Bryce Edwards: Voters can’t go shopping on Ardern and English’s vague values

Bryce Edwards: Voters can’t go shopping on Ardern and English’s vague values

Last night’s leaders debate on TVNZ1 was lacklustre. A lot of people will tell you that the debate was quality – it was calm, it was respectful, and it focused on policy. But, actually it was boring and we didn’t learn anything new. Yes, of course they put forward their different policy generalities and attempts to show that they have vision and values. But it was all terribly bland and vague.

By consensus, the most memorable line from the debate was Bill English’s retort to Jacinda Ardern that “people can’t go shopping with your values”. But that actually sums up both of the leaders’ contributions. They both put forward well-rehearsed lines, but nothing that really had the sort of substance that would have won over any undecided voters watching the broadcast.

The must-read analysis of the debate is Tim Watkin’s A taxing debate night, but everything’s changed, in which he sums it up as “a tepid affair, in which neither leader shone.”

Watkin’s account is worth quoting at length: “If I had come to the debate as an average voter after a hard day’s work, I would have felt they were both talking at me, past me, but not to me. They were strong on vague values, policy jargon and what Grant Robertson annoyingly keeps calling ‘direction of travel’, but both struggled to answer the “how” questions. Sure, they want things to be better, stronger, faster, but failed to deliver to New Zealanders exactly how they would do that. When they did delve into detail, they waffled their way into generalities. Both policy wonks, they seemed to have all the pieces swirling around in their heads, but couldn’t quite get them out. English wanted to say ‘trust me, I know what I’m doing’. Ardern wanted to say ‘we can do better, so let’s change’. Instead they waffled.”

Watkin also points out that both leaders struggled at times: “First, Ardern struggled on tax, then English struggled on housing. English went onto struggle on wages and water, while Ardern struggled on labour reform and, oddly, even on the environment. Perhaps most of all, English struggled to not look like a party that had been around a long time and is now drifting. But neither convinced.”

Veteran debate-watcher, Barry Soper declared “the winner of the debate was vanilla.” In fact, Soper says it was less of a “debate and more like a “discussion” – see: The trouble with Jacinda Ardern.

Partly this simply comes down to the leaders’ personalities: “the trouble with Ardern and Bill English is that they seem to quite like each other and the handshake in the studio after it was all over seemed warm. These two lack the mongrel even if the earnest Ardern incredibly declared at one point that it had been a robust debate, which perhaps just goes to show she’s not the type of person to get into a slagging match.”

Perhaps Ardern was just too reasonable. After all, she received plaudits today from rightwing blogger David Farrar: “I enjoyed the debate last night. There were far fewer interjections than previous debates, and no impugning of motives. Former Labour leaders could learn a lot from Jacinda in terms of the benefits of reasonableness. She thanked the Government for the briefing on Afghanistan, praised Chris Finlaysons’ record on Treaty settlements and said she agreed that our economy is one of the better ones in the world. Jacinda is likeable, and showed it in the debate by not trying to be a hyper-aggressive debater” – see: A good debate.

The harshest critic of the debate was leftwing blogger Steven Cowan who awarded the debating winning prize to a US actor playing a president: “I bailed out of the ‘leaders debate’ after about half an hour or so. That was enough. It was limp. It was uninspiring. It was two centrist politicians engaged in a polite debate that never rose to any great heights. The winner on the night? I haven’t seen the ratings, but possibly it was Shortland Street on TV2. I myself spent my time watching Veep, which was far more productive. Julia Louis-Dreyfuss as Vice President Selina Meyer was my winner on the night” – see: Limp and uninspiring debate.

Cowan complains further about the over-emphasis on vague values: “Jacinda is media friendly, she tries, she’s keen, she talks a lot about ‘caring’ and ‘values’. She wants to ‘value’ us into the future.”

Obviously the two leaders were keen to show how “relentlessly positive” they are. And Toby Manhire has commented on this cautious approach: “English resisted, however, any temptation to attack Ardern on questions of experience or aptitude. At the media stand-up afterwards, English said it had been a ‘civil’ encounter, which people had come to expect. He hardly put a foot wrong. But neither did Ardern. Neither wanted to risk a fall. It’s seems strange to say it, but the one who may need to take a risk is now English, if polls keep trending the way they are” – see the Spinoff’s Group Think: Guy Williams, Annabelle Lee, Ben Thomas, Emily Writes, Simon Wilson and more on the first leaders’ debate.

Part of the problem with the debate is that in comes in the context of an exciting and unpredictable election campaign. So it will always be judged against that colourful backdrop. And it didn’t help that it was overshadowed by the stunning 1News Colmar Brunton poll that came out just one hour before. Audrey Young has commented on this, saying “it was going to take a lot to beat the dramatic poll result of the previous hour and nothing did beat it. It was almost an anti-climax” – see: Bill English vs Jacinda Ardern leaders’ debate: The verdicts are in. Young adds that the low-key feeling of the debate was “not helped by the informality of everyone being on first-name basis. Few mistakes were made. She confused the question on fair pay with pay equity but nothing major.”

Most of it came across as well-rehearsed. This was especially the case at the end, when they had to answer the question about what they had learnt since becoming leaders. They gave over-written and over-rehearsed lines. And neither came across as authentic or interesting in their responses. This was a low point in the debate, and a rather weak way for broadcast to end.

The broadcast gets a stern critique from the former head of news at TV3, Mark Jennings. He says, “As a piece of television, it was dire. Last night’s TVNZ’s leaders debate should have been spectacular. Rarely has the scene been so well set for a debate so eagerly anticipated. For the first time, Bill English and Jacinda Ardern would go head to head, the controversy surrounding moderator Mike Hosking had turbo-charged the publicity, and there was even a sensational poll showing Labour ahead minutes before kick-off. But somehow it fell flat” – see: Hosking’s flat debate gives Gower an opening.

Partly, Jennings seems to blame Hosking: “This debate had zero atmosphere. Humour was missing in action, partly due to a wooden performance by Hosking. There was nothing wrong with his handling of the debate or his questioning of the leaders, but he seemed strangely gun shy.”

According to Jennings, Hosking needed to be more disruptive: “There were a few moments, like when he held English to account for nine years of inaction on dirty rivers, when it seemed he might spark up the debate, but overall his trademark confidence wasn’t there. English and Ardern are similar – they are both nice people and it showed. This contest needed a disruptor, and it didn’t have it.”

But Jennings has hope that the next leaders debate hosted by TV3’s Patrick Gower will have more spark: “Neither leader was a clear winner or loser last night, and suddenly the rematch has become more relevant. Gower needs to be an energetic and slightly unpredictable presence when the leaders meet for round two in four days’ time.”

As is normal, the two politicians made all sorts of questionable claims during the broadcast, and Andy Fyers and Katie Kenny do a good job of researching the validity of them – see: Truth or fable? We fact-check key points from the leaders debate.

No matter how dull the debate, there are usually interesting things happening behind the scenes. Henry Cooke reports on what it was like to be in the studio for the broadcast – see: Behind the scenes at the leaders’ debate. See also Cooke’s Debate: How Bill English and Jacinda Ardern are preparing.

Public discussion about the debate involved a fair bit of focus on Mike Hosking’s performance. The overwhelming consensus is that Hosking did a good job. For one of the more interesting accounts of his performance, see TV reviewer Steve Kilgallon’s Mike Hosking’s first 2017 election debate – how did he do? He concludes: “I’m no fan of Seven Sharp Mike Hosking – but debate moderator Mike Hosking did a good job.”

Finally, it might have been a lacklustre debate, but it has certainly produced some excellent satire – see Toby Manhire’s Why weren’t they more like Key?, and Ben Uffindell’s two blog posts, The Great Hosking Debate: A Debrief, and Hosking to be replaced in leaders debates by Jim Hickey, who will ask questions exclusively about the weather.