You could almost see the basket in Judith Collins’ arm during last night’s Newshub Leaders’ Debate, as she went merrily about her business picking fruit from the voter tree.
Praise farmers and reassure them she won't "beggar” them for a photo op? One apple plucked from the National tree. Tough on law and order? One plucked from the New Zealand First tree. Mention her Christianity and belief in miracles? Pluck from the New Conservatives. Promise to get rid of the gun register? Pluck from ACT.
Pluck, pluck, pluck.
Amidst the hurly-burley of an energetic and fast-paced debate Collins was – to use a phrase popular under the previous National government – very targeted in her approach. The debate for her was a vote harvesting exercise and she managed it with aplomb. She also continued her efforts to introduce herself to voters, talking about her brother-in-law’s cancer and her faith. Though there were some clunky moments – calling Ardern “dear” and praising Donald Trump – she looked more Prime Ministerial than ever before.
As Guyon Espiner says on today’s Caucus podcast, debates seldom significantly move voters, but Collins’ performance in the second televised leaders’ debate is likely to have some, on the centre-right at least, pondering a return home to National.
"Judith Collins, with that kind of performance and building on the TV One debate, may have stopped the rot for National and may even have gained a little bit," he says.
It was a performance, Scott Campbell adds, that Simon Bridges or Todd Muller would have struggled to deliver.
Those minor parties - ACT, New Zealand First and the New Conservatives - are probably the biggest losers from last night’s debate – apart from “communist” David Attenborough and poor old Feilding, named New Zealand’s ‘Most Beautiful Town’ 16 times, but last night used as an example of the ravages of methamphetamine on small town New Zealand.
Not that Labour leader Jacinda Ardern had a bad night. It was a world apart from her flat, policy wonk performance in the first leaders’ debate. Sometimes it seems she’s so determined to play nice and be kind that she misses opportunities to point out the differences between her party and her opponent’s. But she used her Covid experience effectively and looked more like a woman in charge.
She was at her best last night when she pushed back against Collins, saying that Taranaki needed to transition to new industries and energies and National’s ideology on oil and climate change was “out of date”. But she is struggling with her party's record. For a party that ran so heavily on poverty, housing and climate change, it’s a serious problem that this Labour-led government has failed to keep headline promises in those areas.
As Scott Campbell says in the podcast, it was a night of policy on the hoof. Moderator Patrick Gower not only did a fine, well-structured job, he had a significant impact on the next government’s policy, regardless of who wins. Both leaders promised an investigation into Pharmac, for example. But Collins went further, and while the politics might work well for her, the policy implications of her throwing everything into last night’s debate could have ramifications.
At the lower end of the controversy spectrum, she promised an inquiry into Gloriavale and to match Labour’s commitment to free sanitary products in schools. But she also promised to get rid of the gun register, something that does not feature in National’s firearms policy. Just 18 months after the mosque attacks, are New Zealanders ready to wind back the changes to guns laws that were so widely applauded at the time? Are the victims’ families happy with Collins’ promise?
What’s more, she promised to claw back money from big businesses who took the wage subsidy and then have laid off workers and/or reported large profits, such as Briscoes, The Warehouse and Sky City. The National leader went so far as to say she would change the law to recoup that money. In a Newstalk ZB interview this morning, Collins has admitted it was “a big call” that she made on the spot. Whilst admitting that retrospective law is “not ideal”, she said with the numbers and power of government she could figure something out. In truth, even if she is to win, it’s unlikely that’s a promise she can keep.
Collins also made a comment long mocked by previous National leaders, admitting that house prices should drop “in some places”. That seems to be completely at odds with party orthodoxy and the economic growth pattern of the previous government. She won’t want middle class home-owners to be wondering if their town or suburb is one of those places where house prices should fall.
With advance voting opening in two days and just 16 days until the election proper, Collins will need to harvest a lot more than the low hanging fruit from minor parties to make a race of it. And she will want to be careful which fruit she chooses to pluck. But National now has the hint of momentum and if nothing else the campaign has finally come to life.