NZ Herald commentators deliver their verdicts on who won the first leaders' debate between Prime Minister John Key and Labour leader David Cunliffe.

Fran O'Sullivan


David Cunliffe

John Key demonstrated the command you would expect after six years as PM.
But he didn't fire. At all.

Key needs to show us he wants another three year term running NZ. But his body language detracted from his patient - if boring - policy explanations (what's with the hand in the pocket?) He was rattled when Mike Hosking quizzed him about an apparent plot by Collins loyalists to oust him as the price for a deal with Winston Peters.
David Cunliffe's performance was confident. But he spoil it by incessantly over-talking Key.


He was loose with the numbers.

But Cunliffe had the best sound bites ("he's in the past we're the future") He dropped in the "When I am Prime Minister" line with aplomb and praised Key with the egregious respect politicians muster when attending a rival's funeral.

But there's a few rounds yet before Cunliffe can throw the clods on the casket.

Toby Manhire


David Cunliffe

The first debate was always going to be a stern test of a man whose credentials were under fire. And Mike Hosking passed it with flying colours. If there was any doubt we were in the Seven Sharp timeslot, the question 10 minutes in was, "What is your ideal date night?" But overall the moderation was first-rate.

John Key spent too much time telling everyone what David Cunliffe was saying. David Cunliffe spent too much time talking over John Key. All night, both told New Zealanders what New Zealander wanted.

Cunliffe had reportedly been bunkered down for a day's prep, while Key was taking it easy, and it showed. Cunliffe stood legs apart, scowling, like he might just burst into Kapa O Pango (mercifully we were spared All Black metaphors); the PM leant, hand in pocket, as if waiting for a cab.


The questions from viewers were decent, though the projections, behind the leaders' podiums, made them appear like Big Brother out of the 1984 film. The lighting did no one any favours.

The Labour leader did well to curb his tone - firm without the lofty Olivieresque oratory he's capable of falling into - and bossed most of the hour. The National leader didn't find a "show me the money" one-liner. The best effort was that he knows the names of every New Zealander who has left the country to live in Australia this year. That misfired, and came across as strange, even a little creepy.

Though early on Key seemed at times a little shrill, even off-balance, he clawed things back on foreign ownership of land, where he out-argued Cunliffe, and then things degenerated, all three men talking at the same time. Cunliffe clearly outperformed Key; he would have done by a good deal more if he'd reined in the interruptions. It's unlikely Key will be undercooked next time.

One final thought: TVNZ need to give a breakdown of the votes that contributed to their 61-39 viewer ranking in Key's favour. Mike Hosking explained early on that the website had crashed. They need to say whether the (free) online votes were counted as well as the (paid) text votes, and the result of each taken separately.

John Armstrong


David Cunliffe

A narrow victory for David Cunliffe, but one which will be a huge morale-booster for the struggling Labour leader. It was his one chance to give hundreds of thousands of voters who have not bothered to listen to Labour a taste of what his party has to offer.

And he took it. It may not make much differenc in the end. But he took what he told Mike Hosking was the best advice he had ever received. He did his best. And he came across as genuine. Apart from interrupting John Key a little too often, Cunliffe did not really put a foot wrong. Crucially, he scored better than Key on the one subject where Key had the advantage - economic management.

Cunliffe looked to the future. Key dwelt too much on the past. Cunliffe had the better lines - most notably the one about the supposed economic recovery which had seen most New Zealanders "missing the party and going straight to the hangover". Key was solid, but unspectacular. At times, he seemed to be going through the motions. But Key now knows what he is up against. The pair's second debate will be a very different story.

Audrey Young


John Key

At times David Cunliffe sounded like the vicar's son he is, talking caringly about the families of New Zealand.

At times he sounded like the ordinary dad who took his boys to The Lego Movie recently.
At times sounded like a militant member of Federated Farmers pleading the case of the poor young share-milkers priced out of farm sales.

But at no time did he sound like a Prime Minister.

His saving grace is that neither did the real one, casual John Key.

Key is so match-fit for the campaign, he made the debate look effortless and won the debate.

Cunliffe was polished but not as at ease with his material as Key.

He was over-rehearsed and should be better next time.

Cunliffe's best moment was his riposte to host Mike Hosking's claim that Labour's housing policy defied the market.

"Rather that defy the market, we think we can work with the market."

But he then couldn't answer a basic question about house prices in Auckland.
Hosking was more probing of Cunliffe but nothing Cunliffe couldn't handle.

But he did the viewers a disservice by not cracking down earlier on Cunliffe talking over Key.