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(Image: Tina Tiller)
(Image: Tina Tiller)

PoliticsOctober 6, 2023

Last night’s multi-party debate was all chaos, no conviction

(Image: Tina Tiller)
(Image: Tina Tiller)

TVNZ’s minor party face-off saw the energy dial lowered from hot to lukewarm. But did we learn anything? Stewart Sowman-Lund and Shanti Mathias were there.

Maybe there’s something about studio three at TVNZ that just makes all who walk into it a little bit sleepy, a little bit dull. Or maybe it’s just this has been a really long election campaign and we’re very tired. Or maybe there’s something profoundly uninteresting about four suited men (well, one just wearing a blazer) squabbling on primetime telly. 

Last night’s TVNZ multi-party debate had little of the pep that was on display in last month’s Newshub Powerbrokers debate. Without the high-fiving duo of Marama Davidson and Debbie Ngarewa-Packer, the entertainment value was limited to a collection of recycled zingers from Winston Peters, who it appears exhausted his full back catalogue of attacks on Q&A over the weekend, and a handful of tetchy jibes between James Shaw and David Seymour.  

In that sense, the debate probably fell in favour of Te Pāti Māori co-leader Rawiri Waititi, who opted for a more cautious and, overall, sensible approach to live television given his history of being wildly unpredictable. While Ngarewa-Packer, his co-leader, wasn’t on stage, she was in the audience. At times, she acted like Waititi’s hype man, giving him the odd thumbs up or a quiet round of applause. In the ad breaks, she appeared to be texting him lines as well (and had earlier forgotten to put her phone on silent).

But given the repeated jabs from the right about a coalition of chaos on the left, last night’s debate gave a very distinct impression that Waititi and Shaw would probably work fine together. On many points, such as around the drivers of crime and the approach to tackling it, the pair were largely in unison. They were in sync, too, on climate issues.

Shaw gave his best statesman-like performance throughout, but the polls suggest time is running out, if it hasn’t already, to win over anyone with his repeated argument about more Green ministers sitting around the cabinet table. “Ultimately, we are campaigning to be returned to government with Labour and in cabinet so that we can influence the shape of that government,” he said on several occasions.

With that appearing to be a rather unlikely prospect, the real focus of last night’s debate was on Winston Peters and David Seymour who, polls suggest, will actually be sitting around the cabinet table. The pair have already begrudgingly admitted they would work together if absolutely forced to, but their performance last night will do little to offer confidence to undecided (or, for that matter, decided) voters that a three-headed monster of National, Act and New Zealand First would make it past coalition negotiations.

David Seymour and Winston Peters. (Image: Tina Tiller)

Seymour said he didn’t trust Peters, citing the fact he doesn’t know “where he stands on almost any issue”. Asked the same question, Peters said: “Well, we aren’t off to a very good start, are we.” He later trotted out his usual line about needing “adults in the room” who, and I’m paraphrasing now, “need to keep their pants on”?

We’re used to the whole routine by now, but does it make it any less frustrating – or concerning – given the fact that in little over a week, that routine may become a routine government?

As Waititi said at one point: “I heard the comment about needing adults in the room. I haven’t seen any yet.” At times, it felt like he had a point.

Peters and Seymour may be prepared to put their differences aside for the good of the country, but there are ongoing questions hanging over the potential coalition. With just eight days to go, New Zealand First soft launched its manifesto last night moments before the debate. It includes prospects such as a 50% SuperGold rates rebate, a tax-free threshold and the possibility of removing GST off basic fresh foods (the party has ditched its previous pledge to simply just do that immediately). Oh, to be a fly on the wall during coalition negotiations. / Stewart Sowman-Lund

Good lines, same old policy 

When the multi-party debate started I wondered whether it was a mistake to put Winston Peters and David Seymour next to each other. (In fact, I wondered whether it was a mistake to put Winston Peters in the same room as Jack Tame.) But instead of squabbling between the two men in the middle of the long glass table, disagreement came more from the pairs on each side. 

James Shaw went particularly strong on retorts to David Seymour, who was directly to his right. They kept talking over each other, with barbed quips: Seymour with a line about “James Off-Shaw” since he went overseas so much, and Shaw responding “Everyone is entitled to say something stupid once in a while, but you’re pushing it.” 

On the other side, Rawiri Waititi and Winston Peters offered very different visions of what it meant to be Māori. Peters described himself as knowing what it really was to be Māori, like riding to school on a horse. Meanwhile, Rawiri Waititi described how Māori have been an effective opposition to the government since 1853. 

Te Pati Māori co-leader Rawiri Waititi and parliament’s debating chamber (Photos: Lynn Grieveson/Newsroom via Getty Images, NZ Parliament)

Often, Peter’s’ answers made very little sense – evidence of how thin New Zealand First’s public policy platform seems to be this election. He seemed to forget that his party website lists removing GST from food as a policy, then complained about a “gotcha”. In the ad breaks, he shuffled through a big folder – the tantalising possibility of pulling out a sign that read only “No” – but only excavated a small book. On a question about climate change, he couldn’t seem to decide whether to go the denial route – “climate change has been happening for millions of years” or to trumpet New Zealand First’s promise to eradicate pests and plant trees. 

Jack Tame’s line of questioning along superannuation and white collar crime was refreshing; Shaw’s answers on both – that more attention needs to go to white collar crime, and that his party wasn’t interested in changing the super age – were most convincing, while each of the other candidates stumbled through lengthy and caveated responses. 

On co-governance and Māori inequality, things got especially spicy, with the gulfs between all four parties on stage most evident. Shaw and Waititi agreed that there has never been one rule for all, while Peters described a “racist, separatist approach” to promote Māori over other groups and Seymour suggested that “our constitutional future is being decided behind closed doors, by the judiciary and bureaucracy.” Waititi particularly pushed back against the Act party policy to have a constitutional referendum on Te Tiriti, and said that Te Pāti Māori wanted to entrench the Māori seats, meaning they would need a 75% majority to be overturned.

On the whole, the debate managed to cover lots of ground: herd size and the Emission Trading Scheme, gangs and the cost of living, with some moving vox pops from people talking about the way these issues affect them. There was certainly a lot of negotiation around who got how much time to answer a question. I wished, however, that there had been a line of questioning around transport, including fuel subsidies, alleged “anti-car” policies and infrastructure vulnerability. There’s been some attention paid to Labour and National’s transport policies, but it would have been helpful to see the smaller parties’ positions side by side. Hopefully the people moderating the multi-party debate in Christchurch next week are taking notes of what wasn’t discussed last night. 

In the post-debate panel, Jessica Mutch McKay was joined by broadcaster Guyon Espiner, former National press secretary Janet Wilson and ex-Labour minister Kris Faafoi. The panelists had also been workshopping good lines. Wilson pulled out: “the purple vote has turned beige.”

But I was struck more by McKay’s piece to camera after the first ad break, saying that the panel was analysing the “stunners and shockers” of the debate. Was there anything stunning apart from a few men in suits and blazers talking over each other and relaxing when the cameras went off? At this point in the campaign, everyone knows their lines and their policies (or alternatively, in the case of Peters, their sardonic smiles). They know which demographics are going to vote for them; all they can do is be consistent. It’s the post-debate panel’s job to take the debate, what was and wasn’t said, some idea about “performance” seriously – but it’s nearly impossible for me to believe that watching these debates could really change anyone’s mind.

I’m not sure who the people behind me were, but I was listening to their discussions for a sense of what people who don’t follow politics closely might be thinking. “Labour is the party that is a bit to the left, but not as much as the Green Party,” one explained patiently. Another wondered why Winston Peters kept talking about the past. Nonetheless, they laughed and groaned in all the right places. At least they had fun. / Shanti Mathias

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