Winner: Phil Goff
Scores: Goff 81 | Key 79
Judge: Ray D’Cruz
The third and final debate of the 2011 NZ election saw opposition leader Phil Goff (Labour) edge prime minister John Key (National). Mr Goff won some critical arguments in the heart of the debate, and used the tactic of direct questioning to his advantage, though not always.
The opening part of the debate was about the economy. Mr Goff used the issue to attack Mr Key’s controversial asset sales, but Mr Key defended the proposals effectively. On the cost of living, Mr Goff and Mr Key pursued the lines they’ve run in previous debates: Mr Goff talking about fairness and Mr Key talking about the overall health of the economy. On housing affordability, Mr Goff was convincing on the need for a Capital Gains Tax, while Mr Key seemed to argue both for and against a CGT. Mr Goff also used a direct question to Mr Key about the rate of home ownership in Auckland to imply he was in touch while Mr Key was out of touch.
As the debate moved onto race relations, Mr Key obfuscated on the issue of Maori seats. On law and order, Mr Key struggled under direct questioning from Mr Goff about the impact of Labour’s extra 1200 police in its last term and National plans to freeze police numbers but announce it after the election. Neither speaker extracted a telling advantage on issues such as protecting the vulnerable, the brain drain and coalition partners.
The direct questioning by Mr Goff of Mr Key was a feature of the debate, and Mr Goff became more and more willing to ask questions of his opponent as the debate proceeded. On the final issue, coalitions, Mr Goff sought to clarify Mr Key’s position with a series of similar questions “was that a no?”, “is that a no?”, “is that a no?”, “is that a no” and “is that a yes or a no?” before the moderator intervened. It must have been a pre-determined tactic given its prominence in this debate compared to previous debates. Some voters will suggest Mr Goff was confident and direct; others will say he was aggressive and annoying. Mr Goff did control large parts of the debate with this tactic and even managed to avoid answering some questions (that’s not a positive under the rules of debate). But he did more damage to Mr Key, ultimately, with the prime minister’s periodic obfuscation under questioning and a lack of eye contact toward his opponent making him appear less certain and trustworthy.
The content of this debate was largely the same as the previous two debates. Yet the tactical decision by Mr Goff to pursue direct questioning gave the debate a very different feel. If the rules permit direct questioning, or are silent on the tactic, it can be an effective way of challenging an opponent and usually leads to good engagement. Mr Goff took the chance, and despite overdoing it at times, extracted enough of an advantage to claim victory in this debate.