Maori Party MP Rahui Katene started strong but was soon paddling against the tide, and finished the Te Tai Tonga debate looking frazzled and beaten.
Meanwhile Mana candidate Clinton Dearlove was full of beginner nerves, but soon found his feet to deliver a message with emphatic authority, along with an Obama-esque smile.
There is now a palpable sense among Mana supporters that Dearlove can steal the seat. On the basis of his performance last night this is a reasonable expectation, but I doubt it. Instead, I think Dearlove has done enough to snatch a significant number of votes from Rahui Katene and push the seat towards Rino Tirikatene. Rino was, in my opinion, going to win whether Clinton did well or not. I always thought there were enough tribal Labour voters coupled with a large enough reflex backlash against the Maori Party (for supporting, among other things, the MCA Act and the tax switch) to hand the seat to Rino. And, perhaps, Rino is best placed to represent Te Tai Tonga. Rino made the point that Labour, as one of the major parties, is best placed to achieve change for Maori. This is, for the most part, true. Labour will always sanction or lead change for Maori. The minor parties, Mana, Maori and the Greens, will always be subordinate to either National or Labour. Having said that, this doesn’t mean minor parties are irrelevant. The minor parties play a fundamental role in introducing Maori issues onto the agenda and pushing change. However, going back to the main point, Labour, or sometimes National, will always sanction or lead change.
As I said last night every candidate communicated their message well. I think Rino and Rahui were quite nervous, but this is to be expected, after all, all the pressure was on those two. Dora Langsbury and Clinton Dearlove were not weighed down under the pressure of expectation. They had nothing to lose and nothing to prove whereas last night was probably in Rahui and Rinos minds make or break.
Rahui performed well choosing to follow her leaders lines and focus on what the Maori Party has achieved – even though some of her claims were erroneous. Rino was weighed down by expectation, but outperformed everyone on the economy. He had his soundbites at the ready and delivered them with finesse. I was impressed with the pace of his delivery. He adjusted his tone in response to the audience mood as well. Dora Langsbury did well on policy. The Greens are always strong on policy so it is no surprise Dora performed well here. Clinton did well on all fronts. He delivered his message powerfully. He was animated, he concentrated on the message and was not too mindful of the medium (i.e. the cameras), the tone was conversational and the pitch was perfect.
I’m hesitant to name a winner. I think they all performed well in certain areas. In my opinion the debate is going to break Rahui and reward Clinton and, as a result, Rino. Clinton will seep enough votes from Rahui in Wellington, where Mana is strongest in Te Tai Tonga, to award the seat to Rino.