Remember the Bush-Gore debates in 2000? We may see the same thing in NZ with the 2011 Election debates. Goff would have surpassed the expectations of many, but that doesn't necessarily win elections

I'm suprised by the commentators who have talked about John Key winning last nights One News Election debate. It's true that there were no killing blows and on points of substance the Prime Minister often seemed more authoritative. Thing is, that's not what people takeaway from a debate such as this.

It's all about context and expectations. The leaders started last night with about 50 percent of New Zealanders backing Key as preferred Prime Minister and about 10 percent backing Goff. If you don't think that by the time people went to bed last night that would have changed, you weren't watching the same programme as me!

Goff would have impressed many who have not been impressed with him previously. Not huge amounts and not so much that they would all change their votes. But more than before tea-time last night.

It's the curse of a familiar incumbent, but Key would have only lost supporters, not added any. He didn't look like a loser, but he did no better than expected; some would have seen him as doing worse.

For me, he certainly won some of the exchanges. His definition of poverty -- "you're scared to open the bills" - was the most real and telling. And that's not all.

His question, 'if mixed ownership is so bad, why didn't Labour buy Air New Zealand back outright?', is a clever one, and Goff didn't have an answer. Key's also right that Goff can't have it both ways in Afghanistan. If your reason for wanting to bring the SAS home is because Hamid Karzai's government is riddled with coruption, then you can't argue the PRT should stay there simply because the governor of the province they're in is a good stick.

If central government corruption is your premise, then the geography of your troops is irrelevant.

Goff too needs an answer on how he hopes to both get greater super contributions out of employers and higher wages. It's going to take something special for the former not to erode the latter, and he hasn't expressed that yet.

But Key didn't come across as Prime Ministerial. His command of detail was good at times, but he had his own bouts of intellectual dishonesty. Quoting the increase of beneficiaries since 1971/72 is just meaningless, unless you acknowledge that the DPB began in 1973 and now equals roughly a third of all working age beneficiaries. And saying that farmers are already paying into the ETS because they pay for power and fuel - just like everyone else - is fatuous.

His claims that he'd march in the street to give kids a good start in education has got to be considered dubious when the quality of early childhood education is demonstrably being cut to save money and get more kids into the system. National's opted for quantity over quality, which it can argue is realistic in tough times, but hardly an example of a passion for education.

Those are all points for other media to pick up after the debate - and it's disappointing the newspapers this morning didn't run some factcheck columns on such points.

Many viewers this morning would be able to recall the detail of foreign policy or welfare reform, however. But they remember what they've seen with their eyes.

And in the style stakes, Goff won comfortably. Although clearly nervous at first and often stiff, he turned to Key and engaged him. He used his first name, refusing to give him the credit of his office. He expressed some passion.

Key looked startled at first, his brow ridged in perpetual surprise. At first he looked straight ahead, looking uncomfortable, not wating to engage Goff as an equal. But eventually he turned and started talking to "Phil".

Key looked uncertain; sure, he was relaxed, but he wasn't comfortable. And he kept starting his responses with his "let's understand this" line, deployed to make him look like he's dealing with fact, not mere opinion. That got annoying, for me at least, especially as his voice tended to pitch up when he said that.

What Key can fall back on is his doggone likeability. It's his ace in the hole. Goff has to chip away at that - and he did a little last night. But the cost is that the Labour leader looks angry and negative and the National leader looks calm and composed.

After last night, Key was still the one most viewers would want to hang out with. And like it or not, that's a key measure.

Don't believe me? Think of the Gore-Bush debates in 2000. Al Gore was impressive, commanding and on message. George W. Bush struggled and declared the loser by pundits debate after debate.

Yet Bush lost the debates and won the election. Well, he won office, anyway. Not so much the election! But what got Bush through was the sense that Bush was more like the viewer, more someone you'd want to have a beer with.

This could go the same way, with Goff winning the debates but losing the popularity contest.

No, politics ain't fair.

Comments (6)

by Luc Hansen on November 01, 2011
Luc Hansen

Hi Tim

It's always much easier for the incumbent to look as though he/she is above the fray, so I think Goff did very well, certainly, as you say, better than most expected.

I wasn't surprised because he is not only intelligent but very experienced and those qualities were on full display.

I especially enjoyed that JK turned to Goff and complained that Phil shouldn't call him a liar, not because he didn't lie (he later admitted that he did, "dynamically" speaking), but because of his status as prime minister. Limp.

The big elephant in the room, however, in the rush for votes, that is basically being ignored is climate change and many, many, scientists and studies report that we are approaching the point of no return.  As someone recently said in a talk at the LSE, a comment that could be equally applied to NZ, our politicians are arguing over micromanaging already well managed -give or take a few - economies.

I would love to see Key and Goff closely grilled over their views on this important topic.

In the meantime, we will just party vote Green, for the first time.

 

by Tim Watkin on November 01, 2011
Tim Watkin

Thanks Luc. Easier for the PM to appear above the fray... but harder for them to meet or beat expectations and harder for them to avoid public disillusion.

Simply staying in politics tends to undermine credibility, given the expectations of many these days. Politics is compromise, yet we turn on anyone who is less than pure. A legacy - still – of the betrayals of the '80s and '90s perhaps, but one that makes it difficult for any politician to live up to expectations.

by Chris de Lisle on November 01, 2011
Chris de Lisle

I think the "lets understand this" is entirely in keeping with Key's vaguely paternalistic style. It matches the "by the way," the "guess what," use of terms like "youngsters" & "your little Johnny or your little Jill" and the constant use of the second person. It did grate after a while. But so did Goff's insistence on opening his points by telling us that such-and-such group had told him whatever point was convenient for what he was about to say. None of the groups quoted are really that homogenous in opinion.

What really bugged me though were the mannequins bathed in red & blue light seated behind Key & Goff. What were they there for? To give it a Halloween touch?

The "media panel" and "Sainsbury with the talking heads" both irritated me also. Why does these people, journalists and political scientists, who already have a privileged position in our country's political discourse, get a privileged position in the leaders' debate too?

As for the debate itself, it basically confirmed to me that these things aren't a very good way of getting information out. Any given topic is addressed far too briefly to really engage with and it seemed heavily weighted in favour of talking points rather than actual debate. Of course, any time it did go into debate, it was just them shouting over each other (& Guyon Espinar freaking out and shouting over them!). There should be a better way to present the parties' policies and get them to answer each other's points, but there doesn't seem to be.

Perhaps, rather than worrying about filming it to fit in a limited live timeslot, film it beforehand, let it go as long as it takes (Streaming it on the internet, perhaps?) and then screen the discussion on each 'topic', over a number of nights?

 

by Tim Watkin on November 02, 2011
Tim Watkin

Chris, you'd lose your audience. The thing to remember about debates is that they're not going to give you the detail of print or be all things to all people. They're not going to be laden with detail.

Sometimes it's as if they're expected to encapsulate an entire campaign and everything important to everyone in NZ in 1.5 hours. Ain't gonna happen.

What you get is to see the whites of their eyes, how they handle pressure, the key points of their policy boiled down and so on.

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