Jacinda Ardern admits cannabis use in heated New Zealand debate

Labour prime minister faces National leader Judith Collins in televised election clash

The prime minister of New Zealand has admitted she has used cannabis in the most robust and animated leaders’ debate of the election campaign so far.

The Labour leader and incumbent prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, met the National party leader, Judith Collins, in the TV3 studios in Auckland, in a one-and-half-hour debate moderated by Patrick Gower.

The energy levels of both leaders was significantly higher than in their lethargic first meeting, with both drawn into making admissions and promises they never have before.

Ardern promised to declare a climate emergency if she was elected for another term, eradicate child poverty and move towards subsidising sanitary products for girls and women.

Collins promised that if family members of abused children refused to participate in police inquiries they would face three years in jail. She also pledged to scrap the gun register and make sure every school in the country has a gender-neutral toilet.

Though both leaders had overlapping recovery plans post-Covid they differed significantly in many areas, including how to deal with the housing crisis, how to stimulate the economy and how to tackle climate change.

Asked how they would respond to gang membership growing 30% in the last three years, Collins said she would create a specialised “gang squad” while Ardern said the root causes of youth displacement and alienation needed to be healed first.

The leaders agreed it was not the right time for New Zealand to change its name to the Māori Aotearoa, but agreed they would like to learn more of the language themselves, and for it to be taught more widely in schools.

The National party leader was accused of being “patronising” to Ardern by many commentators, at one point calling the PM “dear”. Collins said she was not patronising, she was just being herself and had enjoyed the debate, declaring it “robust and a win for politics”.

The highlight of the night for many was Collins admitting she would “absolutely” like to feature on the cover of Vogue magazine, as Ardern did in 2018. Collins has criticised Ardern for being a “celebrity prime minister” and said she excels at communication but fails at delivering on her promises.

On managing Covid-19, Collins said she would make it easier to get into New Zealand, and try to establish a trans-Tasman “travel bubble” with Australia by Christmas.

Ardern agreed a travel bubble would be good for the economy, but was not easy to do safely. “Covid is much trickier than the leader of the opposition is giving any credit to,” she said.

Both leaders committed to continuing with the country’s coronavirus elimination policy, and Ardern said she hoped a number of vaccines would be available by next year.

Asked for one transformational idea that would help the recovery, both leaders disappointed, with Ardern saying the country needed to capitalise on “brand New Zealand” overseas, while Collins said she wanted to transform the country into the south Pacific’s “technology hub”.

The debate played much better with Kiwis than the leaders’ first outing, and many struggled to declare a winner, saying both had brought energy and spirit to their showing.

Humour also featured prominently, as did testy asides. At one point Ardern scolded Collins after another interruption: “If I may model some good behaviour for you?”, and interjected: “Deep breath Judith” as the National leader talked up economic growth.

When Ardern interrupted Collins, the National leader piped up: “Manners!”, following her retort with a cheeky grin. On one more than one occasion she dissolved into raucous laughter while listening to Ardern speak, earning swift glances of disgruntlement from the PM.

According to recent polls, Ardern’s Labour party is forecast to win the 17 October election by a comfortable margin, though support for National is inching up. The latest poll suggests Labour would need to form a coalition government, probably with the Green party.

Ardern’s astute handling of the coronavirus crisis is credited with her overwhelming popularity as preferred PM, as is voters’ desire for continued stability in their leadership and government in the midst of a pandemic.

The low point of the night came when Collins repeatedly praised Donald Trump, saying he had done well to prevent any wars.

Ardern also failed to give sufficient, cogent detail on a number of points, with Gower repeatedly interrupting to ask: “But I still don’t understand.”

The PM chose not to disclose how she would vote in the forthcoming cannabis referendum, which drew the ire of some, though her supporters said all voters deserved the right to privacy.

Collins said she would vote no to legalising cannabis, and had never used the drug, while Ardern – for the first time – said she had: “A long time ago.”

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