Brian Edwards Media

How Phil Goff may come into his own in the televised election debates.

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.

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  1. That was an annoying watch, alright. I agree Espiner needs to improve his handling of interviewees.

    Neither Parker nor Joyce are particularly good in a tv debate. Parker seems unsure and hesitant. Joyce comes across as a smug jerk.
    National are getting (more) arrogant on the whole. The only hope Labour have is that that arrogance will lead to complacency by National. The awful election opening address by John Key might be the first sign of this.

  2. Yep, and hopefully – like Clark in 96 – Goff will take his underdog status and run with it. (largely as a result of her stand-out performance in the televised leaders debates, Clark not only doubled Labour’s support (compared to its poll ratings at the beginning of the 96 campaign), but also took her own Preferred PM rating from least preferred to a close 2nd).

    You can certainly never underestimate the importance of these debates. Last year, I saw some research in a British Political Science Journal comparing PARTISAN voters (those who always or usually vote for the same party) with FLOATING voters. Partisan voters were significantly more interested in politics and, in general, took more interest in election campaigns. However, the televised leader debates proved to be a major exception. Not only were floating voters more likely than partisans to watch these debates, but the debates were also by far the most important determinant of their ultimate voting decision.

    And it seems that, amongst other things, Rena may have just created a whole new swathe of floating voters for whom the phone (to Labour/Greens) is now firmly back on the hook.

    Goff’s got nothing to lose.

  3. I struggle to believe that Guyon Espiner has the gonads or the skills to manage any debate let alone an important election debate. That seems to be a weak decision by the TV1. I hope they can do better with further election coverage.

  4. In Q&A today I thought Joyce was anxious and his posture tense and his smugness absent in spite of the advantage Espiner gave him. Funny that.

    Those Shouty Key moments in 2008 presumably makes producers think that it makes for more exciting controversial TV. Huh!

    And since the Nats have a technology that allows them multiple votes on the effectiveness of debates, this is like an instant poll. We won. You lost. Be on the winning side why don’t you.

  5. I have a strong suspicion that each individual’s personal political views have a tendency to colour their perceptions of a debate. Objectivity is elusive for passionate people. I can recall BE joyously proclaiming on these pages that Mary Wilson (Checkpoint, Radio NZ) had demolished a cabinet minister on some subject or other. I don’t recall the details but I remember that when I listened myself I thought the debate was a 50/50 proposition.

    As someone who didn’t really enjoy the previous Labour administration, I can only say that I have absolutely no memory of Helen Clark ever coming close to quietly allowing her opponent to have their fair say in a debate. Talking over them, interrupting them, doing everything she could to steal their oxygen was absolutely fundamental to her debating style. But then maybe that’s my bias showing.

    BE: I don’t recall making the comment you refer to in the first para. I’m actually not a great radio listener. But it’s possible.

    Your second paragraph certainly isn’t correct. I worked with the lady for 12 years. Talking over was not her style, unless her opponent started it.

  6. This is Phil Goff’s Stephen Donald moment.I can only hope.

  7. If not Espiner then who ? Tv1 abandonment of current affairs coverage has left them with little or no alternatives. Judging by Paul Holmes pathetic performance in Q and A if he ever had it he’s certainly lost it now.

  8. @ianmac – would that the text voting system was governed such that it recognised the phone number and only allowed it to register one vote.

    I am sure that the National party hacks will have a budget for just that – multiple voting from the same phone.

    Why not ban the instant polling altogether and leave the punters themselves to decide who the best salesman is …

  9. I remember the days of Gallery… pity Brian Edwards can’t adjudicate these debates.

  10. Fairness and balance have never been hallmarks of the television forum.

    I seem to recall that, in the 2005, Helen Clark was bounded by the leaders on a quasi spectrum of the other parties. She would make a policy statement and there would be six opposing parties challenging the idea.(Brash/ Hyde/ Peters/ Turia/ Fitzsimmons/Dunne). However, there was very little analysis of another party’s positions by the other representatives, it being down to Clark to dismantle it.

    This time observations suggest more of the same where it would appear that Goff has announced a policy and then the Six leaders plus the media pundits have challenged or dissected it. Isn’t it time that the media and “opposition” parties scrutinised the Government’s positions and all party positions?

    Or is that not what a party’s independence and the aim of MMP is all about?

  11. Yeah well this capture and domination of the narrative leaves me uneasy. Why just these two? Neither will govern alone. Both will make compromises with another or more Parties…so why can’t we see the leaders of the most likely Parties debating? Perhaps I could cope with the weaknesses of Goff or Key being bolstered with he strength of a likely partner.

    Who is paying for the TV time? I am hoping it comes entirely out of just the National and Labour tax payer and Party funding.

    With the Greens polling well,United Future looking shaky,the Maori Party digging in,Peters hovering and Act in whirling Dervish mode…I rather think we can cope with a larger format. We live in interesting times and should have the right and opportunity to see how the leaders of these parties put their perspective.

    Is there some reason why TV debates can’t resemble the Parliamentary chamber?
    I would like to think we aren’t as stupid as some folk clearly think we are.

    BE: “Is there some reason why TV debates can’t resemble the Parliamentary chamber?” The answer probably is that television is an impatient medium and would certainly be unwilling to risk boring the viewer with hours of debate. Parliament is of coures broadcast live if you really want to watch the whole thing. That said, I agree with you that television’s coverage of politics and current affairs is totally inadequate.

  12. Espiner will wreck it. You read it first here.

  13. Here’s hoping Key will finally be challenged and actually have to think of some answers for himself, instead of parroting off the glib responses that someone has schooled him up on.
    I think I must have lost all objectivity if today’s Herald poll is anything to go on (or more likely the Nats have completely stacked the vote) but I thought Key was dreadful on Friday and the National campaign opening was boring and one dimensional – in short absolutely dreadful.
    All I can hope is that the Nats are so besotted with Key that they have overplayed his exposure and the hitherto soft National voters will be beginning to see the Nats for the one man, visionless, policy-lacking band it is.

  14. “if not Espiner then who ?”
    Maori TV – Willie Jackson and Julian Wilcox- seen them handle some fiery debates well.
    The TV1 Marae Investigates Te Tai Tokerau candidates election debate on with Shane Taurima was pretty well held I thought .
    Not Espiner , especially not Paul Holmes his bias is embarrassing.
    Good to see Labour spreading the leadership profile around though – presenting the team rather than the leader.

  15. markus said: “Rena may have just created a whole new swathe of floating voters ”

    Pun not intended, I assume :)

  16. Surely the answer is to put each of them is a soundproof box. When one has finished speaking, cut the mike and go across to the other. That way only one at a time can be heard.

    A less humane way (but likely to have greater ratings appeal) would be to attach electrodes to Mr Key’s nether regions and send 1000volts down the line each time he interrupts.

  17. “markus said: “Rena may have just created a whole new swathe of floating voters ” Pun not intended, I assume :)
    Rena may have grounded Green policies with voters as well.

  18. “This is Phil Goff’s Stephen Donald moment.”

    Yeah, except unlike Donald in the RWC, Goff has to kick a goal from 70 metres out into a howling southerly and driving rain.

  19. 19

    Bandar Seri Begawan

    Savour every TV-moment, you can, of Phil Goff. Sadly, there just aren’t that many more left.

  20. BE: I don’t recall making the comment you refer to in the first para. I’m actually not a great radio listener. But it’s possible.

    Searching for “Mary Wilson” on your site finds the comment in question.

    BE: Your second paragraph certainly isn’t correct. I worked with the lady for 12 years. Talking over was not her style, unless her opponent started it.

    Possibly just different interpretations of the same behaviour. She certainly never took a backwards step.

  21. Paul Henry and Duncan Gardner were talking about you being employed by Goff for advice, any truth in this ?

  22. Well the first debate is now over.

    This was Phil’s chance to demonstrate all those qualities that others on this blog atribute to him and to destroy Key in debate. He didn’t. He came across as petty, carping, negative and quite uninspiring.

    I’d say tonight Phil confirmed why labour will be defeated on election night. You heard that here first.

  23. finally phil goff got airtime while key looked like a gormless thoughtless fool in the background shots. it doesn’t take a genius to figure out the Guyon Espiner is a National bully-boy who has schooled up Key on the questions asked – and even then Key was an embarrassment to watch.

  24. @ 21:07 Grant

    Honestly old chap, shame you didn’t predict the outcome earlier on this blog. I suspect you watched the debate with all the even handedness of a committed voter of the Right.

    It would appear from commentary, on the news channels, that the evening did not favour one over the other. Time, of course, will tell but it would appear that Goff has increased his profile and favourably.

    As for the meaningless text-to-vote at 75 cents a pop – well it will probably have covered TVNZ’s expenses. You have to wonder whether the electoral commission will look at the anonymous donations of the fools who repeatedly pressed send on their phones. (Apparently the NATS have a core of members who have volunteered to do just that.

  25. Interesting debate tonight for sure. It felt like neither Goff nor Key hit the ground running and at the end it felt a little more like Key was par for the course but Goff had shown a number of times how he lacks any charisma, at least on TV. He did come across as flamey and intent on shouting over Key and Espiner a number of times. It’s early days yet but think Goff need to calm a bit and get his messaged fine-tuned so he doesn’t get so flustered as he appeared to be tonight.

  26. Goff didn’t look flustered to me – he looked like a guy sick of listening to unchallenged hot air. Key looked empty and self satisfied to me. His notions of leadership were slight . . . we vote this lightweight in we’ll get everything we deserve.

  27. Goff always looks too keyed-up (sorry); too intense, needs to relax a bit. Has this typical instructive “Labour knows what’s best for the country” air about him, that border on didactic and imperiousness (just like his predecessor).

    He needs to appear less rigid and staunch; drop his shoulders, lean back, listen to Key’s retorts and offer up the odd wry smile like he’s not ruffled by him. As it is at the mo’, he looks too urgent, too focused and anxious — and increasingly desperate.

    All those cloistered years in stultifying academe (where the air is overly rarefied) have done him absolutely no favours. Instead of going tutoring in that lacuna period, he shoulda got a real job; even run a corner dairy. He might have learned to listen a little more and talk a little less.

  28. So, basically if you think Goff is a fatuous windbag and Key Jesus on a stick (or vice versa) nothing last night would have changed your mind.

    I guess that’s a win, of a kind.

    However, I think Goff should be very careful about calling anyone else a liar. You never know when the ADHD media is going to start dusting off the filmes…

  29. I thought Goff did well, I liked his fieriness and he landed some good points. Key always has this poker face, as if he’s covering up, it’s a look I don’t trust.

    Goff also got the last word in at the end, I thought that was brilliant.

    Goff was passionate and authentic. My daughter was watching, she is voting for the first time and we both thought Goff came across well. I felt quite hopeful after the show, it’s going to be an interesting election night.

  30. I think they both landed shots, but given how far back Goff is coming from not losing was winning. Key has spent threee years deliberately avoiding serious questions as part of creating a cult of personality that is now National’s only electoral weapon. Short of a Pericles like revelation from Goff, forcing Key down from the mountain to stand side by side with Goff would always going to automatically dent Key’s halo. By then not blowing it, Goff was able to look at least credible next to Key.

  31. Goff and all the Labour hacks all look like Jim McClay did post-Muldoon; lost in the wilderness, having sold their soul and principles for too many years to a “strong leader” (spare me), and thus left with no idea of who they are, should be, or could be.

    Which is not to compare National favourably: they just look like the usual bunch of National party hacks.

    I suppose one day we’ll work out why we get these pigmies running for office (sigh). Look at the “Super City” (spare me, again) – a major shift for the first time in years, and all we got as candidates were two mini-me’s, neither of whom were REALLY wanted by Aucklanders.

  32. I though it was pretty even as debates of this sort go. Goff could do well to let go of trying to nail Key, it just looks like harping and over talking people is not a good look and sounds chaotic on the telly. Key could drop his smug smile. I suspect beneath the smiley face John Key has a nasty side – personally I’d like to see more of that.
    Overall I find this style of debate of little use – quick soundbites , no depth – not enough time to explore actual policies so why not just focus on personal leadership qualities.
    Jelly wrestling would be good – bet Key is a dirty fighter.

    Cooking show ? In the Auckland mayoralty race they had Banks and Brown cooking on a show and it revealed some interest parts of their psyches. Political master chef perhaps.

    An X factor or Idol format would be cool – I mean can they sing and dance.

    Survivor type show would be a fantastic chance to reveal leadership.

  33. It seems leftists think Goff won, rightists think Key won. This was my original point, (earlier in this thread). In retrospect it’s hardly a surprise I suppose.

    I was amused to see Phil redefining the concept of a “lie”. You can’t lie about something you haven’t done yet! “I did not cut down that tree”, when you did, is a lie. “I will not cut down that tree”, when later you do, is a broken promise. Isn’t this pretty obvious ? I suppose John didn’t want to defend himself by saying “no I didn’t lie, I broke a promise!”.

  34. Grant said “He (Goff) came across as petty, carping, negative and quite uninspiring.”

    Which is presumably exactly how you wanted him to come across. What did you want to hear from him but didn’t?

  35. As a swinging voter I didn’t expect Goff to perform half as well as he did. And Key came across as more goofball than statesman, especially when he attempted to justify lying because “It’s a dynamic world.” Mouth… foot… ow!

    My biggest disappointment was with TVNZ’s approach to what had been billed as a debate, but was instead a series of 30 second answers to Espiner’s questions. Why wheel in three heavyweight journos then only allow them to ask one question each?

    The “viewer questions” didn’t work for me either. The producer who made the decision to include the one about whether we should change our flag should be sacked. What a trivial topic in the run up to a general election!

    But then trivial seems to be TVNZ’s main thrust these days. Having Sainsbury & friends “analysing” performances throughout was about as silly as trumpeting the results of the paid text poll. Pathetic coverage.

    I watched a BBC debate later that evening and rejoiced in the fact that somewhere in the world there still exists intelligent, interesting television that allows reasoned discussion without chopping it into silly little soundbites.

    TVNZ needs to grow a brain.

  36. “You can’t lie about something you haven’t done yet!”

    Nice try at sophistry, Bill. What’s it like dancing on the head of a pin?

  37. did you hear goff say that some guy was “sitting on his (own) finger?” is that a saying? i think he meant sitting on his hands. we on the couch had to smile at the thought of that finger.
    is their a point to t.v. debates? Is it actually a debate?
    is it consumable personalities we want(taken or chucked out at our whim) – or do we just like to encourage hair splitting competition?
    consensus politics anyone? shame on me for suggesting we take out the vitriol. Oh well- there was at least one amusing thing about the show. not that i’m pointing the finger.

  38. I think if I was attempting sophistry I wouldn’t admit that Key broke his promise. I was actually making what I thought was a straightforward statement of the bleeding obvious. Lying is one thing, breaking a promise is something else. If there’s something wrong with my logic please indicate what it is and I’ll cheerfully admit my mistake.

  39. @ WAKE UP: “Pun not intended, I assume.”

    You’re way ahead of me, matey.

  40. Bill,

    There is something wrong with your logic. If I ask you to come over to my house and do some work for which I will pay you but I have no intention of paying you, I have lied. So contrary to your assertion, you can lie about something that hasn’t yet happened. A lie is an intention to deceive, whether it relates to a past or future event.

  41. Ross,

    You are quite right, when I consult a dictionary the definition of lie is as you say, simply an intention to deceive.

    Still, Key only lied if he intended all along to raise GST. Maybe he simply changed his mind. So Goff can only prove Key broke a promise, not that he lied. So I will adjust my position to simple assertion that use of the highly inflammatory word “lie” in this situation is not called for.

  42. @ Grant. I can’t believe you thought that of Goff in the debate. I felt Phil came across as someone with some soul, passion and a real belief in his own politics. Key on the other hand came across as insolent, dull and dead eyed. He was no match to Goffs intelligence on policy or emphatic good nature. Instead he resorted to cheap put downs and insulting remarks regarding the Occupy Auckland movement amongst etc whenever he was out of his depth.

  43. Bill Forster…

    I think use of the word ‘liar’ is spot on. Key, in defending himself, said that he had been asked, “would he raise GST to balance the books?” to which he replied “No, he wouldn’t raise GST to balance the books”.

    So he tells us he answered the question that was put to him correctly. You now need to ask yourself, a) Did he do so knowingly, on the spot, at the time? or b) has he found justification more recently for the way he answered?

    Either way the answer is ‘deception’.

    John Stokes

  44. John Stokes, maybe it’s clear to you exactly what he knew and when he knew it, but it’s far from clear to me. I am not going to pretend John Key has some inhuman capacity to be 100% honest all the time. Check out “The Invention of Lying” a Ricky Gervais comedy, that illustrates perfectly that dishonesty is inherent to human interaction by portraying an imaginary world where everyone always says exactly what they are really thinking.

    My underlying point (semi-pun not intended) is that in politics in particular calling someone a liar is extremely inflammatory. It’s best reserved for cases where someone denies doing something when there is proof they actually did it. In recent political history, I think the Clinton “I did not have sex with that woman” incident, and then in NZ, the Winston “No” incident are likely to be “liar” worthy.

    Personally, I don’t think the Goff “Briefing” incident comes close (maybe Phil made a genuine mistake, maybe the public service made a genuine mistake etc.), but if Phil gets into the habit of throwing the word around he might find it bouncing back at him for that one.

  45. I tend to agree with John Stokes. Key promised not to raise GST – but he did it anyway.

    Key promised to CAP the civil service, not CUT it. He cut it anyway – about 2,000 jobs lost so far.

    There’s more.

    Which kind of makes it a bit pointless when Key harps on about not raising the retirement age to 67. Since he’s broken his other committments, why not add one more – an important one, at that – to the list?

  46. Well it’s hardly a surprise you agree with anyone demonising John Key, your views are well known. The point is though, that breaking promises/commitments are one thing, pollies do that and accuse each other of doing it all the time. Hard realities have a way of getting in the way of good intentions. Normal practice is to accuse someone of breaking their promise or commitment. Accusing them of lying is, by convention, more serious. Don’t go nuclear except in particularly egregious circumstances.