Review: Final TVNZ Leaders Debate
I am sure I am not alone in finding last night's Leaders Debate painful. I enjoyed the TV3 one much more, but perhaps that was the additional novelty of getting to watch the worm. Last night was like watching kids in a sandpit arguing, particularly from Key. When I want to watch politicians making faces and snide remarks, I watch Parliament TV. However in a debate I expect much more of a statesman-like style, as I am certain viewers are, as you are really looking for the kind of decorum of someone that might be able to run the country. As I have illustrated earlier on Tumeke, there is a lot of research in political science into the way that televised debates throw attention away from the issues and onto the televisuality and rapport of the politicians involved. And to be honest, last night I had a great deal of difficulty focussing on anything that Key said as he just looked far too irritated. Instead of bringing the leader into the home, I felt like I had an obnoxious eye-rolling teenager on screen. In terms of his performance, he has been much better in earlier debates and I'm not sure that this style of response does his argument any justice and he was erring into the kind of territory that Clark was in when she started to lose her cool in the last election's televised debates. Due to the fact that there was very little new in terms of their arguments, many viewers would have been looking at their responses as evidenced by the way that the debates are assessed by viewers in forums.
Goff didn't do much better either in this one. While his continual flouting of the Privacy Act in speeches to provide examples of the real people on the street worked well in Monday's TV3 debate, it didn't come across so well in the more intimate forum and set up of the TVNZ debate. The focus on attack meant that he was giving far too much time to National. I would also agree with Claire Trevett's conclusion after the debate that the sole focus on asset sales attacks is perhaps not doing Labour any good, given the polls leading up to the elections that have shown consistently that while most New Zealanders disagree with it, it is not really changing the composition of the vote very much at all.
And this taps into one thing that I don't think Labour have done particularly well this election: providing an overall narrative. They do have policy, but they have not been good at conveying how this works independently of National. In an election where votes are driven by an ability to convey complex issues in a soundbite. National's term involving three major crises (the Christchurch Earthquake, the global financial crisis and the Rena) and a Rugby World Cup did leave Labour on the back foot. Labour then came out strong at the beginning of the campaign with a strong opening address and the superannuation policy. However, they needed to develop much more of a strategy for positioning their leadership as not being based around opposition to National. Since Key's claim to "show me the money" in the Fairfax Leaders' debate and Goff's fumbling of numbers more recently, Labour has been working to buttress themselves against claims of not having comprehensive policy. Yet when they have presented this, as in Cunliffe's presentation to the Mood of the Boardroom, it has not been executed well. Cunliffe as an ex-diplomat has the charm and cultivated politeness that would sell well to business, as represented in the fact that the study showed that while businesses overwhelmingly wanted National (98%), they did not mind Cunliffe as leader or Finance Minister. Yet the presentation he gave had too many slides, and he ripped through policy and numbers at the speed of light without giving people the chance to digest it. In contrast, English got away with writing all the policy off by saying that Labour had a "habit" of overspending.
I don't think that if National get the majority the polls are telling them they will on election night that this means that people support all their policy, I think it relates more to people feeling that they have a lack of leadership options. When you have unpopular policy with popular leaders this is not necessarily a mandate, this is a personality based election. We are not going to see the five reports on asset sales as National have blocked it by claiming commercial sensitivity meaning that New Zealanders are not going to be informed in their votes even a couple of days out from an election. More disturbing, their case seems to be based on a complete lack of political advice as Guyon Espinor recounted on Breakfast the other morning. This information should be available to voters so that they can make decisions on policy.