Chris Hipkins and Christopher Luxon at the final leaders’ debate of 2023 (Photo:  Andrew Dalton, TVNZ)
Chris Hipkins and Christopher Luxon at the final leaders’ debate of 2023 (Photo: Andrew Dalton, TVNZ)

PoliticsOctober 12, 2023

Final leaders’ debate, election 2023: The verdicts

Chris Hipkins and Christopher Luxon at the final leaders’ debate of 2023 (Photo:  Andrew Dalton, TVNZ)
Chris Hipkins and Christopher Luxon at the final leaders’ debate of 2023 (Photo: Andrew Dalton, TVNZ)

Who came out on top in tonight’s leaders’ debate, the last before election day? Here are our debate watchers’ verdicts.

Madeleine Chapman: Hipkins’ fire won out

By the time Christopher Luxon had told Chris Hipkins to calm down for the third time, the studio audience groaned. And when Hipkins quoted Luxon’s “wet, whiny” New Zealanders remark from months ago, they groaned again. Two days out from a final result and everyone’s a bit sick of the same old lines.

So it was quite the shock when Hipkins, in what appeared to be a moment of genuine frustration at Luxon criticising his leadership of cabinet, spat back: “People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones – none of my MPs beat people up with a bed leg.”

All the journalists gasped and the studio audience cheered. Because if there’s one MP that’s garnered even less sympathy than the two leaders, it’s Sam Uffindell, but no one had said the quiet part out loud this campaign, and any suggestion of Labour taking the higher ground and the positive approach was well and truly struck down.

But it might have worked. Hipkins was fiery and at times belligerent, while Luxon was calmer and at times complacent. Pick your poison. In fact, the most refreshing part of the debate was unplanned: Agnes, who asked a pre-recorded question about assistance for beneficiaries, was in the audience for the leaders’ answers. That alone helped force them to answer like real people rather than media spokespeople, and when she wasn’t happy with their responses, she yelled out follow-up questions from the front row. Genuinely insightful and the only time it felt like both leaders were caught off guard: a real person with real experience of hardship asking them to explain themselves.

I call the debate for Agnes, but in terms of swaying the maybe-non-existent undecided voter, Hipkins’ fire won out.

Madeleine Chapman is editor of The Spinoff

Stewart Sowman-Lund: Luxon was right to ask Hipkins to calm down

The pin drop moment came a lot earlier in this debate, as Chris Hipkins evoked Sam Uffindell and his notorious bed leg. It was jaw-dropping, it was shocking.

But unlike Hipkins’ pulling out a racist New Zealand First quote during the Newshub debate, which felt like a turning point in Labour’s dwindling campaign, is bringing up a backbench National MP’s violent past much of a slam dunk this late in the campaign?

I think Christopher Luxon was right to ask Hipkins to “calm down” (shoehorned Taylor Swift reference or not). The Labour leader was overtly aggressive throughout.

But the reason I still think Hipkins won this debate (or “won” in inverted quotes anyway) is because Luxon was so ill-equipped to deal with the cross-talk that his answers were drowned out.

Unlike in the first debate, where Luxon clearly voiced his vision for New Zealand and came out of it looking prime ministerial, tonight he just seemed a bit tired. Maybe that’s because he only spends $60 a week on food?

Hipkins did go too far, he sucked the oxygen out of Luxon’s answers and dominated the debate – for better or for worse. But he had to: because he has nothing to lose.

Stewart Sowman-Lund is The Spinoff’s live updates editor

Photo: Andrew Dalton, TVNZ

Toby Manhire: Watching live, Hipkins dominated

The first 1News leaders debate lasted 90 minutes and felt like an eternity. This time 60 minutes passed in a half hour. Among many contrasts, the biggest was Chris Hipkins, who let rip at his namesake.

Luxon knew it was coming, but even then he looked taken aback. Hipkins reeled off Luxon’s greatest misspeaks: “wet and whiny”, he said, three times. “Bottom feeders”, he said, three times. There were more than half a dozen demands that Luxon give a straight answer. Luxon mostly urged Hipkins to calm down.

Last time in the ad breaks there was a relaxed, congenial mood. This time Hipkins was immediately surrounded by his chief of staff and pollster like a boxer between rounds.

Luxon for the most part held his own. An alien would have thought him the incumbent and Hipkins the rival. He did though find his mouth with his foot a couple of times. Once in pledging to return a free trade deal with India in a first term, something impossible to promise. Another in saying he spends $60 a week on groceries. After the debate he said that was really just for one-man breakfasts.

In the studio at TVNZ Hipkins dominated the exchanges. He was playing at the nothing-to-lose saloon and looked like it mattered to him more than anything. What was impossible to say, at least from where I was sitting, was how it would play at home. When Hipkins unleashed the bed leg, or at least a reference to Sam Uffindell’s alleged use of one, there was a burst of applause and an intake of breath. But it crossed some kind of line, to start rattling through backbenchers’ reputations. For Hipkins to later declare he was running a positive campaign is laughable.

The debate was at its best in the exchange on benefits. Call it a cut or not, National removing $2bn over four years from planned spending on welfare is worth arguing. The alternatives painted different visions.

Luxon dealt impressively with an early barrage on coalition challenges. The line of the night, though, went to Jessica Mutch McKay, and the suggestion that Luxon’s proposed new portfolio of minister of space had a perfect contender to head out in the field: Winston Peters.

Toby Manhire is The Spinoff’s editor-at-large

Haimona Gray: Hipkins won the battle but lost the war tonight

There were moments of strength, but there were moments where Chris Hipkins drifted into a new tactic of relentless negativity. It’s an acquired taste.

While this new aggression has seemed to help in the polls, the level of snark shows how much he has changed since the much friendlier “Boy From The Hutt” days of January. It is not an edifying sight, it looks desperate, but it might be his only option at this point.

As purely a point-scoring exercise, a spectacle, Hipkins took the night thanks to a relentlessness akin to a young Mike Tyson.

From the perspective of a commentator or journalist it’s more exciting. I don’t doubt others will also give the debate win to Hipkins and cheer on this adversarial style. He might have won the battle, but lost the war tonight.

None of this feels very prime ministerial, and that will put off non-partisans looking to be inspired by a leader.

It feels counterintuitive for an unpopular incumbent to frame himself as the scrappy underdog rather than running on achievement. There were times when Hipkins was too snippy. When a more positive or action-oriented answer was required.

He definitely was the largest contributor to the debate’s unprecedented chaos. Between talking over both Luxon and debate host Jessica Mutch McKay, and bringing up the bed-leg controversy, Hipkins went for shock and awe.

We’ll see if it helped, or if it contributed to a slide of votes away from the big two parties.

Haimona Gray is an Auckland-based public relations consultant and Spinoff contributor

Tara Ward: Christopher Luxon needs to calm down about calming down

When I make a late come-from-behind successful bid this Saturday night to become prime minister, I will immediately make it illegal for politicians to mention Taylor Swift in public. It’s always fun to spend an hour watching two grown men argue with each other, but some things should be sacrosanct in an election campaign and Taylor Swift lyrics are one of them.

Also, this debate left me with several unanswered yet crucial questions. What does Christopher Luxon buy with his $60 at the supermarket every week? Why did Chris Hipkins have so many pieces of paper in his ringbinder? What ARE you going to do about my ageing pipes, Jessica Mutch McKay? Thank god it’s nearly over.

Tara Ward is a staff writer at The Spinoff

Ben Thomas: The campaign team meme-makers were the winners

With advance voting around half of 2020’s level, there was more at stake in this final debate than may have been expected when it was scheduled for the final three days.

Hipkins came out displaying either the wild fury of a heavyweight boxer needing a final round knock-out, or the relentless over-talking of a man emerging after five days of Covid isolation.

Team Labour has felt like it is on a roll, thanks in large part to Hipkins’ post-second-debate zest and attacks on National’s policy, and he clearly doesn’t want to end up out of government as a result of undershooting on aggression.

Was it effective? A reference to “bed legs” seemed gratuitous, the kind of material that’s reached for when an argument has boiled over and shock and aggression become more important than relevance. Hipkins tore unsteadily along the line between surgical striking and losing his cool, giving every impression that he thought if he could just summon enough performative anger it could sink National’s campaign. He talked over Luxon, he talked over Jessica Mutch McKay, he tried to talk over the ad break. On balance, it may have been OTT.

Luxon at times seemed overwhelmed by the barrage, but mostly merely entreated the Labour leader to “calm down”. He then quoted Taylor Swift. On balance, it may have been OTT. Substantively, the National leader pivoted towards attacking Labour’s record on delivery, a weakness of the past five years. Those blows landed.

The narrow window within which the campaign has been fought, that is income relief versus spending, has flattened debate in ways that end up being nonsensical. A potentially interesting discussion on infrastructure funding and financing was reduced to the – incorrect – question of how much money each party planned to put aside to fix pipes (it’s roughly zero in both cases: where Labour and National differ is the kind of entities they would charge with borrowing and billing for the huge future cost associated with water infrastructure.)

Winner: After six weeks without a single memorable – or even recallable – quote or zinger from either major party leader, the campaign team meme-makers for both National and Labour have a merciful burst of content before Saturday.

Ben Thomas is a public relations consultant and one-third of Gone By Lunchtime

Charlotte Muru-Lanning: The viewers were the winners

I have to say I’m grateful that finally, after the tiresome debates we had forced upon us in the previous two, we’re having some kind of discussion around inequality and welfare. Although, Luxon didn’t have a (bed) leg to stand on when it came to questions around eliminating poverty, and the impact National’s cuts to benefits might have on this – and was only saved by an audience member casting criticism toward Hipkins on Labour’s own record on poverty.

While some (such as post-debate panellist and former National MP Paula Bennett) might have argued Hipkins’ debate tactics edged too far into the feral at some points, it certainly made for great viewing – and his passion and kaha around inequality and child poverty is worth some praise. On some topics, only passion will do.

Even more, this fervour felt remarkably human compared to the rote-learned robotic lines regurgitated by Luxon. See: the sentence starter “what I will say is…”

On the topics of repeated lines, Luxon’s persistent demand that Hipkins “calm down” gave me the ick, recalling patronising ex-boyfriends of my own and of good friends. That’s a line I’m sure was workshopped, but on who, I wonder? I clearly wasn’t in the target audience – even if he did invoke Taylor Swift.

Who won then? The viewers I reckon – this debate was sharper, more fiery and more focused than the previous two leaders’ debates, of which one was a snore-fest and the other just bonkers. Who won between the two leaders? I have no idea, but Luxon’s tie was too big, too ostentatious and too shiny, and Hipkins’ was far less offensive.

Charlotte Muru-Lanning is a staff writer at The Spinoff and writer of The Boil Up

Joel MacManus: Chris Hipkins was desperate… but possibly effective?

The bed leg comment will be the defining moment of this debate, and it says everything about Chris Hipkins’ approach: he was swinging wildly, trying to land every punch he could before time ran out, but he was desperate and some of his hits were mistimed and overreaching. The bed leg comment was a low blow and not something we’ve come to expect from Hipkins. But here’s the thing about low blows: they hurt.

With that line, Hipkins dredged up the National Party’s ugliest moment of the past three years. It will be the headline moment of the debate. Voters will be reminded of a shameful act in Sam Uffindell’s past, and more importantly, of Luxon’s refusal to take disciplinary action or release the Uffindell report, which makes him either look weak or like he condoned the behaviour.

Intentional or not, it still suits Hipkins’ goal tonight: create as much fear and doubt as possible about a National government. That’s why he mentioned Luxon’s quote about New Zealand being “negative, wet, and whiny” three times and the comment about “bottomfeeders” twice. He tried to deny he was running a negative campaign, but that’s exactly what he knew he had to do.

Christopher Luxon started strong and managed to fairly successfully play the part of the statesman and prime-minister-in-waiting, though he got more flustered as the debate wore on, and repeatedly telling Hipkings to “calm down” came off as patronising. He did a solid job holding onto his own supporters, but I’m not sure he picked up many new ones.

This was a debate for undecided voters. About a quarter of the voting public are people who voted for Labour last time and aren’t sure if they want to do it again, but also don’t like National. Hipkins knows these are the voters in play, and he probably did a more effective job of winning them over.

Joel MacManus is The Spinoff’s Wellington editor

Anna Rawhiti-Connell: For the first time, Luxon sounded slightly deflated

1.14 million viewers. That’s how many people watched the first TVNZ leaders’ debate. Less than 30% of those enrolled to vote have cast their ballots based on today’s advance voting numbers. As tempted as I am to volunteer as space minister at this point of the campaign (on the proviso of a permanent posting to the moon), it’s difficult to argue that this debate wasn’t important. Based on the reaction from the people TVNZ took to the pub, all undecided voters, I have to agree with the Barry White of the post-debate panel, David Cunliffe, and say I’m not sure anyone got a clear idea of what life in New Zealand would look like beyond election day under either leader.

For the first time in the campaign, Luxon sounded slightly deflated, and after three debates, I think it’s safe to conclude his inexperience as a beltway politician makes his natural home the campaign trail, and not in front of the camera answering questions. Hipkins was debate chamber fiery. He’s got nothing to lose but overcorrected on his overcorrection at the Newshub debate. I didn’t love the bed leg line being tossed on the fire by Hipkins, but I think Maiki Sherman is right. It will make headlines, and if you’re going to shoot that shot, and remind people of the time before National’s ascendancy in the polls, now is the time. There’s as much chance of Luxon getting a free trade agreement done with India in his first term as there is of anyone living alone in Wellington spending $60 a week on groceries, but he said both can be done. Shoot for the moon.

Winner: Agnes and Maiki Sherman’s suit

Anna Rawhiti-Connell is the editor of The Bulletin and The Spinoff’s head of audience

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