Helen v. John – Shake, stir, and shout

Helen Clark and John Key went head-to-head, but by ignoring the big issue neither were able to offer a defining moment

It was the moment of engagement that voters have been longing to see. Clark and Key went head-to-head. Old media ran interference. The YouTube generation entered the debate with some tough, relevant questions and New Zealand television entered a new era of direct participatory politics.

Last night’s leaders’ debate on TV One was a quantum leap forward from the controlled, contrived and mechanically balanced television debates of years gone by.

Helen Clark came into the arena smiling–brimming with confidence after clawing back National’s lead in the latest polls, and points ahead in the campaign after three days in which Labour rolled out a serial package of policy announcements that seemed to catch National flat-footed.

Key entered the debate as an unknown quantity in terms of campaigning performance. He quickly established himself as the man with a plan–well primed to point out the weakness in Clark’s claims to a record of achievement and raring to roll out his alternative agenda.

Clark staked out her claim to be the proven, experienced leader of a government that had worked cooperatively with other parties in the MMP environment to put in place a coherent strategy for growth, jobs, housing, education, security and environmental sustainability.

Key countered by quickly acknowledging the positive nature of the stated goals, then flicking through sequences of performance flaws before capping them with a simple illustration to show how New Zealand could do better.

There was a productive exchange over competing commitments to tax cuts and the impact of the National package on Kiwisaver. Here Key managed to take some of the sting out of Clark’s claim that the savings scheme was being wrecked to deliver a minuscule advantage over Labour’s tax reduction–some but not all.

Key put a significant dent in Clark’s claim to hold the high ground on environmental issues, highlighting New Zealand’s poor record of increased carbon emissions since signing onto the Kyoto Protocol. Here, he produced the best one-liner of the night when he told Clark: “Your rhetoric is amazing, and your performance is appalling.”

However, leading the world to a carbon neutral future will not take priority over the drive for economic recovery in Key’s agenda, so no green voter points were won there.

A YouTube participant opened the door to a fruitful debate on education priorities with a zinger of a question that branded Clark’s new plan to phase out parental means-testing for student allowances as unaffordable vote buying

Clark fended it off with by repeating her mantra about investing in the development of a high skills economy. Key tore the debate into a totally different direction by saying that his top priority was building the basic foundation of literacy and numeracy.

When the panel of journalists honed in on the issue, pointing out that one out of every two Maori boys are leaving school without literacy skills, Clark teetered off-course to the importance of apprenticeship and trade training. Key scored by pulling her back to the point.

The real black hole in this debate was the way the leaders were allowed to skim over the major issue of the day–the looming credit crisis.

There was a quick nod to each other on the virtue of the Australian-driven bank deposit guarantee, an effort by Clark to kick the problem into touch as something to be addressed in a post-election budget, and no sign of anything “fresh” or seriously critical coming from Key in terms of crisis management.

It seemed as if both leaders were living on another planet–far away from a world where other political leaders are pouring billions of dollars into their financial systems to keep their economies running.

The crisis in this debate was more personal than global.

At the halfway mark, Clark was starting to look stressed and began turning up the volume to talk over an opponent who just kept chipping calmly away.

By the time she verbalized her complaint about Key’s “barracking”, she had undermined her claim for sympathy by committing the same sin herself.

At the end, she allowed herself to descend into a prolonged bout of bickering, personal abuse that would have had the Speaker screeching for order in question time at Parliament.

In terms of substance, the head-to-head debate was a pretty much a draw. In style, it was a clear win for Key–a first round win reinforced by a viewers’ verdict on One’s late news that ran strongly in his favour.

The defining moment is yet to come.