"Spending like a drunken sailor"

TV One hosted the first of three head-on debates between John Key and Phil Goff in the leadup to this year's election on November 26. I missed it live because I had an exam (these evening exams are bloody awful, by the way), but it was up on TVNZ On Demand pretty quickly so I've just got myself all caught up.

Below are my thoughts on a few points of style and substance that really stood out for me. I've even gone to the effort of using headings and subheadings to make it extra-readable for a change.

(I'll admit that some of these might be inadvertently plagiarised, as I did check my twitter feed on the way home and it was absolutely going off with everyone livetweeting as it went.)


Mark Sainsbury is useless. I remember the debate that he hosted last year between Key and Helen Clark and it was downright awful to watch, so I'm glad they sidelined him this year in favour of Guyon Espiner. Espiner actually did surprisingly well, so full credit to him. His suit was awful though, wasn't it?

The media panel was a bit of a waste of time - they should have involved them more or left them out entirely (though Wallace Chapman did have by far the best question of the night, so maybe they were worth it just for that).

The analysis from John Johansen and whats-her-name was rubbish. I like the idea of analysis as we go, because it helps give people and idea of what to look out for, but those two were just shit.

Video questions from the public are a complete waste of time. All you get is a long, poorly worded question on a pre-determined issue that one of the media panel or the moderator could have asked in a much more succinct way without wasting everyone's time. They're a gimmick.

Opening Addresses

Key and Goff both got 45 seconds for opening addresses. They were both a bit rubbish, especially Goff: he lacked any sort of sense of authority and came across more as a whiny wannabe than anything else.


Goff got over his shaky start within the first five minutes or so, and really started getting stuck into Key. I'm sure this was a prepared strategy designed to unsettle Key as early as possible. It didn't really work as well as I'm sure Goff's prep team had hoped - Key did look a little less sure of himself, but managed to keep delivering his message with a fair bit of confidence.

There was a notable difference in the way the two addressed each other for most of the first half of the debate (it looks like they started getting tired near the end and this phased out a bit). Key would say things like "what Phil's going to tell you is..." and he was using the word "you" quite a lot in reference to Goff. Goff, on the other hand was saying things like "John, since you became Prime Minister".

By addressing Key directly and by his first name Goff asserted a right to criticise. He came across as someone in a superior position who wasn't afraid to tell it like it is. Key, on the other hand, with his "you" all the time put Goff on the same level as himself. When you're having a conversation with a group of peers you address each other as "you" - when you're rebuking an underling you address them by their name.

Explanatory Methods

Key has a tendency in interviews to respond to direct questions with things like "so the point here is..." and then launching into a pre-prepared answer. That's the sort of thing that triggers a marker in an exam, and it's exactly the same here. It makes him look like he doesn't want to answer the question, even if he does. Reframing the issue works really well when you're responding to an opponent, but not a neutral moderator.

Hey does quite well when it comes to explaining complex issues by breaking them down into sub-issues. He'll say things like "there's three things happening here", and then go on to clearly list them. The problem is that I'm not sure that's what people want when they're listening to a debate. It's great if you're lecturing, but sometimes you want to sacrifice some of the detail and just make a sweeping generalisation when you're in front of an audience of average people who don't really care much about details.

Goff did really well talking about National's tax cuts. He came straight out and told the audience how much he'd benefited, and how much Key had benefited. I think people will appreciate they honesty and it should help reinforce the idea that Goff isn't in this for people in his income bracket - he's there to support those worse off than himself.

Following from the point about about Key's lecture-style explanations: he's pretty good with facts and figures. The problem is that when Goff says something like "income has fallen" he's just saying what the average New Zealander thinks. So when Key rolls out his statistics to prove Goff wrong, what he's actually doing is telling everyone at home that they're wrong too. Makes him look out of touch.

Interesting Issues & Exchanges

GST and Key being a "liar"
Goff came right out and called Key a liar over his promise to to raise GST before the last election. It was a strong move, but Key handled it pretty well. I think on balance he might have actually won that one, because nobody really likes to see nasty accusations like that, even if they are true.

Youth Welfare
I don't know what Key was thinking when he started talking about "young girls" on the DPB who get taken advantage of by "young, unscrupulous males." Made my skin crawl a bit to be honest. They both seem to agree that education and support is a bit part of the solution, but National will go further with their payment card that prevents beneficiaries buying cigarettes or alcohol. You can make up your own minds whether that's a good idea or not.

Defining Poverty
Espiner asked them to define poverty and Goff said something about being able to take your child to the doctor. Dumb move, because it gave Key a perfect platform to talk about National's policy for doctor's visits for under six year-olds.

The Flag
As soon as this question was asked I thought it was a waste of bloody time. We've got much more important things to worry about at the moment without waffling on about the flag. Goff fell right into the trap and spent a while talking about 'consensus' and such. Key came straight out and said it wasn't an important issue and that his government was focussed on getting back to surplus etc etc etc. Brilliantly handled.

Neither of them dealt with this all that well, but Goff at least had the decency to look grave about it. Key was dismissive. Trying to downplay something that's got the country so worked up (justifiably or otherwise) was a bad move.

Mining in National Parks
Goff was always going to win this one. The country's still a bit raw over the Schedule 4 issue. Key was dismissive again - will he ever learn? Goff handled it perfectly, again with his serious face on, saying "there's a place for mining, BUT" and then went on to talk about the environment. Goff went on to try and explain the idea of externalities, but fumbled it a bit. It's a shame, because I think the issue is something that would really strike a chord if more people understood it - they need to work harder on a clear line for this.

Goff handled this quite well. Started out by commending the initial response effort (impliedly including the Government), but quickly moved on to the fact that the rebuild seems to have stalled. Came up short a bit though when he was pressed as to what Labour would actually do differently. Key's dismissive tone came out again when he started talking about how "we're all frustrated by it" as if the Government has any right to be frustrated instead of alleviating the frustrations of the people. He did eventually get back on track though, talking about what his Government has done as far as buying houses, etc. He even borrowed Goff's serious face - a much better look.

Espiner asked them to define Leadership. I'm not sure if I'm biased here (I'm pretty sure I'm being fair...?) but I think Key seriously dropped the ball on this one. He talked about being "decisive," "in touch with the people," "having a plan," and then he said "elections are a contest of ideas." The problem is, in my view, Key doesn't really measure up to any of those standards. If he'd said things like "sound management" then maybe he would have looked a bit more sincere. Goff, on the other hand, talked about "vision," "hard decisions," and "the future" - all things that I think he and Labour are measuring up to pretty well so far in this campaign.

Broken Promises
Whoever told Key that responding to this question with a cringe-inducing line like "dynamic environment" needs a good slap in the face. It doesn't matter if he's right. When people see big words like that all they're going to think is: slime. I for one hate the media and opposition hang-up on political consistency and so-called broken promises, but it seems to strike a chord with people so you'd think they would have put more thought into how to deal with it. If I were in Key's position I'd say something like "nobody can completely predict what will happen in the future, I think we can all understand that, but I can tell you here and now that National will do everything we can to live up to the expectations of the New Zealanders who put their trust in us this election and vote National." I can't even remember what Goff said to this, I was too busy being disgusted by Key.

Greatest Mistake
Goff handled this one well. We saw the same straight-up take-it-on-the-chin approach as he showed when talking about National's tax cuts as he confidently said "asset sales, which you haven't learnt, John."

The Question of the Night

Wallace Chapman cited the Occupy movement taking off around the world, and asked both leaders what issue they felt so strongly about that they would be called to march for.

Key said, would you believe, "equality of opportunity". First, people have to pause and think for a while to check that they even know what that means. I had to do a quick mental check on the difference between "equality of opportunity" and "equality of outcomes." Maybe I'm just slow, but if the same slight pause went through the minds of other people watching then it's fairly clear that it's not much of a placards-and-chants issue. Second, I doubt anyone believed him.

Goff, on the other hand, grabbed the opportunity. His long career in the Labour Party meant he had plenty of experience to call on as he rattled off the multitude of National Party initiatives he had marched against. Considering Labour are trying to reestablish their credibility as the party of the working class, he couldn't have asked for a better platform.

My only worry about this bit is that, if my family are anything to go by, a lot of 'middle New Zealanders' are a bit anti-protest by default. Goff may have come across as a little too radical and leftie for some.

Conclusions and Results

Okay so that's most of the issues that stood out for me. I've left a few off either because I wasn't paying attention, or they were boring, or I just don't care about them. I've deliberately left out the Afghanistan one because I don't think either Key or Goff really got the chance to fully develop their positions on that.

Key started off strong. He was clearly well prepared. Even though Goff did the best be could to unsettle him right from the start he managed to stay on message. As the debate wore on though the prepared lines started to run out and Goff took the lead.

Key is nowhere near as bad at this as a lot of the media say he is. Last year he held up fairly well against Helen Clark and he can put on a pretty good performance in the House when he's on form. Nevertheless, Goff is a seasoned politician and he fought like a cornered animal tonight. He pulled out everything he's learned over a long career and it showed.

I'm not going to pretend I'm not a bit biased, but I think Goff ultimately came away with it tonight. But it was hardly a landslide.


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