Last night’s first TVOne Leaders’ debate did not deliver a knockout blow to either the Prime Minister or Opposition Leader, Judith Collins.
Instead, it was probably a victory, as much by default as anything else, to Judith Collins.
She faced a curiously subdued Ardern.
The Prime Minister herself commented afterwards that she hoped future debates would focus more on the economy and fiscal policy.
Last night’s did not. But that didn’t really explain her low key presentation.
She herself claimed she was campaigning hard.
“You know, every day we will be out there earning every single vote and working hard to keep the support of New Zealanders.
“I take nothing for granted.
“I take no poll for granted.
“And we will keep working every day of this campaign.
“And you will see no complacency from us and no assumptions.”
However, that was not the way Andrew Little’s former Chief of Staff, Neale Jones saw it.
He tweeted: “Tonight’s debate was a total bore. Collins fronted well but didn’t get the knock out blow she needed. Ardern was credible but seemed half asleep. Doubt it will shift the dial either way.”
Host John Campbell did not address any fundamental economic questions such as the low growth path revealed in last week’s Pre Election Economic and Fiscal Update, the debt repayment programme, National’s controversial fiscal programme or the massive sums of money involved in the Reserve Bank’s quantitative easing.
A segment on high rents failed to discuss the role of the Reserve Bank or the implications of National’s proposal to bring back the Brightline test to two years and to once again allow house investment losses to be offset against personal income.
However, the debate did broach economic policy with a video question from David Smythe, a cardiologist at Christchurch Hospital about the Christchurch DHB’s $160 million deficit.
The most recent figures produced by the Ministry of Health show that all DHBs were expected to have a combined deficit for the 2019/20 year of $497 million.
Smythe said that the impact of this on Christchurch Hospital was that “we have to continue to look after many people with old facilities on six bedded mixed-sex wards.”
He asked how the leaders could help.
Ardern answered by highlighting new Government expenditure on mental health in Canterbury and then talked about infrastructure funding for hospitals.
We have significant infrastructure deficits; a record 900 million-plus put into our DHBs in the last budget,” she said.
“We need to keep going with the investment because there’s a long rebuild ahead of us with our hospitals.”
Collins said she would send in National MP, Dr Shane Reti, to sort things out.
“They’re going to need to have some extra money. That’s pretty obvious,” she said.
Collins, however, was not asked how National could do that given that its fiscal plan includes no extra money for DHBs and provides only $400 million a year for capital investment in health.
Similarly, Ardern was not asked about the Government’s intention to implement the Simpson Report on restructuring the DHB sector.
However, Collins was happy to point to National’s plan to use its Infrastructure Bank funding proposal to bring forward the construction of a second harbour crossing in Auckland to 2028.
Ardern did not address that issue at all.
And Collins scored when she responded to a video question from a young Samoan school student who felt she had to leave school to get a job to help her parents.
“I understand, my husband is Samoan so Talofa, and he was actually taken out of school when he was 15, ran away to his auntie who took him back so he could go to school,” she said.
“And that’s what happens to many kids who have got a lot of pressure on them because their parents don’t have enough money for them.
“So my view is we’ve got to get people into trades, going to get them educated.
“But also, we have to make sure that we have jobs that people can go to so parents can look after their children rather than the other way around.”
Ardern agreed on the jobs issue, but she added something that Collins wouldn’t; support for the minimum wage.
“The first port of call is to make sure that the family members have jobs that are earning adequate income not just to survive, but to thrive and so those young people can be young and continue with their education,” said Ardern.
“In fact, keeping up with lifting the minimum wage, you know, we’ve done it already.
“It’s made a difference of more than 100 dollars a week for families, high schools, Government paying a living wage for those who are in jobs like security and cleaning, making sure that those jobs pay.
“That’s what makes a difference to families being able to keep their kids in education.”
Another video question from Waikato dairy farmer Tracy Brown on pressures on farmers prompted something near a debate on the National Policy Standard on freshwater, but both Ardern and Collins confused rather than illuminated the issue.
Having previously said that the regulation would be “gone by lunchtime” if National became the Government, Collins last night modified that to say some aspects of it would be reviewed but a “ban” on irrigation would be gone. (There isn’t any specific ban on irrigation in the Standard.)
Collins said farmers felt they were bagged all the time by the Government.
“Remember dirty dairying,” she said.
Ardern responded saying that she felt that was a view which had passed.
“When I meet with our dairy sector, I have to say our primary producers as a sector I have probably met with more than any other because of this important work,” she said.
“They absolutely see the need for us to be competitive in this environment.
Ardern said that the same expectation for clean water was being placed on urban communities as rural.
“I want our waterways to be swimmable again,” she said.
“And I know that actually all our rural communities, that’s farmland where their children have swum as well.
“They want that, too.
“So we’re putting in place standards set actually stop the degradation, see material improvements over five years and within a lifetime, we see our kids swimming in that water again.”
And so the debate moved on; it covered child poverty which the Prime Minister said she had not given up on but what was more notable was what it did not cover.
There was no mention of Maori issues (particularly the Treaty); nothing on the Reserve Bank; nothing on foreign affairs; nothing on law and order and prisons and very little on education.
Collins will be buoyed by her performance but National Party President, Peter Goodfellow, was over-egging it in a fundraising email late last night when he claimed she had “crushed” Ardern.
Maybe it is the Prime Minister’s determination to campaign as Prime Minister rather than Leader of the Labour party which is dulling her performance. Or maybe it was because she was hardly challenged during the debate.
But Collins would be unwise to believe that she may get it as easy in their next encounter.
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