionism is as good an attack line as ‘Let’s Tax This’ – their focus on a range of real and possible Labour tax plans (and ‘levies’ and ‘charges’ similar to the government’s own imposts.)

But the focus on Labour’s Fair Pay platform gave Ardern one of her best moments of the hour-long debate. She accused English of scaremongering, said the model for the fair pay agreements in different sectors would be the care workers’ deal which she said she was proud of and she was sure English was too. She expected one or two agreements each year under which employers in an industry would agree to raise wages..

English said the system would take New Zealand back to the 1970s. “They used to call them national awards,” he said. “We have industrial relations that are pretty settled. The last Labour government made adjustments to it very broadly and we accepted them.”

Neither leader was convincing when discussing how to improve the country’s poor productivity.

Questioned directly by moderator Mike Hosking (who was exacting on both, in his rat-a-tat, pop-economist kind-of way) whether New Zealand could be in for national strikes, Ardern had her most emphatic moment: “No. We. Will. Not.”

English’s criticisms were antiquated. “It’s not going to happen on my watch.”

Neither leader was convincing when discussing how to improve the country’s poor productivity. It is a complicated and ethereal business, productivity.

Ardern was all “Bill, let me tell you what I know about productivity,” but that didn’t seem to be a lot, with her answer about educating students early on about what lies ahead in an automated world. 

English dismissed outright a report from sharebroker J B Were which concluded the country had a productivity recession. They were wrong. “They are way over-stating the case. Productivity in New Zealand has been growing pretty well…. You cannot just wish-up productivity.”

Problem is that view is challenged by more than J B Were. My colleague, Newsroom Pro editor Bernard Hickey tweeted out charts after the debate which he says prove J B Were is right.

Both leaders were over-talked at times by Hosking and Ardern had one good riposte as he cut in on her during a segment on water levies and who owns the fresh water in New Zealand. 

“I’m happy to answer the question I know you are trying to get to,” she offered.

But the water tax discussion was a weakness for her. English and Hosking both argued a new tax on farmers and viticulturists and water bottlers was not going to help their businesses. Pressed on how adding a tax helped farmers innovate, she offered a lame “you can if you keep a profit margin.”

And when pressed on who owned water, with English claiming “As soon as you put a tax on it, it [ownership of water] will be contested”, Ardern turned to him with a plaintive “How will you solve the issue?”  The Prime Minister’s response was hardly incisive (“the way we are doing it now”) but it gave him the floor to talk about working with regional councils and farmers.

It was on water, too, that English came closest to being cross. Quizzed by Hosking on why National had been “caught with your pants down” on clean rivers and had not acted until near an election, he said National had followed an intensive process. To a follow-up question on why things weren’t improving, he snapped: “That’s what’s happening. You need to go out and see it.”

Ardern certainly offered something new. She acknowledged the economy was in good shape according to international experts but wanted to measure it, too, by its fairness for working New Zealanders. She thanked English for a briefing on a small military deployment. She said, on national television, that she could be described as “very hesitant” on sending more personnel. On worries over the US and North Korea, she agreed “with Bill on that point.”

English didn’t shine in his opening answer, on that pivotal poll result, claiming National was “very pleased with the positive response we are getting” from the electorate. But he had the chance to deploy another National line, of this election now being a ‘drag race’ between two contestants as the minors stayed in single figures.

Throughout, he ‘looked’ better than he has on television for some time. In his final 30 seconds he stared down the camera, hands moving demonstratively, and remembered his lines well. It came down, he said to whether New Zealand wanted to “slow down, or grasp the opportunity”.  Voters didn’t have to trade-off a strong economy and good social services. They could have both. Under him.

Ardern’s sign-off was less fluid but got to her point: “I believe New Zealand can be even better than it is.”

You sense that next time she can get better. English possibly not.

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

Leave a comment