The first leaders debate was expected to fire some life into a so far ho hum campaign. But, as Mark Jennings writes the Jacinda, Judith and John show fell flat.

TVNZ’s atrium felt like a deserted shopping mall, a dark, gloomy, almost soulless place.

Off to one side, the leaders and their entourages waited in meeting rooms. Small signs, a blue one for National and a red one Labour, were stuck on the doors. Police officers wearing Covid masks stood outside.

6.50 pm: Time to go. First, Judith Collins – serious, grim even, leading 7 or 8 others including her media coach and spin doctors, marches steadily towards the studio. There are no pistols but a duel awaits.

Then, Jacinda Ardern; not leading but amongst her team of 4 or 5, relaxed and joking as she passes the media.

TVNZ’s executive producer, Phil O’Sullivan observes: “This is good for us, Collins needs to hit it out of the park.”

John Campbell asks the leaders for a good clean fight while warmly suggesting they should mix it up and actually debate.

It starts, but this 90 minutes of television ends up going nowhere.

It’s not what we were expecting. Ardern is flat, lacking energy and seems like she can’t really be bothered slugging it out with “Judith”.

Collins is calm and relaxed. Is restraint the strategy?

Photo: Getty Images

Campbell seems in a rush and his questions are long. The first segment comes to an end. Campbell, rather strangely, thanks the audience watching at home and the leaders – telling them “this is good” and there has even been some “toing and froing.”

The reporters watching on a screen in the atrium already have a feeling this debate is not going to fire.

The next segment opens with a pre-recorded question from a Christchurch cardiologist. He wanted to know what the leaders would do to help the DHB struggling with a $180 million deficit. We didn’t get an answer from either (apart from Collins suggesting she would send in Dr Shane Reti to sort it) and the debate morphed into a general discussion about DHB and health funding.

The segments seemed to lack a structure that elicited clear answers and positions from the leaders. The debate often wandered and became confused.

At one point, Campbell lost his train of thought. Collins tried to help and Campbell suggested he was ready for a drink – “I feel like a gin.”

The studio set up didn’t help. Ardern and Collins had podiums but Campbell was cast adrift. O’Sullivan said later the producers didn’t want a triangle and having just two podiums made the debate “more presidential.”

The result – Campbell bobbed and weaved, walked and, at times contorted, his clipboard clutched under an arm or held to his chest. The man needed a podium.

There was also a silly bell that went off about every 30 seconds. Experienced presenters like Campbell are expert at keeping track of time and know how to interrupt if they need to. The leaders and Campbell often ignored the bell anyway.

Last election, TVNZ took the cheapskate’s approach using a minimal and bland set. This time was hardly an improvement.

The big screen graphics, that now take the place of physical sets, added little. What were they supposed to resemble? The Beehive, the Colosseum, louvre blinds or part of the harbour bridge?

In the close-up shots of the leaders, Ardern was against a white background, Collins against pink and purple stripes and Campbell against black or half black and half louvres. It wasn’t a great look.

To be fair to Collins, she was the one who gave it a go and scored a few hits. On Kiwibuild: “16,000 [houses] should have been built by now and we have 500.” On tax cuts: “Primary school teachers, they are not wealthy, they are not rich, they need a break.”

Collins also made sure that we learned more about her and in case we didn’t know she is “the daughter of a Matamata dairy farmer”. Her husband “left school at 15,” and she has “owned small businesses.” Collins told Newsroom after the show she had once owned two restaurants and a small law business.

Ardern’s lack of energy was unusual. Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that she was in the same building 12 hours earlier. Ardern had appeared on the breakfast show at 7am which means she was probably up at 5.30. Add in a campaign day and it’s hard to peak for a 90-minute debate that kicks off at 7pm. Collins, by contrast, conserved her energy and even left it to her deputy Gerry Brownlee to respond to the 1News Colmar Brunton poll that dominated the 6pm news.

Ardern talking to media after the debate. Photo: Mark Jennings

The group of journalists watching in the Atrium all felt the debate had been underwhelming.

RNZ’s political editor, Jane Patterson: “I think it was one of the flattest debates I’ve seen. Jacinda had no energy…she is tired.”

The Spinoff editor, Toby Manhire: “Everyone is just knackered, just knackered. I think Collins won but not in a way that will move the dial”

Politik’s Richard Harman: “I thought this debate might produce a focus but there was nothing there. People expect Jacinda to be so good all the time – she can do better than she did tonight.”

Steve Braunias, writing for The Guardian: “I thought Collins did well but she is a funny old bird.”

At a media conference after the debate both leaders said they had enjoyed the debate and were happy with their own performances.

When asked why she didn’t go for Collins’ jugular, Ardern replied: “My view is politics is not a blood sport. I saw this as more of a contested conversation.”

Collins said she was looking forward to the next leaders debate (TV3 in a week’s time).

“I thought this was a great session and I really enjoyed John Campbell’s input.”

Did you win? asked a reporter. “Yeah, I reckon,” said Collins.

Mark Jennings is co-editor of Newsroom.

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