More New Zealanders watched Tuesday night's leaders' debate than will likely watch or listen to any other head-to-head contest in this year's election. I didn't think either candidate performed very well. But two things stood out for me.
There was no blue sky thinking. The debate perfectly exposed Labour and National's total lack of courageous policy when it comes to addressing some of our biggest issues. I've moaned at length about it before, but neither of our major parties is prepared to do anything that might be considered unpopular but necessary. Housing, superannuation, climate change… neither Labour nor National is prepared to do more than tinker at the margins.
The second thing I noted was that National leader Judith Collins appeared to change her campaign strategy in real time. Whether her softly-spoken TV ad or her media appearances of the last month, National had been trying to push a more gentle side to Collins. They know they can't out-kindness Labour's Jacinda Ardern, but they thought a few soft Labour voters could be tempted back to supporting National if Collins could only smooth off some of those sharp corners.
I think Collins scrapped that strategy about 7.36pm on Tuesday evening. Throughout the debate, she steadily brought back the snark. She had the Muldoon grin going and was peacocking in the post-debate interviews.
And if we were in any doubt as to whether she'd changed tack, she made it crystal clear on Wednesday. After Jacinda Ardern said she wasn't drawn to blood sport-style contests, Collins replied in classic condescending fashion.
"Poor wee thing."
Successful politicians and successful broadcasters share several qualities. Authenticity is chief among them. People ask me what Toni Street is like. Simple, I say: she's just as amazing and funny and lovely as she is on radio and on the TV.
Voters and audiences alike have an innate ability to detect when someone is trying to be someone they're not.
The reason many voters over the years have thought Collins should become National leader wasn't that she was really nice and gentle. They liked the crusher image. They liked that she was a scrapper and a stirrer. They could see how effective she was at undermining some of the government's most senior ministers and needling away at Labour.
That image and those qualities aren't for everyone. It looks very unlikely at this stage Collins will be prime minister this year. But clearly she has decided her best chance for polling day in three weeks' time is to stick to her knitting, and not to try and pretend to be someone she's not.
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