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Luxon vs Hipkins
(Image: Archi Banal)

PoliticsOctober 13, 2023

Play-Doh, Don Brash and bed legs as the campaign reaches its climax

Luxon vs Hipkins
(Image: Archi Banal)

Ahead of polls closing tomorrow, Stewart Sowman-Lund joined Chris Hipkins and Christopher Luxon for the last leg of the election campaign.

There’s almost certainly some sort of half-baked political metaphor in Christopher Luxon moulding bright blue Play-Doh with a couple of toddlers just two days before polls close. In what could be some sort of premonition of the forewarned coalition of chaos, Luxon wanted to sculpt a dinosaur while his table mates were far more focused on making a pizza and some chips. In the end, consensus wasn’t reached.

Yup, we’ve reached the Play-Doh part of the campaign trail. 

Yesterday saw both major party leaders spend the day in Auckland, though tackling different issues and with very different backdrops. It also showcased the leaders’ contrasting styles in this latter part of an at-times highly negative election campaign.

Chris Hipkins was in South Auckland alongside members of the Labour Māori caucus where he lashed out at the opposition in a fiery but effective speech on race that prompted Newshub’s Jenna Lynch to ask why he’d waited until two days before the election to “try”.

“In this election I’ve talked about how disappointing it’s been for National, Act and New Zealand First to use race to divide us,” said Hipkins, before moving to evoke the 2005 election. “I used to get incensed driving down the Hutt road and seeing those iwi/Kiwi billboards. I was outraged that a mainstream party would so blatantly seek to divide us.”

Chris Hipkins was in South Auckland yesterday (Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund)

He continued: “But Don Brash didn’t win that election. And in the closing days of this campaign my message to New Zealanders is let’s ensure Christopher Luxon doesn’t win either.”

Hipkins told reporters that he saw “shades” of Brash and “undertones of racism” in the campaign being run by parties from the right. 

Asked about those remarks once he’d packed away the Play-Doh, Luxon called it a “desperate” play from a leader in the “death throes” of his campaign. The National leader was at a childcare centre in Te Atatū alongside a swarm of placard-holding supporters (including some wearing frankly horrifying Luxon masks) and a pack of National candidates.

There wasn’t an express purpose to the visit – no 11th-hour policy announcement or, like Hipkins, a rallying message. This was a camera-ready campaign event.

Hipkins was “throwing muck at walls” to see what sticks, said Luxon when asked about the references to Don Brash. “National governments and Māori have worked incredibly well together.”

Luxon and some playdough (Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund)

The difference in approach to the final days of this campaign speaks to the mood within the camps. Off the back of a shaky week in which threats of a second election were bandied about, Luxon doesn’t want to risk rocking the boat any further. The poll results appear to have peaked and the gap between the left and the right is closer than it was several weeks ago.

By contrast, Hipkins is convinced the public are waking up to flaws in the opposition’s plan and he’s now speaking of a “late surge” in support for Labour as a result. 

“There’s no such thing as too late until every single vote is counted and the majority of New Zealanders haven’t voted,” he told The Spinoff. “There’s still two million who haven’t voted.”

The latest polls indeed showed a slight uptick in support for Labour, but there remained no path to power without Winston Peters – who has been ruled out repeatedly by Hipkins.

Asked whether he saw race relations as an issue he could capitalise on, Hipkins said there was a “strong sentiment of concern” about the way race was being used to divide New Zealand by some political parties. 

The leaders brought these same energies to last night’s TVNZ leaders’ debate, which saw a fired up Hipkins interrupt so many times that Luxon struggled to get a word in on any subject. His lowest blow was also the debate’s most jaw-dropping moment as he evoked National backbench MP Sam Uffindell: “people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones – none of my MPs beat people up with a bed leg”. 

It was the closest Hipkins came to the pin drop moment from the Newshub debate, when he challenged Luxon on racist remarks made by a New Zealand First candidate – but this time he went for the jugular. Former deputy prime minister Paula Bennett, appearing on a post-debate panel, called it “vile and quite despicable”.

Hipkins defended the remark in a post-match interview. “Elections are a contest of ideas,” he said. “But the fact that 60% of our messages have been positive and 95% of theirs have been negative, I think New Zealanders can see who is bringing the negativity.”

Much like he has on the campaign trail, threats of a second election side, Luxon remained calm and at times prime ministerial in last night’s debate. He struggled to get a word in, but his more muted performance was at times a balm to Hipkins’ ballsiness.

For Hipkins, he has just one last day to convince undecided voters – or more likely those who are on the fence about voting at all – that the surge really is on. There’s a lot of talk on the trail of the two million New Zealanders yet to cast a ballot. Hipkins is trying his best to talk directly to them.

The Labour leader will spend much of the day in Auckland alongside volunteers today, a last push before the midnight campaign cut-off. Luxon’s meeting up with his campaign bus in Rotorua, spending the final day of the campaign weaving his way back up to Auckland with stop-offs along the way. His bid for election will finally end in his own Botany electorate tonight. 

This campaign has felt like a lifetime but we really have reached the home stretch. There remain a lot of unknowns but one thing is now certain: there really is just one day to go.

Keep going!