It was a better performance by Jacinda Ardern in the second leaders’ debate, writes Mark Jennings, but she doesn’t seem as comfortable as Judith Collins in the debate setting.

It’s unanimous. This was an enjoyable debate, a better debate, and finally, a debate that produced some answers.

To be fair, it wasn’t hard to improve on last week’s lamentable effort at TVNZ, but it is rare for the party leaders, the political commentators and the hordes on social media to agree they enjoyed a leaders’ debate.

Of course, it was always going to be better. Everyone had had the chance to learn from last week’s cock-ups.

Newshub was never going to make a hash of the camera angles and lighting. The checks would have been doubled to avoid the embarrassment that befell its rival.

Gower, surely feeling John Campbell’s post-show pain, cut the length of his questions in half and no doubt repeated over and over to himself the mantra of super rugby players –structure, discipline and no handling mistakes.

The coaching staff at Labour and National had time to rework (Labour) and hone (National) their game plans.

Team Jacinda knew that it needed a high energy start and Team Judith knew that they would face a fired-up opponent.

Walking to the podium Ardern, literally, rolled up the sleeves on her jacket. Higher levels of aggression, yes, but there was a level of comfort and natural order about this debate, too.

Ardern in a red jacket, Collins in navy blue. A live (albeit slightly sparse and socially distanced) audience. The warmer ambience of Auckland’s Q theatre as opposed to the stark battlefield of a TV studio.

Live tweeters jumped on Gower within minutes of the start for not keeping a tight enough rein on Collins. Ardern pleaded with Gower to let her in with an answer and Gower ignored it. He deliberately ignored it because he wanted Ardern to get stuck in and mix it with Collins. It didn’t take the Labour leader long to up her energy to the desired level.

Gower, like he did three years ago, had clearly spent time preparing for this debate. Last election he had the steely Lisa Owen helping him. This time, it was former TVNZ gun political producer Maryanne Ahern.

They may have made the decision before the TVNZ debate, but Gower and Ahern’s question lines contrasted markedly with Campbell’s more theoretical, big-picture approach. Gower was all about real-life scenarios, grass-root problems – issues voters in town or country could imagine or immediately relate to.

What happens if we have a lockdown over Christmas? Do you want house prices to go down? (Neither did). Will you abolish the right to silence in child abuse cases? (Ardern no – Collins sort of). Have you ever used cannabis? (Ardern yes – Collins no). Should Māori language be compulsory in schools (Ardern yes – Collins no).

Many questions demanded a yes or no answer; Gower got what he wanted – mostly.

An air of maturity and common sense seemed to evolve as the debate progressed and the audience appreciated it.

Questions seeking division produced agreement instead. Is Trump a dangerous influence on the world? Neither leader fell for that one.

Both agreed period poverty had to end and schools were the right place to start making sanitary products available to female students.

Should New Zealand change its name to Aotearoa?– both said no. Neither hesitated on agreeing that four year election cycles were a good idea and Arden drew laughs from everywhere with her quip to Gower “We don’t want to see you again for four years.”

In a post-debate interview with Newshub political editor Tova O’Brien, Collins refused to declare herself the winner as she had after the TVNZ debate. “I felt very good but I also felt it was a much more robust debate tonight, much more energy …. [the] big winner tonight was politics and I think the viewers would have enjoyed themselves.”

When O’Brien suggested she had been condescending to Ardern by once referring to her in the debate as “dear”, Collins said she was just being herself and accepted that her opponent had come up with some good lines.

When Ardern did the post-match interview, she seemed to acknowledge her performance last week had been below par and that she came to this debate with a more aggressive stance. “I had to make a call, you know, you either sit back and try and have that dialogue or make the point. I chose to make the point.”

While Ardern’s performance was better last night she does not seem to be as comfortable in the debate setting as Collins. ‘Crusher’ clearly enjoys the challenge – Ardern not so much.

But what impact has the two debates so far had on undecided voters?

Gower claimed the live theatre audience last night was made up of 100 mostly undecided voters. There was nowhere near this number unless he was counting Newshub’s production crew, Network executives and journalists among the political ditherers.

Newsroom managed to find six and asked them if they had been swayed to either National or Labour.

All said that the debate had left them more undecided than ever. One said he had been leaning slightly towards National but “Jacinda pulled me back to the middle“.

Most said they were thankful the debate was a lot better the “train wreck” of the Trump v Biden contest earlier in the day.

All agreed that commentator Trish Sherson summed things up well when she told Tova O’Brien in the post-debate analysis “I think New Zealand is lucky it’s had a debate of this quality tonight with leaders of this quality.”

Gower and Newhub will be pleased with last night and the pressure is now on TVNZ and Jessica Mutch McKay to restore the broadcaster’s mana when they host the final debate two days out from the election.

Mark Jennings is co-editor of Newsroom.

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