Now that’s a debate

Three-quarters of the way through the second leaders debate, National's Bill English felt like he was laughing all the way back to the Treasury benches.

He snorted and momentarily lost it over a question from moderator Patrick Gower about cannabis decriminalisation. Gower mentioned having as little as 40 grams of the drug - "about the size of a muesli bar" - could make people a criminal.

English reacted like he was high. Loud guffawing, something in Gower's word picture setting him off, and throwing what had been a relentless debate off balance. His opponent, Labour's Jacinda Ardern, had to join in, quipping about Paddy's cannabis bar: "Would you eat it?"

The laughter from the incumbent Prime Minister might have been relief. Or it could have been him sniffing he'd done enough to edge Ardern for the second time in four nights.

Edge. Not embarrass or overwhelm. Ardern was more combative than last Thursday and delivered some of her best lines on National's time being up. Hand over the keys, old man.

Read the live report of the Newshub leaders debate

The reprise of the scrap over Labour's working group looking at a possible capital gains tax went nowhere much. Ardern looked awkward when asked directly if it could apply to a bach, farm or boat, befuddling the public again with talk of "extending the bright line", a term only the wonks comprehend.  

Yesterday's flare up about Labour's fiscal plan and National's Steven Joyce claiming it had an $11.7 billion hole with unfunded spending, was neutralised early by Ardern citing the backing of Labour's contracted economics agency and the views of leading economics journalists that no such hole existed. All the spending was based on the government's own pre-election financial update. "If it is not in there, that means you have not budgeted for it either."

But English had managed to match and neutralise her on two of the subject areas he should have been weakest on, child poverty and immigration.

At the start of the debate's third segment, with the first 33 minutes having passed at a frenetic pace, Gower challenged English to set a target to reduce the total of 155,000 Kiwi children who are materially deprived.

The PM: "Here's a start, Paddy. On April 1 next year, because of the package we'll put in place, child poverty will drop 30 percent - 50,000 fewer kids in poverty. If we can get elected for the next two or three years we can have a crack at the next 50,000."

Gower did the maths. That sounded like a target to reduce child poverty by 100,000?  English grabbed it. "Yes, I'm committed to that."

Ardern went for the raw nerve. "I'm pleased about that because we have been asking him to do that for.... nine... years.  And I do applaud that."

But her own maths deserted her. Changing the metric from 155,000 children to her own figure of 290,000 children living in poverty, she said Labour wanted to reduce that total by 10 percent. That's 29,000, Gower and English pointed out, compared to English's policy-on-the-hoof figure of 100,000.

Ardern tried to move it back to forcing National to put its target into law, but English took the studio over, twice, in the ensuing discussion.

Some exasperation came over the Labour leader, who is also the party's children's spokesperson. Here was flinty English of the nine years of neglect suddenly claiming to take action on child poverty.

"My entire reason for being in politics", she exclaimed "is to rid this country of child poverty."

English wasn't giving up. "What actions will be taken, what actions will you do?"

Ardern: "Bill, do you mind?"

Then, to another English interjection of "We're already doing it", she gave a command worthy of a Prime Minister at a cabinet table: "Wait!"

She listed off Labour's changes to Working for Families, its Best Start programme and $60 a week more for families most in need. Ardern worked her way back into the argument. "After nine years we still have child poverty. We've tried your ideas." Ouch.

It was an example of this debate's spirited exchanges that made the parallel interviews of TVNZ's effort look staid in comparison. As English tried to undermine Labour's planned axing of National's tax cut package, Ardern was confident enough to say to Gower: "Let him keep talking, please."

Ardern was again put off balance by her numbers on immigration, and how Labour could reduce net migration without derailing the substantial construction job the country faces on infrastructure and catching up on its housing deficit.

Gower pressed her on how New Zealand would cope for workers if Labour cuts the 72,000 a year number of migrants by the 20,000 or 30,000 she cited. Ardern said the party's policy provided for up to 5000 builders but the moderator was able to quote a policy figure of 1500 migrant visas for that purpose.

To that, she claimed the 5000 included New Zealanders who would join the building trades. "We've said 5000 in total. Some will come from New Zealand."

English couldn't believe his luck. First he tried: "Five thousand is nothing."  Then, realising the Ardern error, he fired off: "New Zealand builders will be getting a visa to work in Auckland."

The net migration figure should be a sore point for National. Gower drilled English on letting "all these people in and you did not have a plan, did you?"

English: "I agree we did not plan five years ago when we had 40,000 leaving for Australia a year  - I admit we did not plan that the number now would be zero."

Ardern was in, telling him population growth is not a plan for a growing economy. "What he's relying on is us all selling houses to eachother.... and immigration."

English: "Labour's plan is higher taxes."

Ardern, dismissive: "That's not true, that's so last century."

Her theme, refined since last week was that National is worn out and can't be trusted, on its last legs, to suddenly do the things it has resisted so long.

Asked for her one advantage over English, having never been in government, she replied immediately: "Generational change and a vision for the future of New Zealand."  Asked what personal attribute she might have over English in any wooing of New Zealand First Winston Peters for coalition talks, she said "I don't have baggage."

At another point, during the housing affordability segment, she turned to English and said: "Bill, we know how to do this. You've had nine years. It's time to hand over to someone who has got a vision and a plan."

English latched onto the vision thing later in the debate. Asked if Auckland was coping with its growth, he said it was coping better now the Waterview motorway tunnel had opened.

Ardern interjected: "We need a vision," and that irritated the Prime Minister. "Well, let's shut down all the projects and have a vision. Let's try that."

His Waterview Tunnel-vision thing was not his only air shot of the night. He called pre-fab classrooms "Modern Learning Environments" - which some of them might well be in the education jargon, but which made him look like he was putting lipstick on inadequate school facilities. And he wouldn't name a potential future leader from within his caucus, implying it would be the kiss of death.

The worst moment for English was when asked what cause he would march in the streets over.  He answered "for the right to govern this country." Gower shot back that he meant he would march for his own right to keep his job.

Ardern looked ill-prepared for the question on who in her team could be a future leader, and as her mind ticked over, listed three MPs, Carmel Sepuloni, Peeni Henare and Jenny Salesa. But she would march in the street, decisively, for "ending homelessness. Everyone having a home."

This debate was a step up by all concerned. Gower's clever questioning, wit and pace made it work as both an event and a way to make the leaders engage and answer. Ardern, while less relentlessly positive, was forceful even when on the defensive.

Last week I had merrily predicted English couldn't improve on that performance, but he did. He looked comfortable in his own skin and despite his klutzy moments, could afford that laugh.

Help us create a sustainable future for independent local journalism

As New Zealand moves from crisis to recovery mode the need to support local industry has been brought into sharp relief.

As our journalists work to ask the hard questions about our recovery, we also look to you, our readers for support. Reader donations are critical to what we do. If you can help us, please click the button to ensure we can continue to provide quality independent journalism you can trust.

With thanks to our partners