The final Leaders’ Debate was essentially a squabble over the numbers needed to form a government under the always thrilling MMP system in NZ.
John Key started on the back foot over the recent allegations about his alleged mass surveillance programmes. He was forced to reiterate early in the debate that “there is no wholesale or mass surveillance of New Zealanders by the GCSB [Government Communications Security Bureau].”
The Prime Minister said he has offered more transparency on the actions of New Zealand’s security and intelligence agencies than any other prime minister, but it was important not to reveal details of New Zealand’s key defences. He also stressed the importance of the agency itself:
“New Zealand faces real threats, and as prime minister I can either choose to walk away from New Zealanders or choose to do my job. I will never walk away.”
In regards to the allegations from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, David Cunliffe said: “New Zealanders have a right to be protected – but New Zealanders also have a right for their privacy to be protected unless there’s a good reason for that to be overridden.”
The debate quickly moved on to the number crunching and potential coalition combinations that both National and Labour would need to govern. Prime Minister Key dismissed the latest poll which suggests the National Party would need ACT, United Future, the Maori Party and NZ First or the Conservatives to form a coalition – which has been described by opponents as a five-headed monster.
Mr. Cunliffe said that poll meant “Labour plus the Greens plus NZ First has more than National plus it’s ragtag of right wing weirdo’s.”
Key, meanwhile, insisted that Labour was dependent on Kim dotcom and his Internet Mana Party. The Prime Minister was confident of winning around 47 per cent as National won in 2011. Although he remains unsure about how his potential coalition partners will fare in the election, he is confident in the range of options National would have by receiving 47 per cent.
Crucial to any potential governing coalition will be New Zealand First leader Winston Peters. Moderator Mike Hosking asked both leaders whether they could potentially consider the idea of having Mr. Peters as prime minister in a power sharing coalition deal similar to the one talked about following the 1996 election.
Cunliffe emphatically repudiated such an idea, “No, he’s not going to get it.” The PM shared the same view, “There’s not a dog show of that.” However, Mr Key would not rule out having Mr Peters as speaker, saying “anything is possible”.
The most memorable line from the debate came from Key when he described voting for National as steak and the Conservatives as lamb chops.
“It’s as simple as this – if you want to have steak for dinner tonight, go into the supermarket or the butcher and buy steak tonight, don’t buy a lamb chop. If you want National to lead the Government, give your party vote to National,” Key said.
With all meat metaphors to one side, the leaders then expressed their regrets about the 2014 election campaign. Despite the strategy of attempting to run a clean and positive campaign, Cunliffe admitted that there had been “so much static from other outsiders that it’s taken a bit of air from us.”
Key regretted the fact that there had not been an opportunity to “have those discussions with New Zealanders on those core issues” such as education, the economy, foreign affairs and the environment.
The 2014 election campaign has overall been dominated by two peripheral issues. Firstly, Nicky Hagger’s allegations of “dirty politics” and more recently Kim dotcom’s “moment of truth”’ event about mass surveillance and so-called spying activities.
“Too much time has been spent on one individual [and] on things people don’t really care about,” Key said.
Eventually the debate turned to a fundamental policy issue. On the state of the economy Key stood by his record of managing strong economic growth over the last six years. Mr. Key said Labour’s alternative of more taxes, regulations, and costs would negatively affect business.
“There isn’t a business person that will tell you that will drive growth,” Key said. Labour leader Cunliffe said while National had competently guided New Zealand through the Canterbury earthquakes and the global financial crisis, they still lacked the insight to direct the country into “high value segments”.
In sum, neither leader stood out as a clear winner in the final TV debate. Key probably won the award for most memorable line when he spoke in meat metaphors. Cunliffe still debated strongly as always.
Much has been predicted about possible coalitions and party percentages. Polls give a rough indication of where the electorate is at but we won’t know until the last vote has been cast come Saturday.
Cameron Kennedy’s prediction
New Zealand First: 7.2%
Maori Party: 0.7%
United future: 0.2%