Score draw for New Zealand leaders in pub quiz-style debate

By Steve Braunias in Auckland

Queen Street! The main shopping drag in New Zealand’s biggest city, a valley that rolls down towards the harbour in downtown Auckland, is hanging in there, just, even in these stay-at-home Covid days, as someplace fun and weird and chaotic – rare virtues in New Zealand life at the best of times – after dark.

True, the only joint to get a feed after 9pm is up the hill at Denny’s. And one of the few signs of commerce is the homeless man with his cardboard sign reading: “Let’s beat Covid. We can do this. Please give me money.”

But dear old Queen St always has an edge, and you could feel it creeping inside the doors last night at the Q Theatre, the venue for the second leaders’ debate on the election campaign.

The first debate, held last week in a deserted tomb at the Television New Zealand headquarters, had two distinct qualities: it was a bore, and a shambles. The prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, was barely awake, barely there, and barely interesting.

The opposition leader, Judith Collins, couldn’t believe her luck, and made merry, despite her limited wit. As the host, John Campbell had a shocker, and came across as a muttering fool.

But the Wednesday night debate at Q Theatre came alive, weirdly and engagingly. It was like a pub with no beer or music, and the worst form of entertainment known to mankind: the pub quiz.

As the quizmaster, host Patrick Gower played a stormer. He threw questions at Ardern and Collins willy-nilly, and forced them to answer quickly, driving them sometimes mad, sometimes silly.

He got shocking admissions and lines for the ages. He got the democratically elected prime minister of a first-world nation to say on live television that she’d smoked dope. “Yes I did,” said Ardern, asked if she ever tried cannabis. “A long time ago.”

Jacinda Ardern admits using cannabis 'a long time ago' in election debate – video

How long ago? Ten years, 20 years? A few weeks back, half an hour before taking the stage? Certainly she was loose and relaxed in the 90-minute programme. By definition, she was a different person than she was at last week’s debate, when she came across as a non-person.

But Gower also got Collins to say something so shocking that you’d have to be stoned to even think it: she thought Trump was doing a good job. “A damn sight better than some of the US presidents you admire,” she said to Ardern.

What? The spirit of Queen Street – demented, random, howling – had well and truly entered Q Theatre.

Drugs, Trump, gun control, cystic fibrosis, tax, Covid, climate change, violent crime, child poverty, cancer, house prices, farming, beef prices … Gower kept them coming, in love with speed and rapid response. “Quickly!” he yelled at Ardern and Collins. “Quickly, give us something visionary.” He didn’t want Rome built in a day; that was sheer idleness, he wanted the job done before the next commercial break.

That was when he asked about their plans to bring New Zealand out of the Covid crisis. “I tell you what,” said Collins. “If I may,” said Ardern. He asked about their plans to control the growth of membership in criminal gangs. “If I may,” said Ardern. “I tell you what,” said Collins. Each had their standard response, their favourite lines.

Ardern liked to say vague things about hope, and investing in people; Collins liked to talk about her panacea to every crisis, the National party’s health spokesperson, Dr Shane Reti. “He was Harvard-educated!”

On and on they went, whipped to frenzies by Gower, and haunted by the spirit of Queen St on a cold night in spring. It made for a hectic event. Neither Ardern nor Collins won outright. It was too close to call.

Whenever the show went into a commercial break, Collins issued a hysterical laugh; but she gave another confident, funny performance, and also gave a very strong and genuine sense that she was enjoying herself. Ardern, too, was in her element. Both looked like leaders.

Perhaps one looked like the leader of a feisty (“I tell you what!”) and sometimes very amusing little province, and one looked like a genteel (“If I may”) leader on the world stage. “People know who you are overseas,” Collins said to Ardern, “and I think that’s lovely.” The polls favour Ardern. But the debates favour both.