There’s general agreement that the three televised debates between John Key and Phil Goff scheduled to take place between now and the election could play a significant role in changing voter perceptions of the two contenders. Television viewers have seen a lot of Goff over the last three years primarily because he has, on principle, made himself available for cross-examination. He regards that as something any politician aspiring to the highest office in the land ought to do. Key, on the other hand, has been largely unavailable for media interviews, preferring, it would seem, to be seen rather than heard. It’s interesting that the video which preceded National’s phoney debate TV opening was a montage of the Prime Minister’s photo ops with famous people.
If the polls are anything to go by, not being available to answer questions is a more effective strategy than being available to answer questions. But it can hardly be described as a more responsible strategy. The televised debates thus assume a particular importance since they represent the first occasion on which the PM will be available for media interrogation before a large audience and the first occasion, outside Parliament, when we will see him in a face to face encounter with Phil Goff.
However admirable it may have been, there has been a significant downside in Goff’s willingness to face media interrogation on television. He’s not comfortable before the cameras, not at ease in the studio. That’s a considerable disadvantage in the age of presidential-style campaigning and it has been a significant, perhaps even the most significant reason for his extremely low rating in the Preferred Prime Minister polls. The opposite is true of John Key.
Parliament watchers will be aware that it is a very different story in the House. Goff is a superb debater – informed, confident and extremely forceful. Key isn’t, relying instead on disparaging put-downs and playing to the audience – his colleagues. The first of the televised debates in 2008 revealed another side to ‘nice’ Mr Key – the bully. He constantly talked over Clark and shouted her down. Bizarrely, the Labour leader was accused by commentators and some viewers of having behaved badly. She had made the mistake of continuing to talk while Key was shouting. Perhaps people found that ‘unladylike’.
Over the next three weeks the Prime Minister will find himself in a somewhat different situation than over the last three years. He will be cross-examined by journalists and he will face an opponent who is a formidable debater and who has demonstrated in the House that he can beat him in argument. It is to be hoped that the moderators of the debates will understand the difference between reasonable interjection and shouting down and will have the skill and the authority to prevent the contenders talking over one another for lengthy periods.
If this morning’s Q & A ‘debate’ between David Parker and Steven Joyce over the parties’ economic policies is anything to go by, that hope will be vain. Moderator Guyon Espiner failed totally to prevent Joyce talking over Parker, even allowing the Minister to produce and read from a piece of paper while Parker was talking. As is inevitable in these circumstances, Parker had no option but to respond in kind, chipping in and talking over Joyce. Result – debate bedlam. Espiner will be the questioner in tomorrow night’s TV1 debate between Goff and Key. In the interests of providing the voting public with a reasonable understanding of the relative merits of the two men and their policies, he will have to do considerably better than this.