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Gordon Campbell on last night’s debate, and Collins

Gordon Campbell on last night’s debate, and the Collins accusation

Debating is a peculiar discipline in that what you say is less important than how you’re saying it. Looking poised, being articulate and staying on topic generally wins the day – and on that score, Labour leader David Cunliffe won what turned out to be a bruising encounter with Prime Minister John Key last night on TVNZ. Cunliffe marshalled his points better, kept Key off balance and – more often than not – was in control of the general tenor of the contest. Labour supporters would have been heartened, and given some belated reassurance that maybe the change of leadership last year had been the right decision. Certainly, it was very hard to imagine David Shearer carrying Labour’s banner in that debate last night. The traffic might have been moving a bit too fast.

You’ve probably noticed I’m saying nothing at all about the content – little of which strayed from well-rehearsed positions. Cunliffe did take the opportunity to tidy up Labour’s position on buying back the assets sold off during National ‘s second term : that won’t happen. Key fudged again on tax cuts – and to the credit of the moderator Mike Hosking, Hosking did push Key hard on this point, to no avail. Key’s dance of the seven veils on tax cuts will continue – despite Finance Minister Bill English signaling that there’s no money for them. The majority of voters would prefer any spare money to be spent on better public services, anyway. All Key is doing with the tax cuts gambit is to use them as a lure, and as a contrast with the centre-left’s mooted tax increases. They’re about as real as the asset sales buyback.

But then again… much the content of last night’s debate was a duel between phantoms. Phantom tax cuts, and phantasmagorical programmes of affordable housing, which – in the light of the capacity locked up in the Christchurch rebuild – sound like castles in the air. Phantom claims that we’ve never had it so good even though the alleged “recovery” – now apparently on the wane - seems to have come and gone without raising the median wage which, if anything, has gone backwards. Amusingly, the run-up to the debate had also been a shadow boxing round of mutual compliments. To maximize his gains from the debate, Cunliffe did his best yesterday to portray himself as the underdog and Key as the experienced hand at this sort of thing, while Key had, for similar reasons, played up Cunliffe’s debating skill and expertise.

As it turned out, Cunliffe did very well indeed and IMO, won the contest - but not resoundingly enough to transform the election campaign. That was always an unrealistic hope in the Labour camp. At best last night’s debate will have stiffened the backbones of party activists, and brought back a few Labour supporters who may have strayed off to the Greens or New Zealand First. Good outcome, but not a game changer.

Footnote: Didn’t it seem weird that New Zealand “state television was unable to screen the first major debate in our election process without stopping the debate every few minutes for a very long commercial break? Maybe just once we could have an event of national importance without commercials. It would have sustained the momentum. Faint hope. Did those bizarre backside shots of Key and Cunliffe at their lecterns (with the lines of sight converging on Mike! Hosking!) really signal that for TVNZ at least, this election is merely a game show like any other ?


Winston Peters and Judith Collins… Talking of gameshow politics, here’s your poser for the day. You hear some allegations of political shenanigans that appear to involve some kind of plot to roll the Prime Minister, by his own Justice Minister. Problem: the only sources you have to rely on are (a) Winston Peters and (b) Judith Collins. I’m sorry, there is no third option.

Hmmm. Now…is it possible that one of them, or both of them, are being somewhat less than truthful? And would that be (a) this time (b) most times, or (c) every time they open their mouths? Here’s something that happened six months ago, if it happened at all. If there was any public interest involved, why didn’t Peters divulge it at the time – rather than store up these stale goods until this point in the election campaign?

Listening to Peters on RNZ this morning was another reminder of how strangely we conduct our politics. In the US for instance, could a politician make such a accusation and then expect – as of right – to keep every detail about the bagman in question confidential? Hardly. In the US, Peters would be required to name the bagman before the allegation got any media exposure at all. Doing so might give some credence to Peters’ tale, and enable us to trace who was trying to sound out the election kingmaker, and whether those enquiries were innocent, or not.

If the allegations were true – and that is a mighty big “ if” – the most interesting aspect would be that someone in the National Cabinet didn’t think – six months ago, anyway – that Peters was not quite in the bag yet, for National. Unless and until Peters can flesh out his story, he deserves to be ignored.

Winston, Meet Hank. And with the above in mind, the lesson for today is from Hank Williams, and its mighty good advice at this stage of the election campaign. Be careful of the stones that you throw, neighbour….

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