Last night, the leaders of New Zealand’s two largest parties met for a one-on-one debate. In the end, it seemed to me to be all sound and fury illuminating a little.
Prime Minister Helen Clark (Labour Party) and Opposition Leader John Key (National Party) met and debated in a weird format that combined videoed questions from YouTube, in-studio journalists and ones from the host. Very often the two shouted over each other and argued with each other in a way that would be unimaginable in America, but which is also familiar to anyone who’s watched Question Time in Parliament.
Many pundits that I read gave the night to John Key, if only on points. I personally think they both did well, but that’s not saying much because it was Key’s to lose: Riding high in the polls, he had an opportunity to zoom to the front, but he didn’t.
There are two reasons for that. First, Helen Clark is a seasoned debater and she often debated rings around Key. But the main reason is something that no debate performance could fix: National’s policies.
The conservative National Party has, under Key, been positioned as a slightly to the right of the mostly centrist Labour Party. He’s claimed that not much would change under a National-led government, but the things they would change are pretty alarming.
They want to reduce contributions to Kiwisaver at a time when we need Kiwis to be saving more. They’re cutting tax credits for research and development, even as they claim to be pro-business and focusing on growing the economy. They pledge to gut the public service, increasing unemployment at a time when the private sector is also cutting jobs. They’re planning on attacking the education system to go back to the failed policies of the past. Senior party officials have been caught admitting that the party does, indeed, want to sell off state assets, despite its pledge not to do so.
So, in the end, it’s National’s policies that are the problem more than Key’s performance in any debate. It can’t claim to be “fresh” or pushing “change” when most of its policies will be a continuation of the Labour-led Government’s, the rest refer back to their failed policies from the past, and most of their senior Members of Parliament have been their for decades. Add to that the fact that Key was once engaged in the same sort of business activity that led to the current financial crisis, and, well, neither National nor Key can be trusted.
So, for me, Labour and Prime Minister Helen Clark are the clear winners, though I’m not just talking about a debate.