There was no love lost between the major party leaders in the final TV debate – and probably no votes lost either.

This was an underwhelming affair from all involved. TVNZ had Jacinda Ardern and Bill English seated at a peculiar white monstrosity they’d dug up from some old telethon set somewhere. And they’d gone for a duelling interview rather than a debate, with host Mike Hosking more glib and impatient with politics after a couple of weeks sick in bed.

Broadcast in the wake of the latest TVNZ-Colmar Brunton poll an hour earlier which had National up 6 points to an implausible 46 percent and Labour down 7 to a slightly less implausible 37, this debate was late and lame.

Early voting in the past nine days left the exchange meaning nothing to around 700,000 people who’d already committed – perhaps they’d voted so they didn’t have to endure one more bout between this pair, and could turn over to TV2 to catch up with Curtis’ return to Shortland Street. It will be interesting to see how the show rated against the first TVNZ debate, which seems like a political lifetime ago.

Back then, at the end of August, the TVNZ poll had Labour just overtake National and Hosking was able to ask English as his opening line: “Why are you losing?”. Last night he turned that into “Why are you winning?” English was too campaign-worn to claim anything, reckoning the race is still neck and neck.

He exuded calm in the first half of the debate; almost nonchalance, possibly a bit of boredom. Grinding out a historic fourth term can do that to you.

Ardern, on the other hand started a little tense and looked frustrated at times by Hosking’s weird riffs at her. She came with a word – “autopilot” – to undermine National’s lack of leadership in government over nine years, which she deployed in her first answer and her final statement. In the past few days she’d been using “drift”. Certainly English did seem to be on autopilot in the opening stanzas at the great white stage prop of a desk.

English bizarrely claimed night was day, that the sky was green and that “everyone” agreed with Joyce that a hole existed.

Ardern several times had to flatly contradict Hosking’s certitudes. “No, I don’t believe that actually,” she said to a question of whether, over a single malt whisky she’d concede Labour’s strategy to leave big tax decisions to a Tax Working Group rather than offer definite policies now had undone her campaign.

All she’d acknowledge on that was that English and National had created a debate that had been “unfair”.

English kept being unfair last night. He trebled down on his finance spokesperson Steven Joyce’s widely discredited claim that Labour’s books had an $11.7 billion hole in them. Even Hosking, having viewed it all from his sickbed, didn’t believe that. English bizarrely claimed night was day, that the sky was green and that “everyone” agreed with Joyce that a hole existed.

He was equally stubborn over National’s claim that by legislating to stop National’s planned tax cuts for April 1, Labour would be putting taxes up. It is a bit of a desperate claim. Going forward to the past and claiming to viewers that what they’re paying in tax now, which will be the same as what they will be paying in tax from April 1 under Labour, is a tax increase.

Viewers would have been envying those 700,000 early voters at that point.

On the other side,  Ardern kept saying the word “unfair” which political debate coaches would say is somewhere you don’t want to go. Unfair looks weak, plaintive.

She intervened to question English directly on why National didn’t negotiate directly with South Korea at the time of our free trade agreement to “carve-out” the right for Koreans to purchase residential properties here. He was in turn a bit plaintive here: “We didn’t think we could achieve that… we run a small, open economy.” Her response: “We negotiated that carve out in the China FTA. It is absolutely possible.”

The other raw nerve for Labour late in this campaign, poked at this week by a farmers’ protest in Ardern’s home town of Morrinsville, is the party’s policy to put a water levy on bottlers and irrigators. Hosking and English tried to pinch that nerve again, but Ardern, irritated, kept saying she had targeted bottlers and New Zealanders wanted them to pay their fair share.

She was having none of the allegation that Labour had caused an urban-rural divide by its actions. “The division we have seen in this campaign has been stoked, but not by me,”  she said, looking across the table.

New Zealand First’s leader Winston Peters had earlier in the day said his party would not support a water tax. The Labour leader’s response: “That’s our policy. We are sticking with our policy.”

Throughout the debate, Ardern – and Hosking in a couple of questions –  argued National had had its nine years and problems still existed. English tried to turn it around by saying with a strong economy, National was now equipped to take on these social problems. His “toolkit” has certainly been painstakingly, slowly, put together.

When Hosking claimed health was ‘allegedly’ the most important issue for voters, Ardern seemed perplexed by his detachment from the people she’d been having selfies with all over the country. English, too, gave him a political lesson: “It’s always the biggest issue.”  The Prime Minister thought it made it to that place because of people who’d had a bad experience in the system.

He got his hardest treatment from Hosking over delays in prostate cancer treatment at Dunedin’s Southern DHB. “That’s disgraceful. Why after nine years? …”Why in 2017?”. English could only blame “particular circumstances” and concede it had been “quite disturbing” for anyone affected.

Ardern joined in: “Bill, have you funded [DHBs] for population and inflation?”  

He claimed he had.

Ardern: “For every year?”  She eventually answered that herself: “The answer is no.”

Then, looking directly at English again: “You cannot tell me it is not about the underfunding of the health sector.”

He replied: “It’s not all about the money.” 

When English kept hammering Joyce’s line about Labour having “nothing left” to spend because of its fiscal hole, Ardern came close to her first personal insult: “I have been out on the road saying you have been a competent finance minister – but for you to continue that line of attack is deliberately misleading.”

Clearly he’d lost any, small, regard she could muster for him.

As the big parties consolidate their vote shares in the polls, Labour has been squeezing the Greens and both parties have been squeezing New Zealand First, down again in the TVNZ-Colmar Brunton poll to 5 percent.

Asked about working with the Greens post-election, Ardern seemed to devalue her Memorandum of Understanding with that party to simply being the first call she would make rather than first deal she would seek. That is not new, but her wording seemed less collegial than at other times.

English tried to pounce: “They’ve agreed the Greens are the first, the leader’s word is her bond, that makes them first.”

Ardern: “Of course we have said we will have a phone call. That does not mean it is a stitched-up deal.”

English: “So your word is your bond, that you will just pick up the phone…. just a conversation.”

But it was a pyrrhic moment for English. On one hand he’s trying to paint Labour as joined at the hip with these dangerous Greens. On the other, he’s implying they will jilt the Greens in favour of someone else.

He has his own problems post election. Probably the only path to government will be with New Zealand First. English claimed that as the incumbent government, “constitutional arrangements” meant he could go first to the Governor General to show he could have a majority.

However he’d rather be shot of Peters. “I’m suggesting to voters they cut out the middle man. I don’t like this idea that Mr Peters has that he decides who the government of New Zealand is.”

To a suggestion from Hosking that getting a bigger share of the vote for Labour wouldn’t make a difference for Labour in coalition negotiations, a head-shaking Ardern came close to an eye-roll. “Of course it does Mike. It’s a given if you are a higher party vote the better position you’re in.”

Ardern … did not find the button for the ejector seat to remove English from contention.

The debate was far more active in the third an fourth segments. One exchange stood out, over National’s priority of economic growth over social needs. 

English: “We’ve got better solutions than you.”

Ardern: “You have had nine years to deliver yours and it’s not going very well.”

English: “We have been cracking into some of the most difficult social problems.”

Ardern: “You discovered poverty last week.”

English: “You discovered we had a better target than you.”

The Labour leader pressed on: “Why do we have children living in cars? Why do we have a social deficit Bill?” He retorted: “We can make positive choices. We are geared up.”

Ardern: You know what, Bill: We could never afford poverty but you know what, you have been content to let it slide, let it get worse over the last nine years.”

Hosking piled on: “to say it’s not getting worse is delusional”. The National leader responded with something about a government agency book that charts poverty and repeated his promises to cut child poverty by 100,000 over the next term.

From his relaxed moments at the beginning in the afterglow of that poll, English had dug in and got bogged down.

Ardern, more earnest  than in previous debates, argued hard against both men but on this night and in this format did not find the button for the ejector seat to remove English from contention.

It was all very anti-climactic. Election night could yet be the same.

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

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