NZ Election 2020: Judith Collins claims victory in first TV debate as Jacinda Ardern tries to avoid 'bloodsport'

National leader Judith Collins has claimed victory over her first TV debate against Labour leader Jacinda Ardern, who revealed she was trying to avoid political "bloodsport". 

The two political party leaders went head-to-head on Tuesday night in TVNZ's debate moderated by John Campbell, who hit them with questions on housing, poverty, climate change, tax, inequality and protecting the border. 

It was during the debate when Ardern's record on child poverty reduction was brought up by Collins that the Labour leader became visibly frustrated, saying: "I can't listen to this."

Collins said during the debate statitsics show that children are still living in material hardship and said that's the measure that counts, despite Ardern saying seven out of the nine measures of child poverty are better. 

"I'd say it's a bit of an embarrassment for someone who came to politics to end child poverty," Collins said after the debate. 

Ardern, who is the Minister for Child Poverty Reduction, said she stood by her record on getting kids out of hardship and admitted there is more to do. 

She insisted Collins did not get under her skin. 

"I think you will have heard me say I'm quite passionate about that area so of course wanted to give a slightly longer-form answer," Ardern said after the debate. 

"I don't think you can be in politics and allow other politicians to get under your skin. You just have to use the opportunities you have to share your record and stand proudly on it, and in that area I absolutely do."

Ardern appeared less fiery in the debate and later revealed she was trying to avoid "bloodsport" and having the debate become entertainment rather than a platform to inform voters. 

"My view is that politics is not a bloodsport. It is a chance for people to see what our ambitions are, where we want to take New Zealand, and I think we had the platform for that tonight," she said. 

Ardern said it wasn't a dig at Collins. 

"That was not at all an assumption about anyone else. I actually thought tonight did give an opportunity to let people hear from us," she said. 

"I know people will be often seeking that entertainment that comes from a bit more argy-bargy, but in this environment right now, this is the time for people to hear what our plans are for the future. That's critical."

Labour leader Jacinda Ardern and National leader Judith Collins in their first TV debate before the election.
Labour leader Jacinda Ardern and National leader Judith Collins in their first TV debate before the election. Photo credit: TVNZ / screenshot

Ardern did use the debate as an opportunity to re-voice her concerns about National's plans to give income tax relief if it's elected in October. 

If you earn between $60,000 and $80,000 a year you'll get between $2500 and $3500. But lower-income earners get way less: $560 to $900 if you're on $50,000. Those earning over $90,000 pocket $4000, including Collins on her $240,000 salary.

"I shouldn't get a tax cut right now. It's simply irresponsible," Ardern said, reiterating her stern response to the proposal last week because National planned to pay for it by using the Government's COVID-19 fund. 

Collins shot back, "Well give it back then."

Ardern said after the debate she would have liked the opportunity to speak more about tax and how Labour and National compare when it comes to paying off the billions of dollars of debt the Government has accrued to fight COVID-19. 

National's finance spokesperson Paul Goldsmith has admitted making an error in his fiscal plan. He used the wrong numbers in calculating how much it would save from halting NZ Super Fund contributions, resulting in a $4 billion fiscal hole. 

Newshub revealed that National made the same mistake with its capital allowance - that's the money put aside to build things like schools and hospitals - leaving National with another shortfall of $88 million. 

Collins managed to avoid having to talk about it in the debate, and brushed it off when asked afterwards if she was relieved. 

"The numbers simply move debt level from 35 to 36 percent of GDP in the year 2034 as opposed to the Government's one which is 48 percent debt," she said, adding that she's not aware of any other mistakes. 

Ardern said she hasn't given up on the idea of a capital gains tax but she acknowledged that voters didn't seem keen on the idea, which is why she had promised to never campaign on it again as Labour leader. 

"I've tried for three elections now," she said.

Labour leader Jacinda Ardern said she tried to avoid the TVNZ debate becoming "bloodsport".
Labour leader Jacinda Ardern said she tried to avoid the TVNZ debate becoming "bloodsport". Photo credit: Newshub

Collins is certain she won the debate.

"Yeah, I reckon. I certainly didn't feel like I was losing."  

Political scientist Jennifer Lees-Marshment said Collins was more effective in the debate than Ardern, because the Labour leader "lacked passion", but she said Collins still had her weaknesses.

"That's their problem they don't talk enough about themselves. Stop criticising Labour because it looks foolish," she said.

Collins said she was satisfied with her performance, highlighting how she frequently got to talk about her plans to reform the Resource Management Act (RMA), an issue she believes is the key to getting quicker building consents to solve the housing crisis. 

"I noticed that comment from one of the commentators afterwards. Actually, I got our tax cuts, I got out RMA reform, I got out tech policy - I got a lot of policy out there and you know what, it's only an hour-and-a-half."

Collins is still trailing behind Ardern when it comes to who Kiwis would prefer as Prime Minister. 

A new Colmar Brunton poll shows Ardern on 54 percent compared to Collins on 18 percent. Labour is also way ahead on 48 percent compared to National on 31 percent. 

Collins said it motivated her, pointing to the 14 percent of undecided voters. 

"It's game on. It's a challenge. I love a fight."

National leader Judith Collins believes she won her TV debate against Labour leader Jacinda Ardern.
National leader Judith Collins believes she won her TV debate against Labour leader Jacinda Ardern. Photo credit: Newshub

Collins was praised by Dr Lees-Marshment for being relatable during the debate by mentioning her Samoan husband David Wong Tung when the topic of poverty was brought up. 

The National Party leader appeared emotional revealing how her husband had to leave school as a teenager to work to support his family. 

"I'm not actually an actress so I just tell you what I think. The fact is, when people look at me and they think that I don't know anything about poverty, oh yes I do," Collins said. 

Ardern was criticised by the commentator as coming across as too academic and not personable enough, but the Labour leader pushed back. 

"I've never done the personal and I won't - that's not how I do politics and that's not how I campaign. I think they just saw the way I like to operate. I think people want to hear from us and so we need to use that opportunity to do that."

Another area where Ardern and Collins clashed was on climate change and how to transition farmers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while ensuring they don't go out of business. 

Ardern said the world wants to know that New Zealand is producing agricultural products sustainably, and she said she's proud to have worked alongside the community for a plan to tax emissions

"Farmers aren't feeling like that. Farmers are feeling like they're bagged by this Government," Collins said, to which Ardern responded: "That feels to me like a world that has passed."

Ardern said she felt there were clear differences between her and Collins. 

"You heard tonight clear differences on the environment, clear differences in the perspective on climate change, clear differences around the way we view poverty and inequality and the role of our welfare system in that. There absolutely are very clear differences."