Our Herald panel of experts give their verdicts on the final leaders' debate between National leader Bill English and Labour leader Jacinda Ardern.

Audrey Young: Winner? Bill English

NZ Herald political editor

Our Herald panel of experts, Toby Manhire, Audrey Young, Liam Dann and Heather du Plessis-Allan. Photo / Michael Craig
Our Herald panel of experts, Toby Manhire, Audrey Young, Liam Dann and Heather du Plessis-Allan. Photo / Michael Craig

Jacinda Ardern was on the defensive for most of the debate, possibly because the 1News poll showing a dive for Labour knocked the stuffing out of her.

She defended the tax backdown, the hostility from the rural sector, and Labour's relations with the Greens.


She remained civil. When she expressed disappointment that English was being "profoundly unfair" about Labour and tax, you knew she was really thinking "you're telling bloody fibs, buster".

English won more points, but he didn't shine. He wasn't very nimble and it looked as though the campaign had taken its toll.

The three of them sitting around a huge desk sucked what energy they've got left out of the debate.

There was barely an original utterance in the whole hour, except for the segment on poverty, when Ardern came into her own.

"There'll be no more auto-pilot," she promised. They both looked they were on it.

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Toby Manhire: Winner? Draw

Herald columnist, Spinoff senior editor

Toby Manhire
Toby Manhire

This sit-down debate around a giant icecream-cone holder only fizzed briefly, when the nation returned to the infamous $11.7 billion fiscal hole.


Ardern looked properly riled, challenging English to look her in the eye and repeat the claim. He was sticking with his hole, but gave a little ground.

"You can argue about how big it is."

Otherwise, much like the first TVNZ encounters, this was more two alternating interviews than a debate.

She called him Bill countless times; he didn't say Jacinda but he did tell voters they had a choice, several thousand times over.

Restored to good health, Mike Hosking talked a lot, rocking on his chair, miming the digging of a hole, thumping the giant icecream-cone holder.

He'd have done better to let them get on with things. They were fine. But it fell a bit flat.

And it's hard imagine anyone having had their mind changed.

Heather du Plessis-Allan: Winner? Bill English

Herald on Sunday columnist

Heather du Plessis-Allan
Heather du Plessis-Allan

It's the first time Ardern has looked rattled. She struggled to maintain her usually ever-present smile. It might've been the 1News poll putting National nine points ahead with only three days to go.

Ardern used the word "unfair" to describe National's tax attack. "Unfair" is a poor choice of word. It suggests National is the bigger, more powerful team.

Ardern struggled to defend her plans on a number of fronts but performed well on the health crisis.

English has never looked so in command this campaign.

He attacked Labour and the Greens for hopping on the water tax "populist bandwagon", over-talked Ardern and pulled her up on facts.

He struggled on the current fuel crisis, missing the made-for-a-campaign opportunity to look Prime Ministerial with a solution.

The Greens' hearts would've broken afresh tonight. Ever the bridesmaid, Ardern as good as warned them the Memorandum of Understanding is not worth the paper it's written on.

Liam Dann: Winner? Bill English

Herald business editor at large

Liam Dann
Liam Dann

This wasn't a debate about vision and social justice. It was debate about polls, tax, trade policy, water charges, health spending and coalitions.

It was wonkish, almost as if host Mike Hosking was in post-campaign analysis mode already.

Ardern never got a roll on.

English smiled and talked his way through the tricky issues like a Prime Ministerial robot.

In the brief moments where he was vulnerable - the fuel pipeline debacle, poverty and the imaginary fiscal hole - Ardern needed to go for the knockout.

In fact, never mind the boxing analogies, she needed to hit him in the nuts like a street fighter. It's probably to her credit as a person that she didn't but it handed English a clear points victory.

Labour supporters will cry foul on scaremongering but like Arnie in the Terminator he kept on coming. Will he be back? Maybe, but it's still a tight race.