Follow our commentary of the New Zealand leaders' debate tonight on TVNZ

Welcome to the final leaders' debate. Just three days to go to the election.

7pm: The first question is about the US elections. John Key talks about a free trade deal, Helen Clark calls the Democrats a "sister party" and reckons Barack Obama will withdraw troops from Iraq. Will she go back to the war issue more often this night because of the latest Bill English tapes?

7.05pm: First viewer question asks each leader to name a policy the other party has that they like. Clark says she would never pretend to have all the answers, but says she has strong principles she stands for. She applauds National for its commitment to faster broadband. Key agrees that his broadband policy is a great idea. He goes on to praise Labour for its independent foreign policy. A way of pre-empting the Iraq/tape issue?

7.10pm: Clark talks about the public sector kicking in if the private sector is going to be slow. Pure Keynsian economics. Key wants to protect jobs as the banking crisis flows into the real economy. Mark Sainsbury asks why not have gran coalition. Key says National believes in free enterprise and individualaism, so no. Clark says Labour won't privatise parts of ACC, prisons and won't cut the public sector, so even more of a no.

7.13pm: A slaughterman via video is concerned about losing jobs offshore and to foreign workers. Clark says she will cut permits for some migrants, but says we're in bad shape because we don't have enough skilled workers. Key beings out his old talking points about reforming the RMA and how so many New Zealanders are moving to Australia. Clark seemed to answer that question more directly, but Key ticked all the boxes... And we go to the first annoying ad break. All very restrained so far. The minders seem to have given orders to tone it down. I guess both leaders want the last impression they leave on the masses to be a polite and nice one.

7.16pm: Sainsbury picks up on my point about how subdued the leaders seem and asks whether the campaign is taking its toll. Key goes back to the US, saying voters wanted change. Clark says they wanted an end to right-wing policies and free-markets.

7.20pm: KiwiRail is now the question. Clark says they've been working on it for years and that Labour wants to get freight off the roads. Key is less keen on moving freight short distances on rail. He says the government over-paid for KiwiRail and that buying it was not a wise use of funds. Clark says the alternative was to subsidise Aussie business, better it's in Kiwi hands. For a quarter of a million dollars, Key says he could have delivered more elsewhere.

7.23pm: Key ain't no grinch. He won't commit to the Maori Party's $500 Christmas gift for the poor and elderly, but lays out his other plans for transitiobnal aid in tough times. Clark says "sure let's look at it". She goes on smiling and saying she'll invest in education and training. We're into how much money the government has to spend now. Key says National was wrong to make promises when it knew the books were so bad. "It's written cheques it can't cash".

7.27pm: Why is methane included in the Emissions Trading Scheme when no other country does so, asks a viewer. Clark says it's because it's worth 50% of our emissions, and Key makes the same point. Clark says Labour kept its promise to keep farmers out until 2013. National won't throw our farmers to the wolves, Key says, but isn't clear what that means. Clark replies that we'll be more prosperous if we take climate change seriously. Key seems to be agreeing and criticising at the same time. Sainsbury is interjecting much more than last time, maybe too much. Key was about to make a potentially interesting point about biofuels and just got shut down. More ads.

7.34pm: How do leaders say no? A family with a "desperately ill" child ask what governments can do to help such families, and Sainsbury asks how a government says no to suffering folk. Clark says everyone feels for what they're going through. A personal anecdote would have gone down well, but she veers back to policy saying Labour's committed to free, public healthcare. Key says "as a parent" we all need to do what we can to help and hope that the welfare system is sufficient to support the families. Key gets in a personal story, saying he helped a young Fijian girl get a life saving kidney transplant. But health isn't about individual cases, he adds, it's about what's best "for the population". He wants more money on frontline services. A good answer. Clark says Key made a good point, that Working for Families will kick in for parents if one has to give up work. She has huge faith in our doctors.

7.37pm: The DominionPosts's Tracy Watkins had a taxi driver who reckons health and education is a mess. Clark says we're getting incredible results in education compared to other countries. Labour has invested millions more in health. Key, not surprisingly, says the taxi driver is right. When Labour came in you waited 55 days on a waiting list for an op, now it's 75 days, he says. Key says government "get distracted and detatched, that's just how it goes" and we need "fresh eyes". Clark laughs but doesn't interject. Man it's polite.

7.41pm: Helen Clark's grandfather was a chronic smoker and died early. Clark responds to a young girl asking why the government doesn't do more to enforce bans on dairy displays, saying that she did have a smoke as a teenager but would love to see the displays go. Smoking rates have gone down under Labour, she says. Key says it's "impractical" to ban displays, but he supports the hard-hitting ads and wants fewer people smoking. He loves his mum too... He's never had a puff. And he's never had a puff of anything stronger, either. Sainsbury's suddenly interested in the leaders' drug habits. Clark says this is a "hoary old question" and that she once answered Paul Holmes, saying, "we were both students in the 60s". Nuff said. Everyone laughs. That's the lightest, brightest moment so far. Thought everyone might launch into Kumbaya for a second there.

7.42pm: Another ad break. Sainsbury's failing to break the surface here. He and both leaders are going through the motions. There's little passion here. Clark's stressing her experience again, talking about her past, her long service, showing she knows where ideas came from and so on. Key is trying to look fresh and change-ish. (Is that a word?). But it's very 'from the book'.

7.48pm: Law and order now. Key says National's boot camps won't be just "sergeant major stuff" but will include literacy and numeracy courses. Key wants to "do something" rather than "do nothing". Clark agrees we need facilities for troubled young people. But she says before things get to that stage, it's better to intervene early. She's taking from Jim Anderton's hymn sheet. She really wants kids to stay in training to learn discipline. Clark doesn't want to inflict compulsory military training on the kids or our military. Key agrees – again – that it won't work, but promises money to help troubled kids.

7.50pm: Guyon Espiner asks if either candidate has ever broken the law. Key says he once drove his car on a carless day, and that's the worst thing he's ever done. The fiend! He adds that he's never done anything worth sending Mike Williams to Melbourne for. Good jab. Clark does her fake laugh and confesses to a few speeding tickets. "One memorable one," Key quips. He's on a roll.

7.52pm: The drug P and its eradication. Key wants better education, to target gangs to make membership an aggravating factor in sentencing. He tried to get another anecdote in there, about a company he visited, but got cut of by the host. Clark says Labour already has the latter policy going through the House, as is a bill to confiscate money from criminals. It's watching South Australia to see whether banning gangs would work. They essentially gave the same answer to that one. Ad break. I can't help but think that fewer topics and more depth would do us all a favour. We're just skipping through issues here like we're tripping down the supermarket aisle, grabbing a tin of law and order and a packet of education. Where's the detail?

7.57pm: A chap from Hastings asks about abortion. What do their parties want to do to "stop the killings"? Key acknowledges that abortions are "not to everyone's liking", but personally would not vote to change the law. Clark says it's a woman's decision to make in consultation with her doctor. Sainsbury asks about God. Clark says she's agnostic, nothing is proven. "It's not something I spend a lot of time agonising over". She's social democrat but says the basic precepts of Christianity dictates how she lives her life.

7.59pm: What moves you, Sainsbury asks? Clark says she was moved by Obama's win and standing on sacred ground at World War I sites in Europe. Key says he doesn't "sit there and worship a God every night" and isn't a deeply religious person. He respects people's faith. Sainsbury says it would be a better ploy to claim God. Clark says no, it's better to be honest and Key nods. She touches on a rarely personal note, about her grandmother's faith and how it helped her cope with her gandfather's death. Key does one of his 'me toos', saying he's moved by Anzac Day. Key tells of a family in Timaru which lost their small child at hospice visit. But he admits he didn't cry.

8.04pm: New Zealand-Israel relations. Key doesn't want to pick sides on the Israeli-Palestinian agony, but he supports Israel as a friend. Clark supports a two-state solution and says Israel is a friend of ours.

8.08pm: Espiner asks about flip flops and asks for an example of when she has changed her mind. Clark is struggling with this one... Then she picks the fourth Labour government and says as a "loyal party member" she supported some bad policies, such a the super surcharge. She comes out of that much better than she started. Key says in 2005 National opposed interest-free student loans. He'll keep it now. But then he says he actually thinks the 2005 policy was better. Hmmm.... Key admits he was skeptical about KiwiBank and Maori Television. Didn't think they'd work, but admits they have. Very frank of him.

8.10pm: Sainsbury asks, will they ever learn to like each other? Like a pair of shy teenagers, they glance at each other, smile shyly, and then look at their feet. Clark says that, shucks (my word, not hers), if they weren't in politics they might enjoy a beer or coffee together. Key says they're just both passionate for New Zealand and the criticism isn't personal, it's political. This is bizarre, how agreeable they both are. They're actually answering each other's questions. Any second now they'll start passing love notes to each other or hold hands! Ad break.

8.16pm: Our time is nearly over, says Sainsbury. A mum from Wellington is concerned about water usage in the shower. She wants leadership on climate change even if it looks unpopular. Clark says it's important not to lose sight of climate change amidst the financial crisis. Renewables are vital, she says, and biofuels. She says the investment in rail will make a difference, and that she likes a shower. Clark carries on, talking about sustainability. She used to put organic waste in the bin, but now she has a compost bin. We're all learning, she says. Key cares about the environment too, but says he'll make the tough call and protect the economy. Rich companies look after the environment, he says, poor countries are trashing the earth. A bit harsh? Labour-Greens will have the environment at the top of the page, the Nats will have it further down the page.

8.18pm: Pita Sharples wants the Maori Affairs policy outside Cabinet. Clark says she'll negotiate such deals after Saturday, but she would be reluctant to have the Maori Affairs minister outside of Cabinet. Key also says that's for negotiations, but says Sharples or Tariana Turia would be able ministers and he'd have no problem with that. Maybe some news at last...

8.21pm: A girl asks if the leaders are friends, because she had been arguing about it at the dinner table. Did they go to Christmas parties together, perhaps? Key says he went to a Manuwera school recently and a little boy said, "I know who you are, you're Helen Clark's boyfriend". Key said, heck no. The funniest moment of the night. Clark suggests Sainsbury throw a Christmas party and see who comes.

8.23pm: Sainsbury asks if either leader would involve the other in their government. In short, they say, no. It's an election and we have to choose from two different directions. That's my summary, anyway, and I'm sticking to it. It's the last ad break now. I can only imagine they're all having a big cuddle now while we're watching the ads. What a love-in! Each leader has had numerous chances to say, "yes, but the other party would be disasterous", but neither has ventured criticisms.

8.27pm: Closing speeches.

Clark: Strong, proven leadership is called for in this troubled times, she says, starting with her mantra this campaign. She wants to put jobs and public services first. Interestingly, she steals a Key phrase, saying she's "ambitious" for New Zealand. There's a warning: "Don't gamble with our future". Labour, she says, will deliver a stronger New Zealand.

Key: He's more intense. It seems like he's learnt his lines word for word and is tripping over them a bit. The choice, she says, is between a Labour-Green government and a National-led government. Choosing National would be sending a signal that you care about economic growth and wages, safer streets, and education. It would choose the politics of aspiration over the politics of envy. It's time to change, he finishes.

And that's that. Thanks for joining me for this remarkably bloodless debate. It was a fencing match, both leaders armed but doing no more than tapping the outside of the other's suit.

Heck, even that's generous. There was hardly a blade raised in anger. It was more like a Sunday afternoon chat over tea, with Sainsbury playing the part of the vicar. Key was likeable and got in the better jokes, but also made a few jabs. Clark was firmer, clearer, but less pointed.

This debate certainly played into the hands of people who say there's next-to-no difference between the main parties. It was oh-so agreeable. That presumably benefits National, because the change they're promoting doesn't look scary or radical after a contest like that. The impression left is that they'll be a bit different, but not too much... Of course the change is more significant than that suggests, as you can see in our analysis of how a National-led coalition would govern. Part two of that tomorrow, by the way, analysing a Labour-led coalition. But for now, from the Pundit team, good evening.

Comments (4)

by Will de Cleene on November 05, 2008
Will de Cleene

Too much squeezed in. Next time around, I hope they take a page from the US debates and have a debate over, say, the economy, law and order and education on one programme, then health, welfare, environment on another. More time is needed to flesh out the arguments and cut through the talking points.

by Ian MacKay on November 05, 2008
Ian MacKay

Yes Will and Tim. Skipping from question to question meant that there was no time to develop any debate. Helped to consolidate the "we are the same and don't scare the horses", except that in reality National will......

Helen has a philosophy which  gives her the  ability to answer consistently.

I don't think John has a philosophy so he has to stuggle to think of an answer. Each question is a new exercise instead of referring back to a philosophy. Its why John flounders about who he is.

by Tim Watkin on November 06, 2008
Tim Watkin

That's a really interesting observation, Ian. I think experience makes a difference too. Clark has been round this block so many times. But you may be hitting on a more profound truth. Key draws on personal stories well. That makes him look genuine and connected to real people, but it also helps him avoid drawing on his own deeply-held philosophy, something you and I seem to doubt he really has.

by Jessica on November 06, 2008
Jessica

I think John Key's (or at least the National strategists') philosophy is to win the election at all costs. After a series of failed elections National has been forced to abandon its ideals in favour of the values more aligned with the Labour party. I don't think this is because the National Party has come to share these values but because they realise that these values attract more votes.

I would favour a party that stood by the ideals it believes in and then lets democracy decide on the day. I feel in this election that National stands for power not ideals. As someone that would prefer a Labour-led government I do not agree with a lot of ACT's policies, however, I respect that ACT stands by its ideals even if they are unpopular.

For this reason National is probably my least favourite party. They have campaigned as a centre/centre-right party, however, if they win I am not sure that they will lead as a centre/centre-right party. If they can form a government after tomorrow I will be interested to see in what direction they will lead the country.

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