New Zealand won

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 2 October 2020

For political tragics, Wednesday was a feast day.

First, the US Presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Then New Zealand’s own leaders’ debate between Jacinda Ardern and Judith Collins. However, the contrast between these two televised bouts could not have been greater.

To start with the moderators, Newshub’s Patrick Gower did a much better job than his Fox News counterpart Chris Wallace. Gower’s questions were concrete and pointed. He showed a sense of humour and kept the combatants under control.

Meanwhile, Wallace looked like an overwhelmed kindergarten teacher. He tried to ask questions, did not insist on having them answered and spent much of his time trying to stop the candidates from shouting at each other.

Then again, it was not Wallace’s fault. No journalist, not even Patrick Gower, could have controlled the nastiness.

Strong views, heated arguments and occasional attacks are important ingredients in any good debate. One should not expect the opponents to fight each other with silk gloves, nor should one put their every word on the gold scale.

Politics may not be a blood sport, but it is a game. These days, it has also become part of the entertainment industry. Yet what the combatants delivered in the US Presidential debate had little to do with a normal political contest.

The candidates did not play by the agreed rules. They cut into each other’s allocated slots. They did not answer questions. They lied and called each other names. Trump did not even refrain from making references to Biden’s deceased son Beau.

Watching the US debate felt like a scene from a dystopian movie. If anyone had produced such a movie only twenty years ago, it would have got a chuckle. The US could never sink that low, we would have thought. But here we are in 2020.

By contrast, New Zealand’s debate was spirited, energetic and punchy – but it was largely fair. Ardern and Collins sure disagreed, and often. But there was no name-calling. They did not even shy away from agreeing on issues such as parliamentary terms, Pharmac or not renaming the country (yet). There was even the occasional bit of laughter. Ardern and Collins are on opposite sides, but they do not hate each other.

The majority view after both debates was that Biden won in the US, while Collins won here. Still, the final election outcome may be the opposite.

But regardless of the election outcomes, the winner of these two debates was New Zealand. New Zealand’s political system is not perfect. But, unlike the US,  we need not be ashamed of our democratic culture.

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