Labour Leader Phil Goff won the second TVNZ debate by adopting a powerful tactic: turning and facing a diffident John Key.
Goff would have given undecided voters many reasons to come back to Labour. Key would not have lost any voters, but it was an unremarkable performance that bodes poorly for his next term.
Goff won by adopting the new physical tactic, using new stories of people on struggle street, and making new accusations about the effect of National policies.
Early on he left John Key squirming in his chair, smiling weakly at the desk or at moderator Guyon Espiner.
John Key again grew a little in confidence over the debate, indicating he had started under-prepared. But there’s no point in confidence without a plan. He took the questions as they came and gave long winded answers.
Most of all, he did not put Goff under any pressure at all. Goff roamed free, widely and wildly.
It wasn’t that Goff was the master of the event. He made plenty of slips ups. Often, just after he had grabbed the airtime and was about to launch into a major point, he’d stall, forget what he was about to say. But then, like an old lawn mower, the spark plug would fire and the piston would kick the engine over.
Phil Goff’s best moments were clearly scripted. He was ready with a revelation about cost cutting in the police, which had Key floundering to answer. He asked Key if he knew how many people owned their homes in Auckland. Key shrugged his lack of knowledge and looked flat as Goff explained the situation.
During the segment on race relations Goff made a series of accusations about National which Key absorbed without response. Key sat muttering as Goff turned to Guyon and launched into a description of Labour policy.
Learning from his TV3 debate, where he equivocated over a coalition with New Zealand First, Goff this time had a clearer answer. He would not form a Government at any cost, but he did believe Peters would act responsibly.
The only segment that John Key clearly won was on the economy.
Key reached back into his 2008 campaign back to reiterate that he was “aspirational” for the thousands of small New Zealand businesses and people trying to make a go of life. Despite so much having gone wrong during the term, and during this campaign, it is ironic that this old line was his most believable of the night. Key is at his very best when he aspires and talks optimistically.
An example occurred during the segment about welfare. Goff talked about people not working. Key talked about people who were working. His sentiments were far more attractive (people have a tendency to reject bad news).
This segment on the economy was critical to the debate, and to the campaign. National stays ahead in the polls because more people think the Party is better at running the economy. Goff needed a resonating line in this segment to appeal to middle New Zealand, not just undecided voters. He failed to find one.
It has been said that Key’s campaign opted for photo opportunities over real interaction with the public and media. If that’s accurate, it did not serve him well for these debates. Goff’s campaign has armed him with plenty of sob stories to use against National. It also got him blooded in the push and shove of street discussions.
Key has not had to ensure direct arguments for three years of power, and aside from the Cup of Tea tape, has avoided them in the campaign as well.
So Key entered the Leaders debates completely unprepared to argue. In this last debate his face revealed just how much he resented having to do it.
Goff relished the chance, and was well prepared. There was nothing to lose for him. Key had everything to lose in these debates, and in a different electoral context, he would have lost everything.