Winston Peters “won” the TVNZ live leaders debate on 16th November 2011 by being an elder statesman who still had fire in his belly. Aggression turned to assertiveness. Policy opposition turned into passion and opportunity.
Peters won the debate because he shouldn’t have been there. He was the only Leader without a Parliamentary presence. But his presence in the debate made all the difference. Without him there the line up would have been lifeless.
The others leaders performed within their capability. No one disgraced themselves. They all would have appealed to their existing voter group, but they would not have won converts from swinging voters.
Three of the leaders have reason to be a little disappointed with themselves.
- Russel Norman looked good: young, tall, fashionably establishment and lean. But he was uncomfortable with the format. Lined up behind a lectern too small for him, he wrestled with his ring finger and found the times for comment too short for his lengthy and earnest explanation.
- Don Brash failed to establish any sort of consistent theme or identity behind ACT policies. Almost every other leader used Brash as a means of establishing what they were not. Brash never established what he was. He could have played the same trick back on them – for example by joyously welcoming the idea that the Maori and Mana Party would not work with him.
- Tariana Turia did better than she thought she was doing. She was also uncomfortable in the format, and perhaps with the undignified need to appeal to voters; she grimaced, grumbled and hunched.
Winston seemed to physically grow as the debate unfurled. He needed to grow, as early on, shoulders hunched at the lectern, he looked like a greyscale mirror image of Tariana. His shoulders dropped as his confidence and comfort returned. The success was that he didn’t over-reach himself. His was effectively a new voice added to those with which the audience was recently familiar.
Therefore, his position on a coalition partner – that he would go into opposition to hold the Government honest – was the only new option on offer for swinging voters.
That’s why he won the debate: the old passion now as compassion, and so astonishingly refreshing.
One final point on the show’s format. Frankly, it was not ideal. TVNZ did very well to handle it within the constraints of the format.
But with six leaders and so many topics meant the Leaders couldn’t expound on policy or exchange disagreements. Strange as it might seem, voters might be better served with a moderated free-for-all.
There might have been more time for that had they dropped the dumb questions from journalists, and comments from two ‘expert’ pundits. Yes, I say that only because I think they should have used me…