Debate turns slug-fest

21:21, Aug 28 2014

It was the much-anticipated first clash between John Key and David Cunliffe on the campaign trail.

Both leaders had a lot riding on it - Key, to regain his momentum after being hit by the Dirty Politics bombshell, and Cunliffe to turn around a lacklustre campaign.

But what Cunliffe v Key mostly resembled by the end was a slug-fest - and Key seemed uncharacteristically rattled.

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Both leaders would have walked away claiming victory in the TVNZ debate however -  Cunliffe because it was his first chance to show he could foot it with Key,  and even score points off him, and Key because a TVNZ online poll declared him the clear winner at 61 per cent to 39 per cent.

According to TVNZ 45,898 voted in the poll, of which 34,802 were texts, although the voting system did crash.


But Cunliffe appeared more composed at the start, possibly thanks to taking the day off the campaign trail to prepare. 

Key, on the other hand, appeared determined to play it cool by doing his usual round of media events and shopping malls in the morning, then claiming he planned to ‘‘shoot some hoops’’ with son Max in the afternoon.

As the debate warmed up Cunliffe may have turned off some viewers by interrupting and talking over the top of Key.

The first part of the debate  was set down for policy - but Dirty Politics and justice minister Judith Collins appeared to set the tone.

Key was put on the ropes about reports a Judith Collins loyalist approached NZ First leader Winston Peters about working with her.

Key has continued to insist that allegations in the recent Dirty Politics book do not matter to ordinary New Zealanders. He played down Collins’ behaviour by saying everyone makes mistakes.

Cunliffe accused Key of wilful blindness in ignoring her behaviour - and said she would have been sacked on his watch.

The debate then moved to the economy. Key attacked Cunliffe’s spending promises, pointed to the Green Party request for an audit of Labour’s numbers and said the potential coalition partners ‘‘can’t agree on anything’’ - including what the top tax rate is.

An unruffled Cunliffe said Labour will have the finance portfolio and would guarantee wage rises. He said staying in surplus is a bottom line. There were 32,000 less jobs under National, he said.

Quizzed about whether National will offer tax-cuts during the next parliamentary term, Key said: ‘‘I hope so.’’

Cunliffe said there isn’t enough money to offer New Zealanders ‘‘a block of cheese.’’

After days of dodging questions about whether Labour will buy back asset sales, Cunliffe said: ‘‘There is not fiscal headroom to buy back all the assets.’’

After the debate, National complained that Cunliffe got some facts wrong, including his claim that Treasury had cut its growth forecasts in half.

In the budget, growth rates were forecast to be 4 per cent, 3 per cent, 2.1 per cent and 2.1 per cent over four years.

The pre-election fiscal update put those numbers at 3.8 per cent, 3 per cent, 2.2 per cent and 2.1 per cent. 

Following the debate, neither leader would commit to a winner. 

Cunliffe said he was pleased with his performance, but admitted to being  a “little nervous” in the beginning.

“It was my first time up, so I don’t have much to judge it by. I think, in the end, I’ve done justice to the needs of New Zealanders.”

Cunliffe was fiery on the subject of foreign investment. But he shifted his position on the sale of 13,800-hectare Lochinver Station near Taupo to Chinese company Shanghai Pengxin.

When the issue was raised he said Labour would block the sale if elected, however he has accepted this might not be allowed under the current law.

He said: “Ministers considering Lochinvar in an incoming Government would have to act within the law.  If we can change the law in time to prevent the sale within the law we will. Otherwise, they’ve got pretty wide discretion to reflect the concerns of New Zealanders.”

Cunliffe was also quizzed on the number of $360,000 homes Labour would supply under its Kiwibuild policy. “That’s because it is simply impossible before we have the breakdown of the land that is available and that’s something frankly you can only do in Government...I won’t give false precision.”

Cunliffe defended his repeated interjections. “We’d been briefed beforehand that there was no set time for individual speakers and [moderator] Mike [Hosking] invited us to parry and play. That was the kind of debate that he told us he wanted.”

And he wouldn’t be drawn on the TVNZ viewer poll that declared Key the victor. “I understand that their website crashed so I guess we will never know what the real numbers were.”

Key said the debate was scrappy. “I think at home when the three parties are talking at one time...he didn’t rattle me but he was talking over me quite a bit and I know it’s very hard to listen when that’s happening.”

Key said Cunliffe’s predecessor Helen Clark was much stronger on policy.