2008 NZ Election, Ray D'Cruz

Election Debates verdict: John Key wins first NZ election debate

Judge: Ray D’Cruz

Winner: John Key

Scores: John Key 77 – Helen Clark 75


John Key won a very close debate.

The economy occupied a large part of the debate and had some extra poignancy with the unfolding international financial crises.

Key did well on the economic issues. His clear substantive messages on tax reform and economic management to demonstrate the need for change, while his attack on the government was also effective. He defended effectively his proposed changes to Kiwisaver.

It was not a one-sided debate however; the win was mitigated by a lack of detail in relation to his own policies – such as public service cuts – and Clark’s contrasting command of detail and the link she was able to make to her experience.

Occasionally – three or four times – the debate got messy. This was generally toward the end of each segment, where argumentation became more assertive (and less well developed) and where the moderator tended to lose control (or more precisely, refuse to exercise it). Partly the closeness in the debate came from this periodic sense  that the debate was getting bogged down, and there could be no clear winners.

The closeness was also partly the result of so many issues being inconclusively argued by both speakers. Environment and crime discussion were a good examples. 

Clark’s rhetoric and vision on the environment was strong, and sounded credible and sincere, however Key rebutted her quite effectively, using both emission rises and the Kyoto compliance failures to demonstrate a lack of success. While Key engaged in good rebuttal, he lacked any sense of vision or substantive argumentation on the issue. 

On crime both speakers were in general agreement about getting tough on drugs and gangs and preventative programs (though Key was leading much of the debate, with Clark tending to agree).

The manner of both speakers was a contrast. Clark was firm and dour. Yet her passion for her job and NZ was evident for any audience member doubting about her enthusiasm after nine years in office.

Key focused on being likeable – and did a good job of it – smiling and generally being cheerful through the debate while at the same time standing up to Clark regularly.  

In a sense, neither speakers’ manner was particularly decisive because whilst different, their respective manners played to their key messages: freshness and enthusiasm in the case of Key and sturdiness and reliability in the case of Clark.

In the end it was a close debate, but a tight win for John Key largely based on progress made in the early part of the debate on economic issues.

YouTube innovation

This debate allowed members of the public to ask questions directly of their leaders. Viewers could upload short videos on YouTube (less than 30 seconds) which were selected by moderators to be put directly to the leaders.

The innovation worked well, clearly adding to the participation and excitement. Some of the questions were general and others specific.

Their questions were augmented by questions from a panel of three journalists and the moderator.

Journalist Barry Soper’s question to John Key about why he didn’t protest the 1981 Springbok Tour was a good example of a journalist more interested in laying a trap and making a name for themselves than adding to a serious debate.


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