Going High, Not Low: An Assessment of the First Leaders’ Debate


THE PEOPLE who awarded the first Leaders’ Debate to Judith Collins are the people we learned to loathe during Lockdown. They’ve learned nothing from the public’s negative reaction to arrogance and aggression in the Time of Covid. Poor Simon Bridges paid the ultimate political price for lapses much less damaging than Judith Collins’ on Tuesday Night. But, fear not, Collins, too, will pay a price for her arrogance and aggression.

Jacinda Ardern, on the other hand, knew exactly what was expected of her in this encounter. Labour’s dominant position, three weeks out from the general election, is constructed out of the admiration and gratitude of hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders who, more often than not, vote National. Her calm demeanour at the helm, as she steered her country through the early stages of the global Covid-19 pandemic, was complemented by her ability to project an almost joyful confidence in the steadfastness and solidarity of her fellow New Zealanders. Nothing she said or did in Tuesday’s debate could be allowed to undermine that precious combination of calm and confidence. Nor did it.

Astonishingly, most political journalists and commentators still don’t get this. Like the snarling pack of newshounds who earned the instant (and likely permanent) dislike of those New Zealanders who tuned-in to the 1:00pm media briefings during Lockdown, these others regard arrogance and aggression as indispensable tools of the journalistic trade. People who are offended by their use are, in their professional opinion, naïve. They simply don’t understand how the news business works.

In the electronic media especially, broadcasters are expected to deliver performances overbrimming with confidence and energy. Like their colleagues in the print media, they have been trained to communicate with an audience whose average reading age is said to be twelve. But, as George Orwell makes clear in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the ruthless simplification of language leads swiftly and inevitably to the equally ruthless simplification of thought – the Holy Grail of totalitarian regimes everywhere. Simplicity in communication is a virtue, but sadly, the contemporary news media is increasingly prone to confuse simplicity with simple-mindedness.

So it was that while most New Zealanders responded positively to their Prime Minister’s clear command of the complex issues with which her government has had to grapple, the academics who train and educate the young people who emerge from our universities as professional “communicators” saw only someone who spoke to her fellow citizens as if they were seated around the cabinet table. Quelle horreur! In a democracy – a system of government which confers key decision-making powers upon the people themselves – a prime minister addressed her fellow citizens as, of all things, decision-makers!

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How much more effective, according to these academics, were the tactics of the Leader of the Opposition who barked and snapped at her opponent like a demented terrier and addressed the watching voters as if they were intermediate school-children. With her arched eyebrows and curled lips; snorts and guffaws; puerile interjections and belligerent playground taunts; Judith Collins was held up as the possessor of all the theatrical and rhetorical gifts required of a modern (or should that be post-modern?) political leader. For declining to get down in the gutter with Collins; and for refusing to treat politics as a blood-sport; the loser of the first Leaders’ Debate was declared, by these erudite instructors of tomorrow’s journalists, to be the Prime Minister.

Most of the journalists in the Parliamentary Press Gallery concurred. Jacinda Ardern, they opined, lacked energy. Why was she so passive? Where were the zingers to match her magnificent put-down of Mike Hosking earlier in the day? Why didn’t this “superb communicator” not bark and snap at her opponent as expected? The clear consensus among the political scribes was that when the Prime Minister next went head-to-head with Judith Collins, she would have to lift her game

Even among Jacinda’s supporters on the Left there were pockets of disappointment. Why didn’t she crush the crusher? Why didn’t she, figuratively, slash off the Tory champion’s head and hold it aloft, Game of Thrones-style, for her followers to revile? Why, when Collins offensively implied that people on the minimum wage were so much less consequential than school-teachers and small business owners, did she not condemn her appalling class prejudice? Why didn’t she call New Zealand’s dirty dairy farmers – dirty dairy farmers? Why all the boring centrism? Dammit Jacinda you’re the leader of the Labour Party – would it kill you to act like it!

Yes, quite probably, it would. No matter how hard they might wish it were otherwise. And no matter how obdurately some leftists insist that the voters are only waiting for the word “To overturn the cities and the rivers/And split the house like a rotten totara log” [James K. Baxter] New Zealanders have never been insurrectionists. We are socialist renovators – not revolutionaries. Middle-class New Zealanders, the people Jacinda has to thank for being at 48 percent in the Colmar Brunton poll (and not 25 percent, like the hapless David Cunliffe) need to be persuaded to back Labour in a programme of non-terrifying change.

That’s why one of the most effective political statements of the whole evening came in response to John Campbell’s challenge to the Prime Minister over the Capital Gains Tax. “At some point, John,” Jacinda explained, acknowledging Labour’s three failed attempts to sell a CGT to the electorate, “you have to accept that voters don’t agree with you.” From those few, and yes, simple words, former National voters could draw the sort of reassurance they were looking for that their ballots can be safely cast for Labour in 2020. They are not in the market for a “crusher”, but for a leader to construct the sort of “new normal” in which they and their families can feel comfortable and secure.

In presenting herself as that sort of political leader: calm, considered, compassionate and constructive; Jacinda Ardern held her middle-class supporters in place – and won the debate.


  1. And immediately the next day Collins returned to her “home” town of Matamata to a room of pale, stale National males/female(none looked the age of the future). Collins returned to “feel the love”, poor wee thing.

    • Hey Bert, yes so true. And all that emotional stuff from Collins about standing up for the farmers. Crocodile tears and pretty rich coming from someone like her – corporate lawyer and city slicker. The audience she faced was very small and certainly not reflective of the rest of us – certainly not in my age bracket so I asked my wonderful father what he thought. His comment – “boring old farts who can’t handle younger more vibrant women like Jacinda”, although he reminded me and I do know that many, many older people, especially my father are very supportive of younger people and younger women.

        • all agreed… National are not the party of the future currently… they appear to be simply a boomer hangover & most of the young people they brought in at the last election have been expelled due to disgusting behaviour. .. a party in crisis I would say… a Chucky Doll cannot save them

    • In an election campaign, a Prime Minister can do 2 of 3 things.

      1) talk about what she’s done
      2) talk about whats she’s going to do
      3) talk about the leader of the opposition

      It’s obvious Jacinda neglected the third which is fine. To talk about the opposition leader is to know intimately your opponent to the point of almost loving them, and then you stab then. These a quality that crusher lacks. To almost love an opposition leader one almost has to love their policies just to understand how terrible they will be for the country, and then you can go in on them. In time I believe Jacinda will educate the electorates on the subtleties of how Natiional has been ripping everyone off.

  2. Yes Chris Jacinda knew that this wasn’t a ‘debate’ as it was actually a sock to her from the opposition as it was staged as a bun fight only by John Campbell’s own insidious design.
    But the Moderator gave no care or concern to the “elders” (over 60’s) as we are now the fifth largest voting block during his so called “debate” as it was a shambles that John Campbell should be ashamed of for presenting it as a ‘debate’ – it was NOT but an attack on the PM by the opposition of which Campbell was an active part of.

    • And we are clear Cleangreen in the fact we know that National and ACT via a cup of tea believe those in the elderly bracket are a dieing vote.
      I could never give my boys to any party that leaves a potion of our population on the scrapheap. And here’s my issue, whilst farmers and business are promoted prioritized over by National, the rest of us are left behind.The continual belief of the trickle down theory by National makes them aged.

      • Yes bert National/Act are a toxic vote for us retirees as they left us to-die years ago because of the sinking lid on pension entitlements as they set it up to milk that funding for all they could while incomes sunk to the lowest levels in relativity to living costs and during labours three years we did not receive any increase worth talking about, just ask the folks over at ‘AGED CARE’ WHO TODAY ARE IN THE NEWS COMPLAINING ABOUT THE LOSS OF FINANCIAL SUPPORT FOR ELDERS NOW.
        We paid our taxes all our lives so we could end in our “golden years” to live in comfort, and now live in pain instead and National/Act set this up to harm us with their love of austerity.

        • @Cleangreen. I and many of my peers know this and stand in silent support of you all. We as younger people get labelled all sorts of things but many of us align with yours and Bert’s feelings.

          I see National and Collins especially, in the same ilk as Trump who is so dreadful that he is revolting. I watched the television news last night and saw an item where he was talking to a crowd at one of his toxic rallies and he was praising himself over his response to COVID and he said that it kills older people with heart problems and other heath issues but otherwise it is not a problem. In other words, older people are expendable. It shocked me but didn’t surprise me to hear him say that. The irony of it though was that in the background all the crowd, mainly younger people, were wearing masks.

          You do have my respect and the respect of many younger people.

          • I too saw the Trump rally youngsuffrajet. The first thing that came to mind was that “C” word the co leader of the Greens suggested we use more. It epitomizes elitism. People in power making decisions they clearly know will not affect them in their latter years, although Trump is only about absolute power, there is nobody greater in his eyes.

          • Thanks youngsuffrajet

            A heart felt thanks from my wife and I, (at 49yrs together) and we hope to get to our 50th wedding anniversary.
            I always grew up giving respect to the elders, for that support you showed as we all must ‘pay it forward’ as our past generations did so must we all.

            You are an exceptional young person.

      • Yeah Bert and if judeath cares so much for the Samoan people yet she hasn’t shed not one single tear for them despite there struggles and the devastating effect of Covid. She has shed crocodile tears for the farmers and how many Samoans are farmers in NZ? She is false and people need to start seeing the real her.

      • RNZ have not been pro labour, Greens nor the coalition from the outset.
        Just look at the RNZ Board, Chair and the CEO and their track history.
        Campbell is an employee not a free agent.

  3. That all may be true, Chris, but all I noticed in the few minutes of it that I could stand was “jobs and growth”.

    I’ve been around long enough to know that National is comprised of professional liars and fuckwits, utterly determined to ignore all the factors that will determine the future, and utterly determined to siphon whatever remains to be looted into the bank accounts of sociopaths and ecological terminators. As Martyn calls them, Death Cult Capitalists.

    Sadly, Labour has been, to a large extent, in the same camp [of proponents of Death Cult Capitalism] as a result of the traitorous mid-80s government and all that followed. Helen Clark had plenty of opportunities to change the direction of NZ society but persisted with the same bullshit that 90s National subjected us to: conversion of the natural world into toxic waste and increased dependence on fossil fuels -with all the dire consequences of that lunacy. It was under Helen Clark that the phony carbon trading system -which did zilch to curb emissions but did offer banks and corporations the opportunity to profit from planetary meltdown- was set up.

    Andrew Little’s social toxicity did nothing for Labour.

    So Jacinda -a Blairite by training- inherited so much baggage from those who preceded her, it’s a surprise she has got this far, especially when one considers the ‘right to rule’ attitude of National and the banks and corporations and self-righteous, scientifically-and-financially-illiterate individuals that support National.

    Against that backdrop there is the broadcaster and the individual selected to host the event, both of which are determined to keep everything of significance off the agenda, and present some form of BAU as a given.

    My main point here is that the world is falling apart faster than you cans say supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, and we are in for the biggest upheaval in all of history over the coming months, not just because of Covid-19 but because all consequences of ignoring all the fundamentals for so long are burgeoning out of control.

    Whether Jacinda actually knows all of that and is just playing the game, or whether she is a ‘lamb to the slaughter’ will be discovered over the coming months.

    One thing I am sure of: every utterance of politicians on the goggle-box is a just another component of a stream of absurdities and fabrications that build up to make the ocean of lies the general populace is drowning in.

    Yesterday it was 28oC in the shade. That’s what Planetary Meltdown looks like and feels like.

    Yesterday the yield on 2-year T bonds dropped to 0.13%. That’s what financial meltdown looks like. And the zero interest on my meagre savings is what financial meltdown feels like.

    Should I mention the businesses that have closed around here, never to return?

    Should I mention the desperation of oil-extracting nations, which are propping up their economies by massive borrowing? [on the basis that oil prices can’t remain this low forever; yet a rise in oil prices kills what remains of BAU].

    Interesting times, indeed.

  4. A good analysis Mr Trotter. Not the slavering accounts of MSM journalists more focused on searching for (and creating) any negatives they can simply to promote their own egos.
    Nice to see and read independent thought. Thanks.

  5. Thank you for your observations Chris.
    I noticed an interesting sub-text in the naming of others. Collin referred to Ardern throughout as Ms Ardern, pronounced ‘Miss’ Ardern. Was this a deliberate put-down ploy? Knowing Colins… In attack mode, this also read as Collins blaming an individual for the work of a coalition government, which we all know was hampered by the NZ First handbrake.
    Ardern for her part never mentioned Collins by name, and spoke more in terms of whole-of-country efforts to address current challenges. This don’t-say-the-person’s-name method is the same as what she did for the Christchurch terrorist; though I imagine (I hope) the motivations were different.
    Yes, Collins resorted to easy slogans for complex issues, designed for her base. The RMA gone by lunchtime, etc
    I’m quite comfortable with Ardern’s more reflective approach, which honours the audiences’ common-sense. In the way, for instance, how she talked about how, of the nine measures of child poverty, the Labour-led government had turned seven around. We can handle this sort of depth, I think.
    The debate should have gone into coalition issues – especially in the light of the poll just announced of the Greens being above the 5% threshold again. I think many progressive voters would like to see a continuation of Ardern’s empathetic leadership in government, but with the added environmental conscience of the Greens on her shoulder. The issue of coalition partners would have been interesting to put to Collins. Of course she would opt for Act, but National needs more: and the history of how the Maori party were burned by their association with National may have made for interesting comment. I imagine that in the context of current polling, there needs to be not much oxygen wasted on Winston any more.

  6. This comment says it all.
    The NZ middle do not like being made to fell they are being left out hence why the top 10% and National always put the boot into the bottom 20% of low income and persons with disabilities and illnesses .

    “Yes, quite probably, it would. No matter how hard they might wish it were otherwise. And no matter how obdurately some leftists insist that the voters are only waiting for the word “To overturn the cities and the rivers/And split the house like a rotten totara log” [James K. Baxter] New Zealanders have never been insurrectionists. We are socialist renovators – not revolutionaries. Middle-class New Zealanders, the people Jacinda has to thank for being at 48 percent in the Colmar Brunton poll (and not 25 percent, like the hapless David Cunliffe) need to be persuaded to back Labour in a programme of non-terrifying change.”

  7. Mr Trotter, what a great article, Jacinda is following the advice from Michelle Obama & I quote, when they go low, we go high? Let Judith Collins wallow in the Dirty politics mud, like a sow rolling in its own filth? And your dead right about the dreadful state of NZ Media, I can’t stand to either listen or watch their amateurish journalism & it’s relentless negativity & ignorance? Thank god for YouTube were you can find out what’s really happening outside of the NZ bubble.

    • @ KiwiAntz … agree with your sentiments here.

      The “… when they go low, we go high” quote from Michelle Obama, it’s possible this is what Jacinda is building up to in the next and then the final debate with Judith, to slap the opposition leader down with. It will be done with intelligence and class, in the usual calm unique Jacinda way, only she can put someone in their place with.

  8. Mr Trotter, what a great article, Jacinda is following the advice from Michelle Obama & I quote, when they go low, we go high? Let Judith Collins wallow in the Dirty politics mud, like a sow rolling in its own filth? And your dead right about the dreadful state of NZ Media, I can’t stand to either listen or watch their amateurish journalism & it’s relentless negativity & ignorance? Thank god for YouTube were you can find out what’s really happening outside of the NZ bubble.

  9. A couple of interesting points
    1:If you listen closely i think Judith also muttered at one stage “I love you Miss Ardern” !!!!
    2:Jessica Mutch-McKay –Jess’s choice of talking to Jennifer Lees-Marshment post debate wrap-up
    Jennifer has worked with New Zealand Act Party and National Party
    I think Jess needed someone like you from the Left there as well post debate wrap-up

  10. It was fascinating as the two are foils for each other. To me Jacinda came across as somewhat academic, theoretical and disengaged, and she is obviously tired. I din’t find her very authentic. Her strategy was obvious even to those of poor understanding like me Chris but thanks anyway. Judith on the other hand was brilliant unfortunately and was clearly loving an open target. She got exponentially better as it went on and clearly was energised by the whole thing. Judith turned up to debate but Jacinda didnt enter into the spirit of what we know as a debate. So even the deplorables will see she is just trying to be super nice and not attack the old battleaxe.
    I hope Jacinda shows a bit of fight next time cos heres the point-Crushers got tears in her her eyes for the struggling farmer. I wanna see Jacinda show some fight for the disadvantaged otherwise jackshit will change for them. Bring a bit of Bernie Sanders to the debate Jacinda even if it costs you those well off nat voters cos heres the point-they gonna leave real quick when you make some real change.so get back to your labour values cos heres the point-theres nothing worse for you than to look back and think crap I wished I made a difference cos I coulda.

  11. I’m not sure it will play out like you hope Chris. I for one will think: if it wasn’t for Covid, and now that it’s sort of under control, what does Labour offer other than Jacinda? Because, let’s be frank evryone, she is Labour.
    So I’ll be thinking, without Covid and the other ‘crisis’, what have they actually done well? Not much Chris!!! And I don’t think I will be the only one thinking like this. It’s just not ‘cool’ to go public against the Goddess of Crisis. But I don’t care, Jacinda and her Labour team are proven useless managers of NZ Inc.
    And ‘NZ Inc’ it has to be for the next 10 years, ruthlessly making money wherever it can, or it will become a basket case. I tell you something, David Seymour would manage the country better than Jacinda. He might not read the 1pm scripts as well-rehearsed, but he’d run the country better!!!

    Ok lefties, J A stafarians, get stuck in!

    • No need to get “stuck in” Hermie… but what do you see in David Seymour that 94% of the electorate do not… why would he manage the country better than JA?

  12. This so called debate reminded me of a Mohumundid Ali v George Forman boxing match, Ardern lying on the ropes and Collins flailing around trying to score meaningful hits, with even the odd eye gouge, And the outcome , another case of rope a dope.

    • A damp squib?… overall I ‘d have to agree & wonder what the real purpose of sound bite debates are… “zingers” for the media?

  13. Some one told me that Chris had rightist political tendencies. A read of this article would suggest otherwise.
    Rather than get upset watching Judith in action I took in a murder mystery instead

  14. I didn’t want jacinda to be mean or crush Collins I just wanted her to answer yes or no to questions like “will you commit to implementing more of the of the welfare working group recommendations”

    Instead of a long warm fuzzy answer with cherry picked data.

    Jacindas a world class orator, I just think she was hamstrung because she either didn’t wanna rock the boat and scare the new voters or she knew her answer would piss off the left so she often would do these academic answers.

    I think it was a tie not because Judith was good, but because Ardern can do better. Noone wants Ardern to be Helen Clark (who would have attacked nationals fudged numbers, leadership musical chairs in a crisis, the polls “chance would be a fine thing bill” , erratic stance on border and quarantine and on Nationals candidates dropping like flies) Jacinda is unflappable in an earthquake i don’t think she was flappable but

    I reckon the next debate jacinda will come in with Lange style humour “well if you contain yourself for a moment” as she has before “as the leader of the opposition well knows it takes a while to get what you want”

    But the response from the politically neutral is very much go Jacinda and utter disgust with Judith calling Jacinda a poor wee thing. So what do I know I’m gonna vote for a labour or labour aligned party anyway so I’m not the voter they are particularly worried about turning off


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