New Zealand election debate: Collins edges it against 'passionless' Ardern

By Eleanor Ainge Roy

The first election debate between the New Zealand prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, and the opposition leader, Judith Collins, went off without a bang, with both leaders failing to properly ignite.

Ardern is widely expected to win the election on 17 October. In a Colmar Brunton poll released an hour before the debate, her Labour party garnered 48% as preferred leaders, compared with 31% for the National party.

The two leaders remained civil throughout the 90-minute face-off, and there were few moments of excitement, potentially owing to the fact the live studio was empty of spectators due to Covid-19 restrictions in Auckland.

Analysts, academics and armchair viewers declared Collins the winner of the debate – but only by the slightest margin.

Afterwards, Ardern defended her performance, saying: “Politics is not a blood sport”.

As expected, the National party leader took aim at Ardern’s government for its “failure at the border”, and the second wave of Covid-19, in which the country’s largest city entered a second lockdown in August.

National leader Judith Collins has her hair sprayed.
National leader Judith Collins has her hair sprayed. Photograph: Reuters

Globally, however, Ardern has been lauded for her management of the virus. New Zealand has recorded fewer than 2000 infections and 30 deaths.

Collins also criticised Ardern for the 20,000-long waiting list for state housing, increasing rates of poverty, and 400 people losing their jobs everyday post-Covid.

Ardern, usually a celebrated orator and communicator, was somewhat muted. Political analyst Dr Jennifer Lees-Marshment described her performance as “academic”, “defensive” and “lacking passion”.

Collins, a seasoned lawyer nicknamed “Crusher Collins” with a reputation for being tough, frequently mentioned her family, her parents, and her upbringing. This tactic seemed to lend warmth to the opposition leader, who is a stalwart of the party and its third leader this year.

On policy detail, both leaders were somewhat vague. Their Covid-19 management strategies were nearly identical, though Collins did say her party would allow more horticulture and business workers through the closed border.

Jacinda Ardern repeatedly mentioned climate change during the debate.
Jacinda Ardern repeatedly mentioned climate change during the debate. Photograph: Reuters

Ardern repeatedly mentioned climate change and the Labour party’s pledge to make New Zealand’s energy use 100% renewable – a goal Collins said would cost New Zealanders 30% more on their power bills.

Collins struggled when defending why her party would offer tax-cuts to middle-income earners, when Ardern and poverty experts have repeatedly said it is society’s lowest earners who need the most help at this time, and are suffering greatly under pandemic conditions.

Ardern promised to keep raising the minimum wage and help “cleaners and security guards” enjoy a better standard of living.

Tax cuts were “inappropriate at this time”, Ardern said of National’s plan to stimulate the economy, though her own party was committed to raising taxes for the 2% of the country’s highest earners.

On housing, Collins said building regulation standards needed to be overhauled to allow new homes to be built more quickly, while Ardern promised more public housing and retrofitting of existing public housing stock.

Many New Zealanders expressed disappointment with the quality of the debate and both leaders were criticised for their lack of passion and energy, though Collins perked up in the second half, interrupting Ardern, deploying her trademark quips and humour and appearing to enjoy herself.

She later told reporters she would have been happy if the debate had lasted another hour.

David Cormack, a former head of policy and communications for the left-leaning Green party, said the debate was won by Collins, “but not in a meaningful way”, while communications specialist Sean Plunket declared “a narrow points win to Collins”.

Newsroom political editor Sam Sachdeva declared the debate “a bit of a muddle”, but agreed that Collins “maybe edged it”.

“There’ll be some people looking at tonight and coming back to National I think,” Collins said in a stand-up after the event.