Bryce Edwards: Tonight’s leaders debate – who will be the real winner?

Bryce Edwards: Tonight’s leaders debate – who will be the real winner?

Who will win tonight at 7pm? TVNZ1 is broadcasting the first English vs Ardern leaders debate, and one of the most interesting measures of success might be how many viewers tune in. Will it beat Shortland Street on TVNZ2? In past elections, Shortland Street normally wins hands down, by a hundred thousand or so viewers.

It could be different this time. Public anticipation for this debate seems heightened. The number of news stories and columns about the debate has never been higher – partly thanks to controversy about Mike Hosking hosting it. But there are plenty of reasons for the public to tune in. The most obvious draw card is that it’s Jacinda Ardern’s first big debating test and her rival is now in the fight for his political life.

Hosking in the middle

Mike Hosking and TVNZ have faced significant public condemnation and disquiet over Hosking’s role in chairing the debate. But, as in 2014, he may yet surprise with a winning performance, and today he has produced a very interesting column anticipating how the debate will go – see: Chance for leaders to stamp their mark.

Hosking – rightly – sells tonight’s debate as a big deal: “Welcome to debate day. Bill English and Jacinda Ardern head to head. Not quite Mayweather v McGregor, but it hasn’t been lacking in the build-up as far as electoral campaigns go. I’m not alone in thinking that it has the potential to be a lot more exciting than an English/ Little encounter, and I don’t think I’m alone in thinking this is Ardern’s first real test in terms of presenting her credentials on a major stage against an opponent, as opposed to a crowd of party faithful.”

He provides some insights into what to watch for: “ultimately what makes these events so gripping is not what is said, but what isn’t. That is the beauty of TV and a cauldron type atmosphere like a debate. The face, the expression, the pauses, the looks, you can see what is not being said. And that applies both to those who perform well and not so well.”

Hosking also provides behind the scenes glimpses into how David Cunliffe and John Key were prior to their first debate in 2014. For example, “Cunliffe this time three years ago was beside himself when I walked into his green room. You could literally cut the air with something sharp. He looked like the hunted”, whereas “John Key had turned up by himself with only his security detail. The contrast could not have been greater.”

Controversy over Hosking’s ability and credentials to host tonight’s debate has already been well aired, but here are some of the more interesting contributions: Brian Edwards’ On Mike Hosking – Don’t Say I Never Warned You, Phil Quin’s Mike Hosking Must Moderate!, Nadine Higgins’ What’s the issue with Hosking hosting political debates?, Matthew Dallas’ Mike Hosking as moderator betrays network’s thirst for political game show, and Shaun Bamber’s Mike Hosking’s political leanings – in his own words.

Jacinda Ardern will ride the wave of Jacindamania 

Today is absolutely Jacinda Ardern’s most important day, according to Audrey Young – see: TV debate a crucial test for Ardern.

Here’s Young’s most interesting observation about Ardern’s role in the debate: “In some ways Ardern’s job will be simpler than English’s in the debate. The expectations of a knock-out performance by her will be low, given she has been leader for just over four weeks. She will be considered a success if she comes away looking half-way competent and able to foot it with English. She has an advantage over him in that the camera loves her and she is instantly likeable. That assists her in sound-bites and television news clips on the news but tonight’s hour-long format will be less forgiving. She is vulnerable on the economy. She can’t possibly have the depth of experience and knowledge that English has had as Finance Minister for eight years. She is especially vulnerable on the number of new taxes Labour definitely would and probably would introduce”.

Gwynn Compton has also written about Ardern’s chances. He’s a former staffer for John Key, but he makes some very fair points in a provocatively titled blog post, Jacinda Ardern could eat a kitten and still win the first debate.

Here’s why he thinks the Labour leader has the advantage: “the cards are firmly stacked in Jacinda Ardern’s favour to come out on top. A formidable debater in her own right, as well as presenting well on TV, Jacinda could eat a kitten during the debate and still be judged to be the winner. I don’t write that to be cynical, but rather it’s a reflection of the advantages that Jacinda takes into tonight’s debate. She’s riding a wave of extremely positive media coverage, Labour has bounced back spectacularly from the brink of oblivion in less than a month of her leadership, and she has the intelligence, she has the ability, and she has the charisma to deliver her a clear win tonight.”

Compton also suggests that Ardern’s values will come across well in a forum where this is more important than policy: “Debate viewers will want to hear what Jacinda’s values are, and what her vision is for the country is and addressing the key issues facing New Zealanders. They won’t necessarily expect policy specifics from her, though she’ll have a few to offer. Policy will play a less important role in this first debate as, despite all the media coverage, she’s still an extremely new leader for Labour and many will still be wanting to see if she understands their concerns, and if she shares their values and identity.”

Of course, Ardern has the capacity to surprise in the debate, and she’s already joked about bringing a different approach – see 1News’ ‘We’re going to bring a little slam poetry to the debates’ – Jacinda Ardern looking forward to battling rival leaders.

And according to Hosking, Ardern has some big advantages tonight: “Her distinct advantage is she comes in with a sail full of wind. She has the momentum. She must feel good about how the past couple of weeks have gone. That gives you confidence. Where she has trouble is in the experience stakes.”

Bill English is surefooted on policy, but needs to show his personality

All commentators are stressing the need for Bill English to emphasise his personality. 1News’ Corin Dann says today that “Bill English needs to show that personality that is there, people call him boring but when he’s relaxed and fired up he’s better” – see: ‘They have to bring out personality’ – Corin Dann on what to look for in tonight’s leaders debate.

Hosking, too, points to personality: “he also has two distinct issues that could trip him up. Firstly his personality. I hope he finds it because on the bad days it’s missing in action. He needs to come to life. Say what you want about policy and records, personality counts. Jacinda Ardern is indisputable proof of it. He also has to watch how he deals with his opponent. He can’t look or sound condescending, he can’t use his experience to lord it over her. Any hint that he’s being sexist or misogynist and he will be jumped on by the ever-expanding group of the permanently aggrieved who start each day looking for a scrap.”

Newshub’s Patrick Gower wants to see a bit of Billmania come out of English’s debate performances. One article reports him like this: “English will need to “bring the Bill factor” to combat the so-called ‘Ardern effect’ of Labour’s new leader. “The best place for him to take on the Ardern effect is in this debate… He actually can be an electrifying debater in parliament, but the public hasn’t really seen that, so the challenge for him is – we know he’s got the policy mana, but can he bring that performance into this debate?” – see: Hosking defiant, Gower ‘bloody scared’ going into main networks’ election debates.

Gwynn Compton suggests English may have problems engaging with the audience: “Bill has to be able to articulate policies in a way that not only engages viewers, but also convince viewers that a fourth-term for National is a better alternative than giving Labour a crack. This is where Bill’s problem lies. Television debates are not good platforms to talking about policy, and they are fantastic platforms for vision and value statements. In the cut and thrust of a debate, policy specifics get lost as people, especially commentators, focus on style over substances, and the eternal quest for that one zinger that finishes an opponent off.”

And leadership expert, Jon Johansson of Victoria University of Wellington says “English needs to remind voters of his strengths, chiefly his reliability and his ‘relentlessly dissatisfied’ policy focus” – see: Relentlessly positive vs relentlessly dissatisfied.

Other leaders debates

There’s an argument that Winston Peters should actually be sharing the stage tonight with English and Ardern – see Jo Moir’s Peters: Leader debates without NZ First would be ‘deliberately anti-democratic’.

But other leaders have had some chances to debate. Newshub held a debate on Saturday for the smaller parties. You can watch the 44-minute debate hosted by Lisa Owen here: Minor Parties Debate.

And on Sunday, Māori TV hosted a Māori-focused leadership debate. You can watch the 1 hour and 20 minute debate here: Election Aotearoa, Leaders Debate. Or read coverage of it: Māori Television kicks off first leadership debate.

And for the full (and colourful) details of debates past and future, see The bumper Spinoff guide to watching the NZ election 2017: the debates and the big night.

As for tonight’s debate, Jack van Beynen argues that political broadcasts can be the equal of Shortland Street: “Election season produces some of New Zealand’s best television: the leaders debates. The writer of any soap opera will tell you that conflict is the key to compelling viewing, and what is a leaders debate but a glorified argument? They have all the ingredients of a good television drama: we know the characters well, and most of us are pretty invested in the fortunes of at least one of them. And neither is about to back down and admit they are wrong” – see: Five things we want to see in the televised election debates.

Van Beynen emphasises the debates need to be engaging: “a leaders debate’s purpose is to inform rather than entertain, but it could be argued that people will switch off if it’s boring. So here’s a list of things I’d like to see our TV stations adopt to ensure our election debates are the spectacle they can be.” And his five points are: “Get the leaders to stand and let them move around”; “Involve the audience”; “Let the leaders interrupt each other – but not too much”; “Make the host an active participant”; and “Don’t just talk about the issues”.

Let’s just hope there isn’t too much focus on what the politicians are wearing. See the Herald’s Jacinda Ardern on Mike Hosking’s outfit question: ‘Are you asking Bill that too?’

Finally, to get yourself in the mood for the showdown, consider watching perhaps the most infamous leaders debate in NZ political history: The 1984 Leaders’ Debate – it’s only 20-minutes long. And for more on past debates, see Paul Little’s The best-ever New Zealand election leaders’ debates.