On Monday, John Key challenged David Cunliffe to a debate on housing, saying at his post-Cabinet media conference:
“[I]f David Cunliffe wants to have a bit of a chat about it on nationwide TV, I’m more than happy to do so. Yeah, we’ll call it the first debate, I’m looking forward to it.”
David Cunliffe happily accepted the challenge, but yesterday Mr Key declared that the debate was off. As reported in this article, Key says he was referring to the traditional first TV debate during the official election campaign. There will be no separate debate now.
Rob Salmond, at his Polity blog, declares Key’s decision to be “really odd”:
This is really odd. Key is one of the best politician-debaters New Zealand has ever seen. He convincingly beat both Helen Clark and Phil Goff. Neither was any slouch. He has all the benefits of incumbency, and would be up against a relatively new Labour leader, who has never done a Prime Ministerial debate, currently working to a July/August timeline for a first debate, not an April timeline.
Had Key stuck to his offer, the debate would have been his to lose.
So it speaks volumes about the dreadful state of National’s housing policy, and of housing affordability under National’s watch, that Key is now refusing to front.
I think Mr Salmond is reading a little too much into Key’s about-face. The issue for Key is, I believe, whether he provides David Cunliffe with oxygen. Let’s look at it from this perspective: Cunliffe has to fight for every bit of media attention he gets. Wy would Key give him the opportunity to share a stage as equals, and grandstand on national television. Labour is currently polling badly and is fighting off attacks on its left flank from the Greens. David Cunliffe’s personal polling is in single digits and he’s facing media comment about Russell Norman being a more effective Leader of the Opposition. Why would Key give him the opportunity to share a stage as equals, and grandstand on national television?
To me, the decision to put the kibosh on an early one-on-one debate about housing is a no-brainer. A debate is a risk, no matter how well-honed and experienced Key is. It only takes one good line from Cunliffe, and suddenly Labour and its leader could have headlines and momentum. Why take the risk when you don’t need to, especially when the opposition is currently in a state of disarray?