Time is quickly running out for Judith Collins and National, and Jacinda Ardern may have accelerated their decline with a powerful performance at the Christchurch leaders’ debate, Sam Sachdeva writes

At yet another excellent and enjoyably chaotic election year debate hosted by The Press, there was one small concession to keeping a semblance of order.

As Jacinda Ardern and Judith Collins delivered their opening and closing statements, the sound effect of a ticking clock resonated through Christchurch’s Town Hall as their two-minute cutoff approached.

It was vaguely ominous – but for Collins in particular, the noise may have served as an unwelcome reminder that she is quickly running out of time to save her party from defeat.

More than 270,000 Kiwis have already voted, and those still waiting to cast their ballot were given little reason to swing in behind National, following a debate which the Labour leader largely controlled from start to finish.

The Prime Minister fed off the energy of a fairly friendly audience – no guarantee, given the equally supportive response National’s John Key received in 2011 and 2014 – as she set the tempo and tone in a way she had not quite managed during the two previous debates.

Ardern may have had a puppet likeness unveiled on Spitting Image, but it was Collins who was the caricature on Tuesday night.

Discussing Covid-19 early on, the National leader claimed Samoa had taken action a month earlier than New Zealand – a somewhat dubious argument to say the least.

Then, when challenged by Ardern, Collins made the bizarre decision to take umbrage on behalf of the island nation, proclaiming, “Actually, don’t disrespect Samoa” – a remark that attracted derisive laughter from the crowd and set the tone for the rest of the night.

Judith Collins’ debate night aggression tipped too far towards caricature in Christchurch. Photo: Joe Johnson/Stuff

Asked for the single biggest action National would take to address the threat of climate change, she somehow plumped for growing the country’s technology sector; when, responding to a separate question about improving youth engagement in politics, Ardern said young people wanted to see action on climate change, the National leader interjected with a near non-sequitur: “They want a car.”

Some pundits watching the livestream suggested Collins had made the mistake of focusing on the physical crowd of hundreds, instead of the thousands following along at home – but in truth, her approach played poorly in the hall as well.

There was little substantively new from both leaders when it came to policy debate, with both rolling out their well-rehearsed lines from the past few weeks.

National’s planned tax cuts were “an unaffordable sugar hit that is just not right for these times”, Ardern said; the Government was drowning the country in debt and treating the borrowing as if it was “Monopoly money”, Collins countered.

The Prime Minister was, again, strong on most Covid-19 questions as she emphasised the Government’s “hard and early” response, while the National leader hit Labour over its failures with KiwiBuild and border testing.

At this point in the campaign, it is little surprise each side has whittled down its lines of attack to a fine point.

But it is Labour’s jabs which seem to be sharpest, at least based on the reaction of the Christchurch crowd.

“What will be cut? The people deserve to know – what will be cut?” the Prime Minister demanded at one point.

Ardern was never likely to reuse Key’s famous “Show me the money” line from the 2011 iteration of the Press debate, given their quite distinct rhetorical styles – yet she came remarkably close in substance, as she repeatedly pressed Collins to explain how National would fund public services with its razor-thin operating allowances.

“What will be cut? The people deserve to know – what will be cut?” the Prime Minister demanded at one point.

When Collins promised to support New Zealand’s ageing population through the health system, Ardern was swift to follow up: “The best way to have health services is to fund health services, and for that you’ve got to have the money.”

In contrast, the National leader’s efforts to make the election a referendum on economic management did not seem to find much traction for her party, while on climate change and the environment – where Collins has been to the right of her caucus – she seemed out of step with the audience.

Then there was the prelude to the night’s proceedings: further rumblings of dissent within the party after Newshub revealed a critical email from list MP Denise Lee complaining about a dictatorial approach to policy-making, and a very public spat between former deputy leader Paula Bennett and ex-National staffer Matthew Hooton about who was to blame for the party’s parlous state.

Little wonder Ardern took a thinly-veiled jab at the disharmony in her closing remarks, as she warned: “When parties are focused on themselves, they can lose sight of what really matters.”

It is further fodder for Labour’s argument to stick with the “strong, stable” status quo over the uncertainty of a new prime minister and Cabinet – and there is a sense the clock is ticking not just for National’s designs on a return to power, but Collins’ reign as leader.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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