‘This stardust won’t settle’
We were promised a rowdy audience. We were promised a light hand from the moderators, and a fist fight from the leaders. We were not disappointed.
The Stuff debate in Christchurch lived up to its promise in most respects, with both leaders lifting their energy in response and exchanging swipes in what was the most fiery debate yet.
What this event lacked compared to its predecessors was a defining moment, a clear triumph for Bill English or Jacinda Ardern. The pair were again evenly matched, with the “lead” ebbing and flowing throughout.
A score draw was a luxury Ardern could most afford, with a TVNZ-Colmar Brunton poll showing Labour increasing its lead over National - the second time in three debates English has had to deal with bad news.
After a brief video montage showing just how much has changed in the last three months, with resignations aplenty, the two leaders strode out on stage to face an energetic crowd of about 700 Cantabrians.
'This stardust won’t settle'
Clad in a dark suit and light blue tie, English said he was unworried by Ardern’s momentum, seeking to frame the Labour leader as light on substance in an attack he has used with increasing frequency.
“Now the stardust has settled, you’re starting to see the policy...as an alternative to a successful New Zealand, you're being asked to vote for a committee.”
Ardern bit back, framing the election as a choice between the “risk attached to the status quo” and the chance for a new approach under Labour.
“This stardust won’t settle, because none of us should settle. Christchurch shouldn’t settle, New Zealand shouldn't settle for anything less than taking on head-on the challenges we face this election.”
Taking a page from Barack Obama’s book, Ardern leaned heavily on themes of hope and change, as well as an echo of his “Yes we can” slogan.
“We can invest in health and education if we choose to do things like cancel tax cuts, we can clean up our rivers within a generation, and we can do all of that while maintaining growth in economy by investing it in innovation and investing it in skills.”
English spent most of the first two debates on the front foot, and it appeared Ardern had decided attack was the best form of defence.
Leaning on her lectern and crossing her left foot behind her, the Labour leader interjected more than in previous debates, with a predictable clash coming over the alleged $11.7 billion “fiscal hole” in Labour’s spending plans.
With Finance Minister Steven Joyce - whose name attracted jeers - seemingly on his own in making the claim, Ardern pressed English to name someone who supported that view.
“Who agrees with you? Who agrees with you?...
"You continue to maintain that, you're maintaining a lie.”
English boxed back, standing by Joyce and undaunted by the heckler who warned, “Watch out Bill, you’re going to fall down that hole.”
"My generation has been sold down the river by your government."
Predictably, Ardern came under attack for a lack of clarity on Labour’s tax plans, with debate moderator and Stuff’s South Island editor-in-chief Joanna Norris asking whether she could assure voters there would be no “nasty surprises” awaiting them under a Labour government.
"The only one where we have allowed ourselves the room...is the tax working group. Every single other policy, we have provided an extraordinary amount of specific detail including a plan around how to pay for it."
The family home was off the table, along with the land under it, but she wouldn’t go any further.
When English tried to list off the possible new taxes under a Labour government, Ardern had a prepared line: “You increased taxes 18 times”, including a GST rise it did not mention before the 2008 election.
A topic expected to favour Ardern, water quality, was turned around when English attacked her for insulting “the thousands of people who have committed themselves” to improving practices on dairy farms.
Pressed on her decision to rule out raising the superannuation age, Ardern said English had let down her generation by stopping contributions to the Super fund.
"My generation has been sold down the river by your government."
“I know this generation, I raised them,” English retorted.
A rowdy crowd
Along with the polls, one sign of a shift in public opinion came from the crowd gathered within Riccarton’s La Vida Conference Centre.
In both 2011 and 2014, John Key benefited from a friendly crowd, winning cheers as he rubbed first Phil Goff then David Cunliffe into the ground over their spending and tax plans - think “Show us the money” and “Five new taxes”.
This time around, the mood within the room appeared to be leaning towards Labour.
English hardly set himself up for success in his opening, paying tribute to Cantabrians for their resilience - a word turned into a cliche by well-meaning politicians after the region’s earthquakes - and saying Christchurch would have the most modern city in Australasia once the city’s rebuild was completed “in just the next year or two”.
The remark attracted derisive laughter from much of the crowd, given the lack of progress on many of the city’s anchor projects.
Former Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee, a favourite target in the Garden City, received lusty boos when English mentioned his name, while the Prime Minister’s suggestion that the Christ Church Cathedral restoration was the city’s most important project was also unpopular.
Ardern played to the hometown crowd, receiving loud cheers when mentioning underfunding of the Canterbury District Health Board.
English seemed frustrated at points with what he later deemed a “partisan” crowd, grinning (or grimacing) as he raised his eyebrows and looked towards the roof.
In closing, he sought to repurpose Ardern’s talk about vision, speaking about his government’s values “based around the core value of the integrity of every person”.
But it was the Labour leader who had the last word.
“It is a decision between drift, which is what we’ve been doing for the last nine years...or for finally deciding to do things differently and take action.
“We can do it together, we will do it together, so let’s do this.”
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