Cablegate: Opposition Leader Key Wins Opening Debate with Pm

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1. (SBU) Summary. On October 14, Prime Minister Helen
Clark and opposition National Party leader John Key
participated in the first of a series of head-to-head debates
before the November 8 election. The debate was particularly
timely in that recent polling has shown the gap between the
two parties narrowing. The contest was fiercely fought, but
media analysts and the public viewed Key as the winner. Key
made a case for change and his overall performance
strengthened his image as a Prime-Minister-in-waiting. Clark
cited her leadership credentials, Labour's track record over
the past nine years, and sought to convince viewers that in
these challenging times experience was needed. However, Key
who exceeded expectations and enabled National to get its
campaign back on track after a difficult week. End Summary.

Clark vs. Key: Round One

2. (SBU) On the evening of October 14, Prime Minister Helen
Clark and National Party leader John Key squared off in a
robust TVNZ-YouTube New Zealand debate, the first one-on-one
debate ahead of the November 8 election. (Note: There will
be other debates between the leaders of the minor parties.
End Note.) The two leaders fielded questions from the
moderator, a panel of three political journalists, and from
New Zealanders via YouTube video messages. For Clark, the
debate was a chance to remind voters of her leadership
credentials and build upon momentum gained from a successful
campaign launch on October 13. For Key, this debate served
as an opportunity to prove that he is a
Prime-Minister-in-waiting and to seize back the initiative
from Labour after his own party's lackluster official
campaign launch on October 12.

Debate Fought with Vigor yet Respect

3. (SBU) The debate itself was fiercely, but respectfully,
fought between the two as they addressed issues ranging from
the management of the economy to whether the Labour
Government was running a "nanny state." On New Zealand's
weakened economy in the wake of the global financial crises,
Clark touted her Government's track record of fiscal
management and its recent tax cut program. In response, Key
offered National's more ambitious tax cut program, referenced
the exodus of highly skilled and educated workers from New
Zealand under Labour and labeled the economy as inefficient
and in need of new thinking to make New Zealand more
competitive. On climate change, Clark stated that she wants
New Zealand to lead the world on this area. Key said that
goal is unrealistic and could jeopardize the New Zealand
economy's ability to rebound from the poor economic
conditions and growing government deficits. Key accused
Labour of intruding too far into the lives of New Zealanders
to regulate behavior, including Labour's recent ill-advised
policy to limit the water people use for daily showers (which
has been savaged by New Zealanders on radio call-in shows).
Clark resolutely disagreed, offering that government
interventions under Labour have helped the majority of New

Clark Makes the Case for Experience

4. (SBU) Clark, an experienced debater, displayed a firm
handle on policy and detail. She was confident, assured and
enthusiastic about her party's record in office and her
vision for New Zealand. At times she struggled to find
suitable language to effectively convey her position and
often reverted to quoting government statistics to support
her arguments. The PM focused much of her attention on
policies designed to help working families and lower income
Kiwis. She chided Key for not having participated in the
anti-apartheid Springbok demonstrations of the 1980s whereas
she has been politically active since her student days.
Clark's message was that her leadership is a known quantity
whereas Key's capacity to lead is largely unknown. Moreover,
she argued that in these perilous economic times it is
imprudent, even dangerous, to go with a newcomer.

Key Underlines Change and Aspiration

5. (SBU) John Key advocated change, ambition and his
ability to handle the job of Prime Minister. He emphasized

WELLINGTON 00000342 002 OF 002

pragmatism over ideology and displayed a sound understanding
of the principles and details of government. He was not
afraid to rebut Clark and often did so in a forceful, yet
respectful manner. Key illustrated his party's policies and
his own vision in language familiar to most New Zealanders.
He emphasized much-needed changes in law and order, as well
as education. Although he had a couple of stumbles, Key's
confidence never wavered and he was poised throughout the
ninety-minute debate. Key stressed that after eight years in
power, Labour has lost its way and that it's time for a
change. His language was peppered with aspirational high
notes, yet he worked to appear grounded and pragmatic.

Key Voted Winner

6. (SBU) The popular verdict - by pundits and public alike
- was that Key came out on top and single-handedly succeeded
to get his faltering campaign back on track. Most
importantly though, analysts believed that Key did enough to
establish his leadership credentials. They praised his
poise, passion, common touch and grasp of issues. A phone-in
poll of 40,000 New Zealanders immediately after the debate
showed that 68 percent of respondents agreed with the
punditry and thought Key bested Clark. Although it was
acknowledged that Clark did not have a bad debate and
essentially met her expectations, Key exceeded his (and many
others') expectations and therefore won the debate.


7. (SBU) While Clark and Key traded blows, none was
obviously fatal. Immediately following the debate, Clark
appeared upbeat and complimentary of the debate; following
the results that showed Key was widely believed to be the
winner, her mood changed and she sharply criticized Key. A
natural and experienced debater, Clark was looking forward to
showing up Key and illustrating that he is well out of his
depth to assume the mantle of leadership in New Zealand.
That did not happen, and Key turned in a solid performance
that showed he was on top of the issues and prepared to be
Prime Minister. National Party officials likely breathed a
sigh of relief by the end of the debate, as Key needed a
strong performance in the wake of recent polling that showed
the gap between Labour and National sharply narrowing.

© Scoop Media

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