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The first debate is on Tuesday evening at 7pm on 1News. This is not the set. Image: Gettya
The first debate is on Tuesday evening at 7pm on 1News. This is not the set. Image: Gettya

PoliticsSeptember 18, 2023

Let the debates begin

The first debate is on Tuesday evening at 7pm on 1News. This is not the set. Image: Gettya
The first debate is on Tuesday evening at 7pm on 1News. This is not the set. Image: Gettya

This week Chris Hipkins and Christopher Luxon meet in the first big TV debate of the campaign. How much is at stake, and do these things make a difference? Toby Manhire explores the meaning and history of leader debates in Aotearoa.

At some point after six on Tuesday evening, two men called Chris will arrive at TVNZ in central Auckland. Each joined by a small, carefully selected entourage – the head of press probably, a pollster perhaps, another aide or two – they’ll be directed to dressing rooms, welcomed and briefed by producers, chuck some makeup on, then as the clock ticks towards 7pm, they’ll be ushered through the warren of corridors to Studio 3 for the first leaders’ debate. If the pattern of recent elections is followed, they’ll still be processing a new poll just revealed on the 6pm bulletin. 

Two-and-a-half weeks into the nomadic whirr of an election campaign, it will be the first time – notwithstanding a polite nod at the BusinessNZ election conference or a chance encounter in a Koru Lounge – the two men vying for the role of prime minister will have come together since parliament rose.

Chris Hipkins and Christopher Luxon will be nervous, of course. It would be weird if they weren’t. More than a million people are likely to tune in to the debate, the first of four in which the men go head to head, many more eyeballs than have been trained on any part of the campaign so far. 

Chrises Hipkins and Luxon (Image: Archi Banal)

Luxon, a first-term MP, faces another new challenge. He has been keen to play down expectations. Hipkins is these days a parliamentary veteran, and thrives in that arena, but this forum is a new one to him, too. Having slumped in the polls, the pressure is on to shift the dial; try too hard and get it wrong, and he could just make things worse.

The debates would be “critically important”, said Hipkins in an interview with The Spinoff last month. In some sense their unique qualities were lessened by the modern reality in which even “a passing comment you make in a public meeting that someone films on their phone … could actually end up reaching a massive audience in a very short space of time”, but they nevertheless provided a rare chance “to tease out ideas a little bit more”. 

Trailing in the polls, Labour’s leader will be keen, desperate even, to prosecute further the question of National’s costings for its controversial proposed tax on foreign property buyers. Campaign chair Megan Woods believes the debates “are going to be really critical”. While there were “a lot of important things in this campaign”, this was “the most important audience, around a million people”. Her priority, unsurprisingly, was an “intense focus for a sustained period … about this $2 billion hole”.

Woods’ counterpart, Chris Bishop – himself a former award-winning debater – agreed, on the role the events played, at least. “They’re important, no doubt about it, clearly they’re important,” he said. “This is the opportunity to compare the two alternative prime ministers.”

Phil Goff and John Key debate on TVNZ in 2011. Photo: Supplied

Important, sure. But can they really make a difference, change the game? Geoffrey Craig, an AUT professor who has studied New Zealand campaign debates across decades as well as the international scholarship, has summed it up this way: “It is difficult to delineate specific effects of leaders’ debates but research has suggested that watching debates leads to increased voting rates among prior nonvoters; that debates do help inform voter knowledge about party policies on issues; and that non-aligned voters are most strongly influenced by the encounters.”

For Steven Joyce, who directed strategy on five National campaigns from 2005, the leader debates achieved real consequence “when they provide catalytic points where things that have been brewing for a while”. Speaking to The Spinoff on the publication of his memoir On the Record, Joyce offered the example of John Key’s 2011 “Show Me the Money” line at the Press debate in Christchurch – the first such event, held in the aftermath of the earthquakes. A fiscal hole proclamation that pre-dated Joyce’s own “fiscal hole” coinage, this was Key’s way of pointing a floodlight at Phil Goff over how Labour planned to make the numbers add up on promises including a capital gains tax and the removal of – sound familiar? – GST on fruit and vegetables.

“[Before] the Show Me the Money thing happened, we’d been banging away for some time about our concerns about what Phil Goff was promising, and feeling that it was very detached from the reality of where the country was, with the earthquakes and the GFC and so on,” said Joyce. “On the surface, we weren’t getting a massive amount of traction with that. But it was building. And then John made that line in the Christchurch Press debate …and: job done. I mean, John didn’t know that was going to have the impact it did, I don’t think, ahead of time. But it worked. And he had the smarts to stop there. It was done.” 

Other debates have conjured up evocative and encapsulating moments. In 2017, Bill English offered the “stardust” epithet for his opponent, Jacinda Ardern, in one debate, and the “I got up again” line in the other. Wind back to 1984, and the pugilist Rob Muldoon’s “I love you Mr Lange”, responding to Labour leader David Lange offering a post-election olive branch, was imprinted in history almost immediately – a scene that seemed to have sprung out of an Orson Welles movie. 

They can also operate as examinations – opportunities for audiences to assess whether challengers are up to the task. It was a bit like that in 1984, as it was in 2008. “Labour really believed Helen Clark was the ace, and she was so far ahead of John Key that she would wipe the floor with him,” reckoned Joyce. “And that didn’t happen. That was a test … that he passed.” We may look back on 2023 as a test of a kind, too. 

‘I love you, Mr Lange’: the 1984 classic. Via NZ On Screen

Key was aided in 2008 by a staffer called Nicola Willis, who took on the role of Helen Clark in preparatory mock debates. Key’s then chief of staff, Wayne Eagleson, would later say: “John had prepared, to be fair, but Nicola turned up and absolutely dealt to him. We had to stop the debate at one point because we thought we didn’t want John’s confidence to be knocked. If you look back to that election, the fact John was widely considered to have won that first leaders’ debate against Helen Clark was a really big deal, and Nicola played a big part in it.”

Another former National staffer, who is today an MP and campaign chair, Chris Bishop, pitched in in different years. He played the parts of both Phil Goff and David Cunliffe in training, he told The Spinoff, but he isn’t impersonating Hipkins in this campaign, and refused to reveal who was, only that the role was being shared by staffers and “people close to the National Party”.

As for Labour, who is playing Luxon in Hipkins’ prep? “Not a chance,” was Woods’ reply. “You’re not getting anything out of me.”

The 2008 campaign marked another change: a shift to the leaders of Labour and National debating one another, and one another only, leaving the other parties to scrap it out between them. 

Eagleson approached Helen Clark’s chief of staff, Heather Simpson, to propose they insist on taking part only in head-to-head contests. “Our view was that there were realistically only two prospects for prime minister, so they should debate each other, with the minor-party leaders having their own debate,” Joyce wrote in his memoir. “It was a bit cheeky, but we thought we’d give it a shot … It was John’s chance to look prime ministerial and to be measured up against Helen Clark.”

It worked. “I’m not sure why Labour agreed to our approach,” Joyce wrote. “In some ways it would have been easier for them if it was Helen Clark up against everyone else. She had far greater name recognition, and in a group she could rely on John being attacked by some ‘friendly fire’ from the likes of Act, while at the same time receiving grenades from Winston Peters and the Greens. She could have been positioned as above the fray. I think Labour believed Helen would wipe the floor with John on a head-to-head basis, backing her vast experience over that of the new boy.”

Last week’s Queenstown finance debate reveals how it benefits the smaller parties to share a stage. The event – which was not televised but widely streamed – pitched David Seymour and James Shaw alongside Grant Robertson and Nicola Willis. Seymour trumped the field for one-liners, while James Shaw impressed in the face of crowd antipathy. 

Act has repeatedly urged broadcasters to reconsider and worked to put their leader on the stage alongside those, at least, of Labour, National and the Greens. One senior party figure recently told me the existing approach was “cartelised”. The Greens have not actively lobbied of late, but have over the years sought a change – former co-leader Metiria Turei considered the status quo “anti-democratic” – and continue to believe the current system is not suited to MMP.

Woods said it wasn’t something they’d thought much about, that it was a matter for the producers. Bishop said: “We’re very comfortable with the status quo. The public are assessing two people only as alternative prime ministers. That’s been the tradition now for some years.”

In the minor league, meanwhile, legal challenges for a time became almost routine. Reflecting the perceived importance of the encounters, parties tasked their lawyers with getting their leaders on screen.

When Conservative Party leader Colin Craig found himself off the invite list for The Nation’s minor parties debate in 2014, he appealed to TV3. When that failed, he went to court, arguing that the decision to include parties with lower polling was arbitrary and unreasonable. An interim ruling left The Nation obliged to squeeze him in, and set producers on a madcap scramble around Auckland to find an extra podium.

In subsequent elections, Advance NZ and the New Conservatives have taken legal action after being given the cold shoulder by, respectively, Newshub and TVNZ. Both were unsuccessful – the networks have learned that the key is to lay down clear criteria for inclusion and stick to it. 1News is yet to confirm who will qualify for its multi-party debate, pending poll results to come.

Since the first televised election debate in 1969, an important question for producers, with varying degrees of input from the parties across the decades, is which format to choose. At podiums or around a desk? Just them, or with a studio audience, or town hall style even? Do you want a whooping, booing partisan crowd, or do you deliberately choose undecided voters? Questions from the audience,? If so, live or pre-recorded? Should a panel of pundits be bolted on the end? Should the questions focus squarely on policy, or is character fair game, too? How much knowledge can you assume of the audience at home?

One of the most memorable, controversial and wriggly innovations in format saw “the worm” appear on screens in debates across the late 90s and 2000s, with studio audiences live-marking the leaders’ contributions, which appeared in real-time as a line chart on the screen. 

The technology was blunt, unsophisticated and hardly enlightening. But it did have an impact. In 2002, United Future leader Peter Dunne’s commonsense contribution to a TVNZ debate saw the worm travel rapidly north. That, combined with a boost in media coverage it sparked, saw United Future surge and ultimately win eight seats.

That wasn’t the end of the worm, but after fresh controversy in 2011 election, it was put out to pasture. 

Peter Dunne and the worm device in 2011. Via NZ on Screen

Then  there is the question of who should host. When it was announced that Mike Hosking – a polarising, openly partisan figure who also happens to be an exceptional broadcaster – would return to moderate all the big TVNZ debates in 2017, there were protests from the Māori Party and from Winston Peters (as there had been from Labour’s David Cunliffe in 2014). A petition to have him replaced was signed by 76,000 people. It was not successful. 

This time around, Jessica Mutch-McKay hosts both 1News leader debates – reward for the political editor’s excellent performance in the second of the debates in 2020. The first is this week, the second on October 12, a couple of days before polls close, at a time when it is likely more than half of voters will already have cast their ballots. 

Patrick Gower will host Newshub’s debate on September 27, while the Press debate, livestreamed on Stuff, returns on October 3, moderated by the Christchurch newspaper’s editor, Kamala Hayman, and Stuff political editor Luke Malpass, and with an audience expected to number 200. Multi-party debates – absent the leaders of the two main parties – are on Newshub on September 21 (moderated by Rebecca Wright) and TVNZ on October 5 (moderated by Jack Tame).

This week’s first big debate has found a hype man in the form of Richard Prebble. Writing in the NZ Herald, the former Labour minister and Act MP said tomorrow night could be “pivotal”. “Hipkins must win the Leaders’ Debate by a knockout. If he does so, National/Act will fall short,” he argued. But, “should Luxon surprise us and be judged the winner, he will achieve a landslide election victory.”

Hosking put Prebble’s prognosis to National MP Mark Mitchell last week, seeking assurances Luxon was not going to “get freaked out”. The ZB broadcaster said: “The cameras are on, it’s live, it’s an hour of primetime television. People are sitting down trying to make up their minds. Is he going to turn red in the face and get all bleurgh-bur-bur-blur and get beaten up, or is he better than that?” 

Jacinda Ardern, Mike Hosking and Bill English in the second 1News debate from 2017.

Not a chance, protested Mitchell, but Hosking was on a roll. “In a debate – and I’ve been there and I’ve done them – the pressure is immense. And if he can’t handle it he’s going to get eaten alive, and if he gets eaten alive you’re toast.”

Luxon would be fine, Mitchell said, he’d prospered in “corporate America, one of the most brutal and difficult environments”. As the spectre of the bleurgh-bur-bur-blur hovers, however, Steven Joyce’s advice to anyone walking into the studio-lit blaze of a TV debate is timely. 

“The key thing is to learn your stuff and then relax and be yourself,” he said. “Don’t get too freaked if you make a mistake. Because actually it’s not about that. Sometimes commentators get very excited if there’s a slip-up. If it’s a slip-up that catalyses something [the public] believe, then, yeah, that’s a big deal. But, most of the time, they know that politicians are human and they give them quite a lot of latitude.”

The shadow boxing is already under way. Asked last week on the campaign trail about the debates ahead, Luxon sought to manage expectations. “Chris Hipkins is a 20-year career politician. He’s a champion debater, he’s probably the best debater in our parliament, probably in New Zealand,” he said. “I haven’t even done a debate before. I lose a lot to my wife.” Hipkins countered in equally artful pseudo-generosity. Luxon would be a “formidable debater”, he said, given his preparation and high-calibre coaches.

Labour’s Deborah Russell popped up on social media, meanwhile, with a morsel some industrious researcher had presumably dug up – a clipping from the Christchurch Boys’ High School magazine of 1988, congratulating the winner of the prize for senior debating: CM Luxon.

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