The first leaders’ debate wasn’t the walkover the PM’s supporters may have expected, but it was also no game-changer, writes Peter Dunne

Since the gladiators of Roman times human beings have loved the spectacle of the contest, especially when it involves the perception of an unequal one, where either the weaker party is quickly and decisively vanquished, or, conversely, defies the odds to achieve unexpected victory.

Often, the lead-up can be just as dramatic as the event itself, with all the preliminary analysis of the various apparent strengths and weaknesses of the contenders, the discussions about the tactics they should employ, and the assessments of their prospects.

And then, afterwards, comes either the confirmation that everything turned out pretty much as expected, or, in the event that it did not, why that was so, and how the latent signs of the upset were really there all along.

The first televised leaders’ debate between Jacinda Ardern and Judith Collins contained all these elements. It was billed beforehand as the “showdown” between them – although in reality it was but the first of three such debates during the election campaign, making it more like the opening test in a three match series, than the decider.

Nevertheless, “victory” or at least a good showing was important for both leaders, not just for the sake of their morale, but also and perhaps more so for that of their supporters and likely voters around the country. Throw in the spice of the release of the first major public opinion poll of the campaign less than an hour before the debate, and the stakes were high for both leaders.

The general expectation was that all the advantages lay with Jacinda Ardern. Her eloquence, and smooth and polished style, laced with her trademark smile and overt kindness, seemed likely to be too charismatic to overcome.

Add to that, the ongoing public support for the government’s handling of the Covid19 crisis (probably boosted by this week’s decision to return most of the country to alert level 1 status immediately) and the debate was very much hers to lose.

The momentum she has established through the Covid19 saga seemed likely to push the hitherto rather indifferent performance of her government in so many other areas, and the fractious nature of her coalition and support partners well into the background.

On the other hand, it looked likely to be all uphill for Judith Collins. As the third National Party leader in as many months, whose well-known combative style had seemed remarkably subdued in the first couple of weeks of the campaign, and now having to explain the major funding errors in her Party’s fiscal policies, she appeared to face an almost impossible task.

Not only had she to put all that behind her, as well as a string of very bad poll results, she had to confront head-on the most popular Prime Minister of recent times. Aside from hoping for the miracle moment which creates the upset, her best prospect appeared to be performing sufficiently well to perhaps exceed expectations, and thereby establish a platform for stronger performances in the debates to follow.

So, while Ardern faced the pressure of expectation of a comfortable win, and the prospect of anything less being seen as a minor loss, for Collins, it was a case of the precise opposite. Barring an upset if unlikely clear win, a solid, but unspectacular, performance by her would be interpreted as a modest victory, likely to give her a fillip for the rest of the campaign and the two debates ahead.

As it turned out both leaders were able to claim of a measure of success from the debate, although there was no clear winner. No knockout blows were delivered, nor were there any memorable one-liners, or stand-out moments. Both leaders made little blunders – Collins’ reference to her second house being owned by her trust, and Ardern’s apparent dismissal of some farming practices as a “world that has passed” – but neither detracted from their respective performances.

Not surprisingly, Ardern demonstrated her eloquence and compassion in abundance, albeit a little too verbosely at times, and generally projected an aspirational and optimistic picture of the New Zealand she wants to lead.

However, there was also very little substance and no new policy in the messages she conveyed and the early sense that she seemed hungrier for the job of Prime Minister than her rival diminished as the debate proceeded.

Collins, on the other hand, produced a wealth of detail in support of both her criticisms of the current Government and her own policies, but seemed uncharacteristically hesitant and slow to start, which could have been a consequence of the bad poll results released just before the debate began.

However, she lifted her game strongly in the middle of the debate, and showed flashes of dominance at times, although Ardern’s closing statement was stronger and likely to be more in line with the current mood.

To use the analogy of a rugby test series, this was a typical, tough first test.

The hope she may have given her supporters that electoral annihilation can be avoided or least minimised has to be built on over the next couple of weeks.

Ardern’s performance may have been more polished on the night, but Collins clearly performed much better than expected, and that will have been a huge morale booster for her and her team for the debates to come.

While National is still well behind, as the poll results show, Collins’ performance was the first time since she became the leader two months ago that she seemed confident enough to take the fight to the government the way she said she would. If she can sustain and build on that, the next two debates could be much more exciting occasions.

While Ardern did not achieve the walkover victory many had been expecting, she is unlikely to be too worried about the outcome. She did nothing to harm her government’s significant popularity or slow the substantial political capital and momentum she has built up during the Covid19 response. The passion that seemed missing in this debate will undoubtedly be rekindled in time for the next two debates.

Collins’ challenge in the meantime is to try to establish some traction following this debate. The hope she may have given her supporters that electoral annihilation can be avoided or least minimised has to be built on over the next couple of weeks.

Part of that will be sorting out the mess in National’s economic strategy which now seems to have three significant holes totalling about $8 billion within it. National has released a large amount of substantial policy in the last week, unlike Labour that has been focusing on the bits around the edges, but that level of detail will count for nothing if holes keep being found within it.

While the debate will have done Collins no harm, it was not a game-changer. Ardern’s tone is still more in tune with the public mood, still anxious and shaken following the Covid19 lockdowns, and seeking reassurance rather than Collins’ focus on “the plan” for what comes next. But while Ardern will continue to glide majestically around the country from one selfie opportunity to the next, Collins will have just a little bit more spring in her step as she carries on with her campaign.

The next two televised debates – on 30 September and 15 October – could yet provide either leader with the opportunity to make the decisive impact to set this still torpid election campaign alight.  

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