By David Cohen*
Analysis - It's that time again - prime-time, that is, but election time, too - as Judith Collins seeks to improve her party's sagging fortunes with a sparkly showing tonight in the first of the televised leaders' debates. It will be the first opportunity for voters to compare her verbal merits alongside Jacinda Ardern.
No doubt, it will also be time for the commentators to wheel out the usual boxing metaphors as they consider who did or didn't score a knockout, or have the other one on the ropes, or punched well above their weight, at least when compared to the historic televised leadership bouts of yesteryear.
In the interests of working up a suitable pre-match sweat for the joust, here are five of the best:
Robert Muldoon v Bill Rowling, 1975
This was New Zealand's Nixon-Kennedy moment, a debate in which one of the chaps sounded pretty good (Rowling in this case, as much so as Nixon did on his night) but looked as if he had just been eaten for breakfast by a then surging Robert Muldoon. Muldoon sizzled while his opponent fizzled. Watching Muldoon masterfully lecture the undoubtedly decent but visually dismal Rowling also anticipated another American leader's debate, between a verbally disheveled Jimmy Carter and a mellifluous Ronald Reagan. Or even, heaven help us, Dan Quayle and Lloyd Bentsen.
Robert Muldoon v David Lange, 1984
Muldoon was as drunk as a skunk when he announced the 1984 "Schnapps" election, but by the time of his across-the-table leaders' debates with Lange he had sobered up somewhat. Not that it helped.
The night was Lange at his best, all lawyerish wit, verbal clarity, unpredictable jousting, and, it has to be said, a fair dollop of patronising swagger towards the end. By which point, his once unassailable opponent looked and sounded far more like a man in desperate need of another drink or five.
Jim Bolger v Helen Clark, 1996
"I've been asked who I would commit to if it wasn't me, and I said it would be the McGillicuddy Serious Party," was at least as memorable a line from Bolger as "Bugger the pollsters!" a few years earlier. The Great Helmsman's disparagement of Clark's left-wing credentials was ironic, of course, given that Bolger in 2020 might better be regarded as one of the great leaders Labour never had. But Clark, who wouldn't have made a bad Tory performer herself, was in tremendous form during this campaign too, giving as good as she took at every turn, all with a necessary dash of political humour, but now and then with a visible glint in her eye that voters would become more used to after she assumed the premiership in 1999.
Jacinda Ardern v Bill English, 2017
The debate, which was moderated by Patrick Gower, wasn't the best performance either leader (both of them terrific at their best) would ever give. But it certainly was among the more amusing - at least with the benefit of hindsight - for the banter over Winston Peters that takes place at around the 1'03" mark. The debate also featured one of the most ludicrous questions ever put to an aspiring New Zealand leader, namely that if North Korea and the United States were engaged in what presumably would be a nuclear war and Bill English received a phone call at 3am from Donald Trump imploring New Zealand to send troops, what would he do? All things considered, again with the benefit of hindsight, the correct answer might have been for the National aspirant to unequivocally commit his party to dispatching Gower himself to Pyongyang.
Jacinda Ardern v Judith Collins, 2020
No, there hasn't been an advance screening of tonight's live debate. But viewers can be absolutely be sure the Labour star will consider it an absolute privilege to be in the studio with an opponent she absolutely - yes, John, absolutely - takes nothing away from as she seeks the absolute honour of another three years leading the absolutely coolest little team of five million the world has absolutely ever seen. To be followed with a smile so bedazzling it will be as if St Peter himself (or at any rate moderator John Campbell) has opened the Pearly Gates just for this televised moment.
*David Cohen is a Wellington journalist and author of Fridays with Jim: Conversations About Our Country with Jim Bolger (Massey University Press, 2020).