Jacinda Ardern vs Judith Collins: A dynamic leaders debate that lacked soul

12:41 pm on 1 October 2020

By Bryce Edwards*

Opinion - Newshub and Patrick Gower put on a first-class and entertaining leaders' debate last night, but the politicians themselves didn't bring enough ideological differentiation to give viewers much choice.

Labour leader Jacinda Ardern and National leader Judith Collins during the Newshub leaders debate. 30 September 2020.

Labour leader Jacinda Ardern and National leader Judith Collins during the Newshub leaders debate on 30 September. Photo: Screenshot / Newshub

Jacinda Ardern was wearing red last night, and Judith Collins dark blue.

They also had plenty of colourful things to say, which allowed their vibrant personalities to show. And we learnt a lot about their policies and positions in the high-energy, rollicking debate. Much of this was due to a dynamic format and a chair who brought out an engaging and free-flowing exchange.

And yet there was a lack of ideological soul in the Newshub debate.

Yes, the leaders were different in many of their answers to policy questions, but overall the differences weren't stark.

Essentially, Collins' political blue was very muted, and Ardern's red was - unlike her jacket - incredibly pale.

They both brought their centrism to the debate rather than any boldness.

So, if there was a winner in the debate, it was the status quo.

Neither offered anything very new or transformational. This was most apparent when Gower asked for their one transformational idea that would help the economic recovery.

Collins wants to make the country into the "technology hub" of the South Pacific.

Ardern wants us to capitalise internationally on "brand New Zealand".

Gower responded with incredulity, stating: "So trade on our brand is your visionary idea".

Even on the cannabis referendum, Ardern once again was reluctant to offer a different view to Collins (who opposes it), with as many calling it disappointing or hypocritic (as she admits to having smoked it).

In many ways, Gower had more of an appetite for bolder political views than the party leaders. Whereas they wanted to prevaricate and waffle, so often he sounded disappointed in their lack of vision or clarity.

This was most evident on questions such as housing, where neither leader wanted housing to become more affordable.

Collins did seem slightly more progressive than Ardern, saying that "in some cases house prices are going to have to go down".

She also out-flanked Ardern on the controversial topic of corporates claiming the wage subsidy while making profits and firing employees, saying it was "absolutely outrageous" and she would legislate to claw back the money.

Overall, they found consensus on so much during the debate: both backed the current Covid elimination strategy, keeping houses prices up, fixing period poverty in schools, a four-year parliament term, an inquiry into Pharmac, a statue of Kate Sheppard at Parliament, gender-neutral toilets in schools, and against renaming the country Aotearoa.

There were some interesting points of difference or orientation. But it wasn't clear that these would actually lead to remarkably different outcomes.

For instance, on Ihumātao, Ardern was highly sympathetic to the protesters while Collins was hostile, but it wasn't obvious that either would produce a difficult outcome to the dispute. Similarly, on the health system, Ardern declared it "broken", while Collins said it was "generally good".

Many viewers would have concluded that it was Patrick Gower who "won" the Newshub leaders debate. He was fun, insightful, and a useful inquisitor of the two major party leaders who are vying to be prime minister.

Most commentators are calling the outcome a draw. This is correct. They brought plenty of differences of style to the debate, and on the question of leadership, they both made their own very different approaches clear. But on questions of substance, there was less than of this than is desirable in a democracy.

Elections should offer distinctly different visions for running the country, and we only really saw variations on the status quo on offer last night.

*Bryce Edwards is a political analyst at Victoria University.

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