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North & South - - Last Words -

Lead­ers’ de­bates re­vis­ited.

One of the least eagerly an­tic­i­pated parts of any elec­tion is the tele­vised lead­ers’ de­bate. These days, whether pit­ting the two main par­ties’ lead­ers against each other, or in­clud­ing lead­ers of all the smaller par­ties in a warm and in­clu­sive melee, they tend not to be land­marks in his­tory.

Un­like the de­bates that fea­tured dom­i­neer­ing Na­tional Party leader Robert Mul­doon.

Mul­doon was leader of the Op­po­si­tion when he went headto-head with Labour leader Bill Rowling in 1975. Rowling had been thrust into the role on the death of Nor­man Kirk and was al­ways a dif­fi­dent pub­lic per­former.

Pop­u­lar mem­ory would have it that Mul­doon wiped the floor with Rowling, but a view­ing of the ev­i­dence shows some­thing rather dif­fer­ent, even if the lat­ter was of­ten caught look­ing at the cam­era as though he hoped it would go away.

The de­bate is in black and white, giv­ing it a Bergmanesque qual­ity, the pair’s ex­is­ten­tial iso­la­tion only re­in­forced by the pres­ence of a three-mem­ber panel: David Beat­son (chair), Gor­don Dry­den and Bruce Slane, do­ing their best im­pres­sion of mildly aveng­ing an­gels. Top­ics among the is­sues of 42 years ago: the cost of hous­ing has gone up 50 per cent in three years; young peo­ple are strug­gling to buy a home; there are too many im­mi­grants; the gov­ern­ment needs to act to stop prop­erty spec­u­la­tion.

On the other hand, there are phrases ut­tered that will never be heard again in a lead­ers’ de­bate, such as Rowling’s “I might in­ter­vene here if I could, Mr Chair­man.” The clos­est he gets to a per­sonal at­tack is to say some­what point­edly that “bal­ly­hoo is not my style”.

But false mod­esty was as much the rule then, as now. Asked to list his weak­nesses, Mul­doon con­fesses he is prob­a­bly a lit­tle “too blunt and too sim­ple in my an­swers”. He could say that safely, know­ing the au­di­ence would hear it as “hon­est and straight­for­ward”.

But for the most part, the de­bate sticks to facts and the is­sues, with the pair quot­ing per­cent­ages and ar­gu­ing about the do­mes­tic con­tent of the in­fla­tion rate in a way that would have vot­ers to­day los­ing in­ter­est quicker than you could say, “What’s on Net­flix?”

Nearly 10 years later, in 1984 and in colour, a con­sid­er­ably more pug­na­cious Prime Min­is­ter, now Sir Robert Mul­doon, con­fronts an­other new Labour leader, David Lange, in the role just over a year. Both ar­rived with a high rep­u­ta­tion for or­a­tory, and his­tory re­mem­bers the en­counter as one in which a snarling, rep­til­ian Mul­doon was out­classed by the gra­cious, god-like Lange.

Again, a re-view­ing of the de­bate shows some­thing dif­fer­ent. Mul­doon is clearly on the de­fen­sive and lash­ing out. Asked to de­fine his party and its val­ues, he spends most of his al­lot­ted time at­tack­ing Labour. Be­fore long, Lange is telling him to con­tain and con­trol him­self. “No abuse, Mr Lange,” re­torts Sir Robert.

Lange is of­ten as snide and per­sonal as his op­po­nent, but in a more gra­cious way. If this were a smirk­ing con­test, a judge’s de­ci­sion would be nec­es­sary to de­ter­mine the re­sult.

This elec­tion came in the wake of nu­mer­ous party de­fec­tions on both sides, but Lange de­scribes Labour as “a team [that] has not de­fected… has not spawned an­other party… In my team, Derek Quigley didn’t jump off.”

Mul­doon: “John Kirk did. Mat [Matiu] Rata walked out.”

Lange: “And you’re wel­come to any of them.”

Mul­doon: “Don’t be un­kind. Some of them are good peo­ple.”

The two of them are like an old mar­ried cou­ple whose re­la­tion­ship has been re­duced to con­stant bick­er­ing.

“If you’d just let me finish… it’s a sim­ple ques­tion – you’re still not an­swer­ing the ques­tion... you’re not putting it ac­cu­rately at all… Just con­tain your­self and we’ll get through it.” At times, it’s like lis­ten­ing to Win­ston Peters ar­gu­ing with him­self.

Lange fin­ishes with a rous­ing ral­ly­ing cry for a Labour-led recovery – un­der­cut by a line from Mul­doon that has echoed enig­mat­i­cally down the years: “I love you, Mr Lange.” +

DE­TAILS: Struan Clark cap­tured an early-morn­ing gear check at the Ran­giora Pony Club One Day Event. He used an Olym­pus OM-D E-M5 Mark II with a 12-40mm lens at 1/ 320 sec, f 6.3.

Robert Mul­doon (left) and David Lange bick­ered in the 1984 lead­ers’ de­bate like an old mar­ried cou­ple.

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