Judith Collins claims victory in first TVNZ leaders' debate, Jacinda Ardern pitches on stability

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has stayed above the fray in the first debate of the New Zealand election campaign, failing to rise to the bait from aggressive opposition leader Judith Collins.

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1 NEWS political reporter Benedict Collins wraps up TVNZ's first debate of the 2020 election. Source: 1 NEWS

Ms Collins laid hit after hit on the popular Labour leader, describing progress on child poverty, energy supply and housing as "nonsense".

The National party leader needed to take a combative approach; a poll released by state broadcasters TVNZ an hour before the debate showed Labour on track to win a second term in government.

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National might be down in the polls but supporters are riding high in the wake of Collins’ performance. Source: 1 NEWS

But Ms Ardern decided against fighting fire with fire, staying true to her pledge to govern with "relentless positivity".

Last night's debate was the first of four between the pair before the October 17 election.

"She's normally the master communicator. Something was up tonight," Jennifer Lees-Marshment, a University of Auckland political scientist said on TVNZ after the debate.

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Ms Collins, leader for just over two months, claimed victory at debate's end.

"I certainly didn't feel like I was losing," she said, after taking the fight up to the PM.

Beginning the 80-minute debate by saying "I look at where we are going and I think there is a better way", the 61-year-made inroads when tackling the government's dismal record on housing.

Over the last three years, New Zealand's waiting list for state housing has blown out and home ownership has become less attainable for younger Kiwis.

However, she gaffed when moderator John Campbell asked her if she owned a second house, responding "I do ... well actually my trust does".

The debate also featured questions from everyday Kiwis including a doctor at a Christchurch hospital, the head girl at a South Auckland high school and a dairy farmer from near where both leaders grew up.

The centre-right National party is appealing to Kiwis' hip pockets, promising a temporary tax cut worth around $3000 to average full-time wage earners.

Ms Ardern, promising a mild tax raise to the top two per cent of Kiwi income earners, retorted that "I shouldn't get a tax cut right now".
"Now is not the time to have huge uncertainty around tax policy," she said.

The debate was strangely free of discussion about Covid-19, with the pair instead duelling on infrastructure, tax, climate change and farmers, and inequality.

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Ms Ardern closed the debate with her central pledge for stability during the pandemic.

"It's been a really tough time for New Zealand. We have had a terrorist attack, a natural disaster and a global pandemic," she said.

"We have been able to clear those hurdles and face huge challenges because of who we are.

"We have a plan and it's already making a difference."

While Ms Collins will no doubt benefit from the exposure of a national debate, viewed by hundreds of thousands of Kiwis, she remains only an outside chance to win the election.

The TVNZ poll put Labour on 48 per cent and National on 31 per cent, which if replicated on election day, would allow Ms Ardern to be the first modern-day leader to govern without the support of minority parties.