John Key showed he could master policy and presentation in tonight's debate, but he failed to master Helen Clark.

Helen Clark and John Key tonight both got what they wanted–a head-to-head debate without the minor parties. Strategists from Labour and National respectively concluded that this one-on-one format was just what their leader needed and would give him or her the edge. One team of advisers had to be wrong.

With the dust settling on Campaign 08's first television debate, I suspect it's Helen Clark who goes to bed feeling just a little more justified. She was not brilliant by any stretch and would not have won over many who were not already inclined to vote for her. But she reeked authority from decisive smile to her final telling question: "Who do you trust with the future of your economy?"

Viewers would have been looking most closely at Key, the new man. Indeed, Key wanted air-time uncluttered by minor parties so that New Zealanders to get to know him. The man they met tonight was well-briefed, intelligent and articulate. A little nervous at first, but likeable. Willing to take on the Prime Minister, even. But make no mistake, he was the follower. He had the details, but lacked the authority. He repeatedly reacted to Clark's comments, trying to explain her errors or clarify his position, rather than forging ahead with his own; he backed into his answers, beginning his statements with "I'm not arguing against that, but..." or "That's a fair point, but..."; and he let her take-over questions aimed specifically at him. In troubled economic times, Key needed to look like a rough, tough leader and the expert market-man that he is. But for an expert there was little expertise displayed. He failed to offer a laser-like analysis of the credit crisis that made me think, 'yes, he really understands this stuff' and he failed to offer a way out of the current financial mess that went beyond tax-cuts and vagaries about growth. I kept waiting for him to go on the attack, but except for a strong critique of Labour's poor environmental record (an issue that isn't going to win him votes, anyway), he was strangely muted.

For me, the most memorable moment of the debate came towards the end, when Mark Sainsbury, often anonymous as moderator, said that what a lot of people ask him is whether John Key has sufficient mongrel to lead the country. Key needed to bare his teeth and say straight down the camera, "darned straight I do". Instead, he flapped his arms and replied, "That's up to New Zealanders to decide". Sir Robert Muldoon would have been rolling in his grave.

Key did, however, show a mastery of policy. He started especially well, going toe-to-toe in the initial stages when the focus was on his specialty subject, the economy. As the debate went on he hit other highs, hammering Labour on the growth of emissions during their time in government, speaking passionately about literacy and numeracy, and telling how he had written to Clark in 2007 offering to work with her on his concerns about New Zealand's finance companies. Key's people should release the letter, because it showed impressive foresight.

He also showed a good knack for digging himself out of holes. Asked what he would define as "rich" these days, he started by saying it was being "not fearful of the next bill". Hardly a winning line for the middle-classes who may not be bill-shy, but still feel under plenty of financial pressure. But he recovered to speak about his state house upbringing, how it hurts parents not to be able to do more for their kids, and his belief in the "politics of aspiration". Left floundering by Barry Soper's question about previous comments that he didn't take a position on the Springbok Tour in 1981, he admitted to being "mildly pro-tour", but squeezed out of what was an obviously awkward place for him by saying the issues that matter in this election do not involved what happened 27 years ago, but what shape the economy is in in 27 weeks time. Pressed by Sainsbury whether he would be firing public servants to save money, he refused to be drawn, saying instead that "322 people got fired today because our economy is not working". Deft touches all.

Clark smiled for much of the night, but somehow still came off as the tougher one. There were moments when she slipped, however. When Key once spoke over her she tastelessly remarked, "You may be used to shouting people down at home, but...". Later she tried to argue that parents don't really need to pay school donations. Now that's just out of touch. But more than else her greatest weakness was her predictability. With Clark, we've seen it all before and competence is the least that we expect. She would have wanted to make a personal connection with viewers and their everyday lives, to look less aloof, but instead she settled once again for looking like the boss. Not a bad option these days, but not nearly enough to make us long for a fourth term either.

Clark benefited hugely from not having minor parties to deal with. On the environment, for example, she was wobbling. Had Jeanette Fitzsimmons been on stage with her, she may have struggled to fend off both a Green attack from the left and Key's "save the world, but protect the economy first" line from her right. But with only Key to compete with, all she needed to do was assure middle New Zealand that she wouldn't sacrifice growth for the trees. So she played it safe and kicked for the corner, as she did all night. In contrast to Key, she didn't want to look too tough, and while the smile may have grated, she kept her composure.

If voters had low expectations of Key as the inexperienced one, they would have been impressed by a man who wasn't vanquished by a three-term prime minister. But if they had been looking for leadership at a time when their financial security seems to be under threat from market volatility that they can hardly understand, let alone control, then I think the National leader will have left them with more questions than answers.

Comments (13)

by Craig Ranapia on October 15, 2008
Craig Ranapia

Oh, sorry Tim but if cutting out the "minnows" was supposed to move the signal to noise ratio in the right direction, there was little evidence in last night's effort.

Both Clark and Key clung to their content-lite talking points like barnacles on the Titanic; Mark Sainsbury (once again) leaves me wondering what the hell he does to earn his pay cheque from TVNZ, as he failed to bother moderating the debate at all.  (Someone needs to tell both Key and Clark and constantly interjecting and trying to shout the other down doesn't convey "strength" to many voters.  It says they need a time out on the naughty step, and perhaps a dry nappy.  My one man focus group - aka The Better Half -- lasted ten minutes, before firing an unflattering and unprintable assessment of both Key and Clark on his way out of the room.)

I'd rate last night's effort as mildly diverting infotainment, but very low marks for substance to both candidates, and TVNZ.


by Tim Watkin on October 15, 2008
Tim Watkin

It's interesting that the media has been taking a 'better than expected' line this morning. Key wasn't humbled, so he did well. TVNZ didn't allow the crowd to heckle or the worm to ruin the debate, so it did well. Fair points, sure, but don't we demand more than 'better than expected'?

by Craig Ranapia on October 15, 2008
Craig Ranapia

Fair points, sure, but don't we demand more than 'better than expected'?

Tim:  'We' should, but I'm not inclined to give Clark a gold star for competently rattling off talking points either.  It's pretty obvious to me that Labour is running a "presidential" campaign, but leadership is about the times when you don't get a couple of days to rehearse you focus-group tested bullet points.  And on that score, I was singularly unimpressed with both.

As I said (and perhaps you might beg to differ) mildly diverting infotainment, but I'm still wondering where the substance was.

Perhaps Lindsay Perigo was right when he described TVNZ news and current affairs as "brain dead" all those years back, and its time to give it a morphine OD and smother it with a pillow.  Perhaps, the dirty little secret is we don't really want politicians to treat us like grown-ups who can handle difficult truths couched in complete sentences.

But it's a little rich to complain about the symptom and ignore the disease.



by Gordon Harcourt on October 15, 2008
Gordon Harcourt

I find it rather bizarre that TVNZ is being attacked over the format in the debate.  This was an hour and a half of prime time television, with no worm, with no interjections from the studio audience, and with no minor parties involved.  Fran O'Sullivan in the Herald has dismissed the whole thing as 'stuntsville', presumably because of the YouTube viewer questions.  I am genuinely interested to hear what suggestions Pundit readers have for a different format.  No doubt many would like to see commercial breaks removed.  Yes it would be nice, but it's not very realistic.  I think more time could have been spent on the economy and responses to the financial crisis, but I also think it is essential to have a reasonably wide range of topics canvassed.

Gordon Harcourt

Declaration of Interest: I am employed by TVNZ.  This is a personal view, and has not been endorsed or vetted by my employer.

by Ian MacKay on October 15, 2008
Ian MacKay

Craig said:"I'd rate last night's effort as mildly diverting infotainment, but very low marks for substance to both candidates, and TVNZ."

I agree. The lack of substance on very important issues like the Economy were brushed on. I wonder which forum will address things in depth?

by Craig Ranapia on October 15, 2008
Craig Ranapia


First, thanks for engaging.  Even though you're expressing a personal opinion, I hope you will pass this on.  I don't have a problem so much with the format -- to be coldly realistic it's as good as it gets.  But how about Mark or whoever will be moderating round two actually moderate. Clark and Key constantly interjecting and trying to shout each other down might be entertaining; it's certainly fake drama, like a second-rate movie director who thinks endless crash cuts and pyrotechnics constitues good film-making.  But it's not informative, unless the whole point of the exercise was to let our wannabe Prime Ministers looks like cranky toddlers on primetime TV.

Here's my suggestion:

1) Put a ten second delay on the live feed, and wire up  both microphones with kill switches.

2) Make it clear that a repeat of last night's performance from either Clark or Key will get one civil warning, then a zero tolerance use of the kill switch from there on in.

3) MEAN IT. Were there any ground rules in place at all last night?

I can sneer at the American media-political complex as much as anyone (and with good cause), but for all their flaws I've actually come away from the two McCain-Obama debates feeling marginally better informed, and with my intelligence less insulted that I was by TVNZ's effort.

To parahrase Amy Pohler's Hillary Clinton: "Mark, grow a pair or borrow mine."  Because here's the dirty little secret -- they need you, and a live mic, more than you need them.



by Steve Barnes on October 15, 2008
Steve Barnes


I second Craig's comments, including the thanks for engaging.

My main issue with the debate was the You Tube format. It was an interesting idea to try to bring 'ordinary' New Zealanders into the fray, but unfortunately they also asked 'ordinary' questions. If TVNZ was looking for fresh and interesting perspectives, they failed. The questions were simply less articulate versions of what Mark Sainsbury (or whoever would usually have written the questions) would have asked anyway.

As an aside, I watched the debate online later in the evening so I didn't have to contend with commercials. However, I did have to contend with the debate being broken into six sections with no indication of the order in which they were supposed to be watched.

Good luck with your remaining debates.

by Hayden Wilson on October 15, 2008
Hayden Wilson

I am always intrigued by performance in debates like this being measured against the individual expectations of the candidates.

The message from the media this morning appears to be that Key was considered to have won because he did better than expected.  The same logic was applied to Sarah Palin in the US VPs debate.

To me, this is bollocks.  I thought Key objectively did very well in last night's debate.  So did Clark.  Each of them had their fumbles and their strong points and they were both taking completely different (and I agree with Craig, often 'content-lite') approaches to the debate.  Overall, I would have called it about even.

To my mind, 'even' is just that - 'even' doesn't mean 'well they came out all square but we expected Key to get pasted, so that's a win for him'.

I may be slow, but can anyone educate me on how that works?

by Tim Watkin on October 15, 2008
Tim Watkin

Steve, I think you've nailed it for Gordon (Hi Gordon). It seemed to me an improvement on previous years, especially the lack of barracking from the audience. But sadly for them the YouTube format, with its gimmicky, experimental feel, didn't gel with the serious times we're in.

We've just posted David Beatson's analysis of the debate. Of course David went through such things with Jim Bolger back in the 90s, and he seems impressed with TVNZ's handling of things.

I'm interested that I seem to be the only commentator in the country who scored it as a narrow win for Clark. Maybe I was overly impacted by the "mongrel moment"; did anyone else think that was just woeful? And I thought he frequently reacted to Clark's points rather than leading with his own. Do others disagree?

As for expectations, the gallery consensus seems to be that little was expected of Key. But, er, hasn't he pitched himself as our economic saviour? Weren't we meant to expect him to give us strong answers on the financial crisis? So why didn't he?

by Gordon Harcourt on October 15, 2008
Gordon Harcourt

Hi - I like the 'yellow card' idea for interrupting, and a subsequent kill switch.  I will pass those on.  I personally like the youtube questions, as I felt they did bring in different perspectives - especially younger viewers.  I thought the student who asked the question quoting a section number Education Act was actually a bit creepy, but it was an interesting point.  And I feel that attempting to expand the interest of this sort of programme is actually a good way to go, in terms of serving the democratic process.   If that sounds like self-serving cant, then gee I'm sorry.    cheers Gordon.  [see earlier post for Declaration of Interest]

by Craig Ranapia on October 15, 2008
Craig Ranapia

Maybe I was overly impacted by the "mongrel moment"; did anyone else think that was just woeful? And I thought he frequently reacted to Clark's points rather than leading with his own. Do others disagree?


Two part reply, Tim.

1)  I think it was "woeful" that question was even asked.  Pardon my French, but the only place I want to choose between a mongrel puppy and a dependable bitch is a pet store.  Nice to see the Fourth Estate keeping it real, and taking the election seriously.

I'd also suggest people who think that going Cujo is necessarily smart strategy take a look at another election that's going to held a few days before ours -- I don't know about anyone else, but it sure doesn't look like it's working out for John McCain.

2)  I guess there's an element of damned if you do, damned if you don't.  It's a simple reality that the incumbent has... well, the advantage of incumbency (what Teddy Roosevelt famously called "the bully pulpit").  You can engage with it, or just talk past it.  But I don't really think the latter was an option unless Key wanted to look out to lunch and off the planet.

And, yes, I think if this election is going to be put in a "Presidential" frame, it doesn't actually hurt John Key to say, now and then, "well, Helen, that's a fair point but..." or "you're right there..."  Again, look at the US -- Obama was mocked by the usual suspects on the right for (to be blunt) showing some basic civility.  But it seems to be getting a response from people who, at this moment, really want to let the sober, civil grown-ups back in charge.

by Tim Watkin on October 15, 2008
Tim Watkin

Craig, I agree that civility is no bad thing, especially in New Zealand. We love polite. But I think a lot of people are genuinely scared about their jobs and mortgages if the banks and markets don't pick themselves up (or get picked up by governments). Given that, civility isn't what people are looking for. They want 'Colin Meads fighting on for your country with a broken arm' tough.

BTW, interesting point about Roosevelt's famed "bully pulpit"... He didn't mean "bully" as we understand the word now, ie brute coercion, he meant "bully" as in great and grand (the early 20th century definition of the word). He simply said that the presidency was a great position to preach from.

Also, we've got posts from both David Beatson and David Lewis up now, so check out what the former press secretaries thought of last night...

by Rob Hosking on October 24, 2008
Rob Hosking

<i>I'm interested that I seem to be the only commentator in the country who scored it as a narrow win for Clark. </i>


Ahem. I did in a column for NBR.  So too did Ben Thomas for the same publication.  Slightly different grounds to you....I thought it was pretty much a draw on substance (what substance there was) but Clark won it on manner.  


One point about a lot of the pre-match commentary annoyed me, and you've alluded to it:  the 'low expectations of Key' thing.  I believe that was bollocks as far as most undecided voters were concerned.  A lot of the commentators had low expectations but that was because Key had had quite a few recent stumbles.  There's an unfortunate tendency for too many of us to assumed the rest of the country is as obsessed with every little stumble as we are. 



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