Mainland debate's history of decisive moments

Jacinda Ardern and Bill English have been evenly matched in the debates so far - could there be a decisive moment tonight? Photo: Supplied by Newshub.

With Bill English and Jacinda Ardern evenly matched through the leaders’ debates so far, tonight’s Stuff debate in Christchurch is a chance for one to break the deadlock - and if history is any guide, there’s a fair chance.

It’s a sunny spring day in Christchurch, but the primary source of light for Joanna Norris and Tracy Watkins is coming from the computers they are hunched over in The Press’s offices.

Stuff’s South Island editor-in-chief and political editor respectively, the pair are putting the finishing touches on their plans for the third leaders’ debate in Christchurch.

Anyone unfortunate enough to poke their heads through the door is required to furnish a question for the quickfire section.

How are preparations going? “Last-minute, nerve-wracking,” Watkins says, laughing.

“The thing with this election campaign, which has been just extraordinary,” says Norris, “is that it has moved so quickly - the cycle has been extraordinarily quick, so we’ve deliberately left our prep to the last minute...because we want to make sure these are live, current issues that are facing voters right now.”

If there’s a sense of added pressure, it may be a result of Jacinda Ardern’s ascent to Labour’s leadership and her party’s resulting rise.

National and Labour are neck and neck, a state of play maintained in the two televised debates so far with no clear knockout blows.

But previous Stuff debates have not been light on defining moments.

'Show me the money'

The inaugural debate took place in 2011 under the banner of The Press, and in the wake of Christchurch’s devastating February 22 earthquake.

“It was a response to the fact that we were aware there was a really unique situation here in Canterbury, and it was right that this debate was held in that immediate post-quake crisis time.”

But the standout moment came when Prime Minister John Key pressed Labour leader Phil Goff to explain a fiscal hole - sound familiar? - in his party’s spending plans.

“Tell me where the $14 billion’s coming from, tell me where the money’s coming from - show me the money!” Key proclaimed, as Goff was unable to recover.

Three years later, it was David Cunliffe who was put through the wringer by Key, unable to clearly answer how a capital gains tax would apply to family homes in trust as the PM brought out an attack line about “Labour’s five new taxes”.

Those moments occurred in part as a result of the leaders, rather than the moderators, driving the event - an approach Norris says is deliberate.

“It’s often a really rowdy, robust audience which is not dissimilar to the types of environments that they would face in the House, so they need to think really quickly on their feet, they need to respond to often quickfire questions as well as that real energy and vibe you get in front of a live, local audience.”

“We describe it as moderating but with a gentle hand on the tiller, and that’s deliberately so, because in the House you don’t have the moderation other than through the Speaker, and so this is a chance for them to really show their political mettle and their ability to respond in what is essentially a crisis situation and that’s what we require of our leaders.”

Norris says another advantage is the live audience, with about 700 people expected to attend.

“It’s often a really rowdy, robust audience which is not dissimilar to the types of environments that they would face in the House, so they need to think really quickly on their feet, they need to respond to often quickfire questions as well as that real energy and vibe you get in front of a live, local audience.”

Whether the 2017 debate will have similar success remains to be seen: as Norris notes, English and Ardern are “a different kettle of fish”, although there were signs of greater heat in the second debate on Newshub.

With two men - Mike Hosking and Paddy Gower - hosting the debates so far, some have suggested a woman could bring a different approach.

Norris says bluntly that “gender doesn't matter to Tracy and I, and nor should it to the voters of New Zealand”, but argues the pair have specific expertise - Watkins within politics, and Norris in understanding the issues on the minds of South Island voters.

With the debate being live-streamed on Stuff’s website, rather than broadcast on television, there are some unique technological challenges.

In 2011, unmoderated tweets about the debate were put up on a screen behind the leaders, which some in the audience took advantage of.

The Star, a rival of The Press, described it somewhat hyperbolically as “degenerating into a rolling screen of profanity and slanderous accusations”.

More prosaically, there is the issue of ensuring the live feed stays up; Norris says Stuff has partnered with Tandem Studios, which helped put together the Black Hands project, to ensure the technology is as robust as possible.