Feistiest exchange yet at Stuff leaders debate

Bill English and Jacinda Ardern face a tough crowd in the town hall-style Stuff Leaders’ Debate. (Photo: John Kirk-Anderson/Stuff)

Bill English and Jacinda Ardern’s war of words has reached new heights.

The two party leaders’ clash at the Stuff Leaders Debate in Christchurch on Thursday night traversed old and new issues with unprecedented vigour, egged on by a characteristically rowdy Cantabrian audience.

It began with news of the latest Colmar Brunton poll that put Labour four points clear of National, with 43 per cent support. National’s 39 per cent is its lowest result since taking power in 2008. It was, as English said more than once, a real choice for voters.

Both leaders did their share of firing up during the debate. (Photo: John Kirk-Anderson/Stuff)

The Prime Minister drew some derisory chuckles early on when promising Cantabrians the most modern city in Australasia in “just the next year or two”, before making an ill-advised foray into health.

Ardern pounced, chiming in about the Canterbury District Health Board’s ongoing funding battle with the Government. Cue the first big jeers of the night.

English scrambled. “You’re being asked to vote for a committee,” he said, citing Labour’s plan for a tax working group – “a committee that will decide everything after the election”.

“Now the stardust has settled, you’re starting to see the policy.”

Ardern countered: “This stardust won’t settle,” she said, “because none of us should settle”.

Bill English and Jacinda Ardern both had stumbles with the crowd throughout the night. (Photo: John Kirk-Anderson/Stuff)

The contenders, and their audience, hit their stride on the economy and National’s spurious claim of an $11.7 billion hole in Labour’s budget. English ignored requests to name someone who agreed with him and Finance Minister Steven Joyce on the claimed deficit and attacked Labour’s economic plan.

“Labour’s fiscal plan includes something quite unexpected,” he said. “Two or three years where their budgets [have] no new money outside health and education.”

Ardern wasn’t having it: “The only one where we have allowed ourselves the room… is the tax working group. Every single other policy, we have provided an extraordinary amount of detail including how to pay for it.”

The Labour leader went hard at English on water quality. “It’s been nine years, too little too late,” she said as English defended the Government’s haphazard record.

“That is an insult to thousands of people who’ve committed themselves to intensive community progress,” English replied, to unlikely cheers.

“Just because the Labour Party didn’t do it doesn’t mean decent kiwis haven’t been working on this issue. They have.”

Any gains evaporated, though, when Ardern pivoted back to health – “We want mental health services accessible in our doctors clinics because that is what the people of Christchurch asked for,” she said, to rousing cheers – or when she pledged not to sell state houses, including 2500 in Canterbury, and criticised National’s axing of contributions to the SuperFund.

“My generation has been sold down the river by your government,” she said, to some of the loudest cheers of the night.

For the first time, the leaders were asked to turn their attention to the Christchurch rebuild. Both returned to their favoured topics: for Ardern, it was mental health and the CDHB’s poisonous relationship with the Government; for English, it was the Christ Church Cathedral and progress thus far.

“The most important project right now is a decision on the Cathedral,” English said.

“It’s the symbol of Christchurch, we’ve had this massive rebuild going on which is really going at great pace, but the heart of the city needs the symbol restored.”

Ardern emphasised the social issues in post-earthquake Christchurch, particularly mental health and schooling.

“We’ve got to work together, and that means stopping the war your Government has waged on the Canterbury District Health Board for a start,” she told English.

“We won’t be done [rebuilding] until the mental health and wellbeing of Canterbury is cared for too. There hasn’t been enough conversation about that… it’s part of the rebuild that has been neglected.”

She promoted her party’s commitment to invest $300m for projects to be decided at a local level, as well as the need for collaboration with the Christchurch City Council and the community.

“They’re the ones that need to tell us. We’ll put up the capital, but I’m not going to dictate what’s most important to them.”

That got National’s hecklers’ attention. All night, they had been calling for Ardern to form a working group for everything. “Six new taxes” seemed to be the refrain.

English invited a chorus of boos from at least half the room every time he strayed into the dreaded health portfolio, or mentioned former Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee. He only made that mistake once.

By the end, the third leaders’ debate was, as the entire campaign now seems to now be, too close to call. Both party leaders saw fit to thank the boisterous audience at the end. Perhaps for heckling them in equal measure.

“Vote wisely,’ moderator Joanna Norris, Fairfax Media’s South Island editor-in-chief, said in closing. “The future is in your hands.”

[Read the Stuff article].

Comments are closed.