It was supposed to show she could relate to families in serious socio-economic hardship. Instead, the comments highlighted just how far Judith Collins is from the reality of it all.
The prompt, a question from Aorere College head girl Aigagalefili Fepulea'i-Tapua'i as part of the TVNZ leaders debate: "Over the course of this year, due to Covid-19, I've seen a lot of students, including my own friends sacrificing their youth to provide for their own families by dropping out to work," Fepulea'i-Tapua'i said. "So, what are you going to do to ensure that our students' futures are taken care of in the coming years ... so none of our students are left behind?"
Collins' response in full: "Well Fili, I understand actually. My husband is Sāmoan so Talofa, and he was actually taken out of school when he was 15. Ran away to his aunty who took him back so he could go to school. And that's what happens for many kids who have got a lot of pressure on them because their parents don't have enough money for them. So my view is, we've got to get people into trades, we've got to get them educated but also, we have to make sure that we have jobs people can go to so parents can look after their children rather than the other way round."
The Prime Minister's own answer was nowhere near as memorable. At a glance, the above response might not seem too problematic. However, as we're subjected to more debates and electioneering, it is worth taking a closer look at the messages conveyed.
First, there's the entry point: "Well Fili, I understand actually. My husband is Sāmoan so Talofa ..." Yes, Fepulea'i-Tapua'i is Sāmoan, and yes "Talofa" is a Sāmoan greeting. However, the question was not about Collins' husband, his ethnicity, or his experience as a teenager last century.
Fepulea'i-Tapua'i asked what Collins planned to do for students and their families facing tough, life-changing circumstances now.
In leading with her husband's background and dropping in a language greeting, Collins centred her own experience and link to Sāmoan culture. While there's nothing wrong with hearing about her extended family, the bow she's drawn in this context implies her understanding of hardship is also intertwined with that.
For all New Zealanders, I hope that is not the case.
MPs, especially those vying to lead a government, should not need to rely on the experience of close family members to understand problems that cut across lines of income inadequacy, socio-economic deprivation and ethnicity. Importantly, as we grapple with the Covid recession, discussion about its impacts on families and high school students should not be used to demonstrate a candidate's links to Pasifika communities.
Second, there's the use of Collins' husband's past ("he was actually taken out of school when he was 15. Ran away to his aunty who took him back so he could go to school").
As an MP's spouse, David Wong-Tung's life hits headlines at times. While his teenage experience should not be dismissed, it's not relevant here. Yes, lived experience is important, particularly when discussing problems around financial hardship, Covid and household pressures.
However, Wong-Tung's life experience was the wrong one to use. Any personal story from Collins should have been about a family or student facing the difficulties Fepulea'i-Tapua'i described. Failure to do so shows a lack of sincerity in addressing the problem and prioritising those at its centre.
Third, there's the second half of her answer which highlighted the need to "get people into trades" and ensure a steady supply of jobs for parents. While we might not all agree with the points, unlike the preceding ones they provide a response to the question. Collins could have skipped straight to this part.
So, as polling day inches closer, it is important to scrutinise the promises made by politicians and framing that goes around it.
As shown by Collins' response, a candidate's choice of words reveals how well they understand a problem, and their genuineness in wanting to address it.
Notably, Fepulea'i-Tapua'i's assessment of Collins' and Ardern's answers pointed to a lack of awareness on this issue — which should concern us in a Covid world.
"I definitely feel like a lot of the answers we got were more based on their own personal experiences, not really on the engagement they might have had with our students," Fepulea'i-Tapua'i told TVNZ.
"I don't know whether it's that they haven't had enough engagement with our students — maybe they need to actually meet some of the students who have actually been forced into the situation and get a more clear understanding, because I don't think that is the case at all".