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Chris Hipkins and Christopher Luxon at hte first TVNZ leaders’ debate of 2023 (Photo: Andrew Dalton/TVNZ)
Chris Hipkins and Christopher Luxon at hte first TVNZ leaders’ debate of 2023 (Photo: Andrew Dalton/TVNZ)

PoliticsSeptember 19, 2023

Leaders’ debate #1, election 2023: The verdicts

Chris Hipkins and Christopher Luxon at hte first TVNZ leaders’ debate of 2023 (Photo: Andrew Dalton/TVNZ)
Chris Hipkins and Christopher Luxon at hte first TVNZ leaders’ debate of 2023 (Photo: Andrew Dalton/TVNZ)

Who came out on top in tonight’s leaders’ debate? Here are our debate watchers’ verdicts.

Madeleine Chapman: Just two pals agreeing on things

It’s quite rare to watch a debate where the debaters spend more time agreeing than disagreeing, but so goes the fight for the centre. Chrises Hipkins and Luxon first agreed with each other when asked to give compliments to their opponent (both dads, both like family, both had hard jobs), then when asked about a potential China-Taiwan conflict (both thought it was a bad question from Jessica Mutch McKay) and then suddenly Mutch McKay couldn’t get them to disagree.

The only thing more stressful than watching two adversaries debate and talk over each other is watching two actually-quite-similar people talk over each other while largely agreeing. The worst of both worlds. Luxon set expectations so low for his own performance that he couldn’t help but surprise by simply holding his own. Hipkins felt at his best when discussing inequities in the health system, but stumbled majorly by not just picking a random book when asked what he’s been reading lately. We’ve all done it, mate.

The night’s winner was former Labour leader David Cunliffe, who shone in the post-debate analysis despite the shocking number of rugby analogies.

Madeleine Chapman is editor of The Spinoff

Haimona Gray: There’s not much to split them

The problem with vibes-based political analysis is that, ideally, you would want voters deciding how to vote based on policy. Ideally, you would use a leader debate to highlight your policies, how they contrast with your opposition, and convey a general leadership tone. 

The issue is that the two major parties are closer together ideologically than they have been in decades. There’s not much to split them. 

This played out. Luxon was very assured in his delivery. He kept his answers short and showed potential to dominate future debates. While Luxon clearly is a capable debater after all, his lack of a significant point of difference on most issues is itself an issue. 

Hipkins had his moments – particularly around how to best provide healthcare to Māori – but is a damaged party and personal brand. 

Any loss of face at this point in the election could be the final straw. Any chance to reframe himself as a capable leader needs to be grabbed with both hands. 

This debate didn’t help him. Or your average undecided voter.

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

Anna Rawhiti-Connell: Chris won

I’d just like to say I really enjoyed spending the 130th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand watching a debate between two men called Chris. They may in fact have been the same man, such was the magnanimous tone of the evening.

They agreed with each other on virtually all the quick-fire questions and I can’t help but wonder if there would have been more differentiation if they weren’t sharing a new desk setup that looked like it was shipped in from Nasa.

They both revealed they’d bought a house at 24 years old, which will have lifted their preferred prime minister ratings to stratospheric heights with at least two generations tonight. They both recycle and they both agreed it might not be wise to discuss the China/Taiwan question on live television.

If you used The Spinoff bingo card as a drinking game, please drink some water and I will be saying some bedtime prayers for you.

Luxon tried to make a joke, quipping that his wife’s EV was the most famous EV in the country. It was the singular attempt at humour of the evening and landed flatter than both of them replying “I go too hard” to the classic interview question about their worst qualities.

Hipkins was his most lively and articulate on questions about health and health inequities but Luxon got his lines in on most topics.

Calling it a narrow, shallow win for Luxon. At least he could name a book when asked what his favourite was, even if it sounds like something straight out of Severance. Luxon survived, as he needed to, and Hipkins didn’t really get above a 6.5 on the mojo-meter. Feel like shit, just want the old separated podiums back. Up the Wahs.

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

Toby Manhire: Sometimes a nil-all draw is victory

Waiting in Studio 3 in the minutes before things began Christopher Luxon didn’t know where to put his hands. Folded, no. Clasped, no. Somewhere on that curvy desk that looks like a giant UE Boom speaker? Nope. Ugh. Arms! What are you meant to do with the bloody things?

If the pesky limbs betrayed nerves, Luxon rose above them as the debate got under way, gripping his hands to the edges of the lectern like a man who knows his way around an airport steering a luggage trolley in a hurry.

His biggest test came in the first section, as National’s biggest vulnerability of the campaign so far – whether its numbers added up on foreign property buyer tax – lurched suddenly to the fore.

If it was Luxon’s biggest test, it was Chris Hipkins’ biggest opportunity, and he didn’t make much of it. Where was the turn on a heel, stare your rival in the eye, put the hard question? Would Bill English stand for this, Christopher? Why will you not be transparent with New Zealanders and share the modelling?

Luxon emerged from those early moments more composed that half the media standups of the last fortnight. He was just about home and hosed already.

Both had bright moments. And less bright ones. Chris Hipkins couldn’t think of a book, any book. Chris Luxon had “embraced recycling”.

Hipkins hit his stride in defending the Māori Health Authority. A little later he at last worked out he didn’t need to litigate everything via the moderator and challenged Luxon direct: “Will you guarantee landlords pass on their tax cut to tenants?”

It was all a bit late. Hipkins ended strongly: energetic, fired up – ready to, well, start a debate. Luxon had two challenges: first, avoid, as Mike Hosking put it, the risk he might “turn red in the face and get all bleurgh-bur-bur-blur”. Second, prove he can hold his own across a longform, brightly lit contest. He did both. Sometimes a nil-all draw is victory.

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

Tara Ward: Beaches and books, books and beaches

Chris Hipkins and Christopher Luxon agreed on a surprising number of topics during this debate, but they also deviated on some of the biggest issues of this election: beaches and books. Jessica Mutch Mackay read the room, nay, the nation, when she asked both Chrises what their favourite beach was. Where was the worm when we needed it? This was exactly the sort of shit it was built for.

Luxon wasted no time and quickly chose Onetangi, the Waiheke Island beach with a glowing rating of 4.7 stars on Google. Hipkins nominated Raumati South, a coastline the internet claims is “popular with swimmers and surfers”. Then, before we had a chance to inquire about the swell, Mutch McKay moved on to the next critical issue: books. Hipkins said doesn’t have time to read – probably too busy swimming and surfing – while Luxon’s favourite book was The Inner Game of Tennis by W Timothy Gallwey, which is a non-fiction book published in 1997 (an easy breezy 122 pages) that encourages readers to “tap into their utmost potential”.

At the time of writing, both sand and books around the country were reported to be none the clearer about who to vote for on October 14.

Tara Ward is TV writer at The Spinoff

Ben Thomas: Luxon looked prime ministerial

Each Chris, Hipkins and Luxon, had talked down his own chances ahead of tonight’s first leaders’ debate, and it could have been because they were jostling for position as underdogs, or it could have been because they had foreseen they would both close out the final segment of the broadcast talking about how they fought climate change by recycling at home.

As with the campaign itself so far, Luxon surprised on the upside: more assured and aggressive than the sometimes faltering Hipkins, he succeeded in looking prime ministerial next to the incumbent. After a fortnight being lashed by media on his tax assumptions, Luxon could divert scrutiny by hitting out against another fair game politician.

Both managed to roll dutifully through their lines. The Labour leader’s highlights were (relatively) impassioned and well-articulated defence of action on Māori and Pasifika waitlist times, and then “co-governance”, which would have been much more useful when the faux-controversies erupted earlier this year. Luxon’s was a clearer explanation of how his party would embrace “by Māori for Māori” solutions while getting rid of the troubled Māori Health Authority.

There were zero policy surprises, except a declaration by Luxon that National supported free school lunches for all children, a promise so discordant it seemed in the post-match analysis to be ignored as a glitch in the Matrix.

Luxon leaned into a position of strength by admitting weakness, saying he had felt afraid walking down Queen Street during questions about crime, the only issue getting close to cost of living in voters’ minds. His goal was empathy with middle New Zealand, and he succeeded, in a relatively substance-heavy segment rehearsing the detailed failures of most current campaign policies in the past. That was a rare glimpse of Chris Luxon the man, peeled apart from the adhesive-like attachment to Hipkins, where they were indistinguishable on platitudes, social issues, and even the age they bought their first homes (24!).

Winner: Tradition says the underdog, Chris Luxon, takes it with a shrug.

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

Charlotte Muru-Lanning: A remarkably boring debate

Beyond the collective shriek my flat let out when both Chrises revealed that they’d bought their first homes at the age of 24, this was a remarkably boring debate.

Both leaders seemed relatively comfortable on stage, but I didn’t feel I came away with any new insights or feelings toward either.

Luxon delivered some absolute clankers though, first suggesting that a young hospitality worker could be a median wage earner. Then, when asked what kinds of actions he had taken personally to help combat climate change: he responded proudly that his family had embraced recycling 10 years ago (kerbside recycling was introduced around the country in the 1990s). And perhaps most astonishing, that the National Party invented “by Māori, for Māori”. That’ll be news for Māori all over Aotearoa.

Yes, overall, this was probably a draw – whatever that means. But I think what was more revealing was the way in which the whole evening exhibited the limitations within this format of quick-fire debates, which essentially reduces important issues to who can say things fast enough and look best while doing it. With explicit analogies like “tactical errors” and “technical draws”, the analysis panel after the debate sounded more like post-sports-game commentary than anything helpful for a disorientated voter. Perhaps unrealistically, I wish we cared less about whether someone seemed waffly, and more about how their policies might actually affect real people.

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

Stewart Sowman-Lund: Few revealing moments

It took about 55 minutes for Chris Hipkins to turn to Christopher Luxon and fully try and give him some shit. It was during the discussion on co-governance and after a sleepy first half, I finally felt we were getting somewhere (Hipkins later said he couldn’t stand by and listen to “divisive” politics). Until that point, the leaders seemed to have more in common than they may have anticipated, though neither would admit that when asked later.

In the moments before the debate went to air, the pair were chatting jovially – apparently about “road trips across America”, according to Hipkins. It was in stark contrast to the first Jacinda Ardern and Judith Collins debate, where they two largely stared daggers straight ahead.

Luxon was quicker off the mark, happy to jauntily jump in with snide remarks while Hipkins largely held a glazed over expression throughout.

But it was the co-governance topic that set the scene for a more high-energy final third, with both leaders more willing to push back at one another and stand up for their point of view. Luxon was less reliant on his usual cliches and talking points (though started off the night trotting out his usual lines about people “slogging” it out with two jobs yadda yadda).

There were few revealing moments and it’ll be hard to see any undecided voters picking a winner. But, Luxon’s biggest bungle was saying National invented “by Māori for Māori” and Hipkins may not have meant to drop new policy on the fly: that he plans to ban fizzy drinks in high schools.

And while it was a different time, both leaders admitting they bought homes in their early 20s is a hard listen for young people in the housing market now. Splash that on the front page of the Herald: “how these 20-year-olds managed to buy their first home”.

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

Duncan Greive: If Hipkins needed a knockout, in the room it felt like he barely swung

All the talk ahead of the debate was about how first-term MP Christopher Luxon would struggle against the experienced campaigner in Chris Hipkins. Yet it was Luxon who came out more stridently – the first to interject, the first to address his opponent, something Hipkins only did much later in the piece.

In part this was because the first segment played heavily toward what currently ails New Zealand, and are traditionally considered National party strengths. It meant Hipkins started off on the back foot, and Luxon found his footing. As the debate wore on it moved to terrain on which Hipkins could be more confident, and his responses to questions on climate and even health were much more impressive. Luxon had two decent clangers – his leaden nomination of “recycling” as his contribution to mitigating the climate crisis, and that National invented “by Māori for Māori”. But neither felt remotely of a scale for Labour to step change this campaign.

New Zealand grew very familiar with Chris Hipkins during his time as Covid response minister, regularly fronting the 1pm briefings. This was the first prolonged contact with Christopher Luxon – a chance to test the Labour thesis that he was aloof and untrustworthy. Yet he came across as assured and even compassionate at times. Tellingly, he was also persistently first back to the lectern during the ad breaks, while Hipkins huddled with chief of staff Andrew Kirton and pollster David Talbot. Their advice clearly helped, as he improved markedly as the debate went on. But by then the opportunity to destabilise Luxon was gone. Increasingly, it feels like the election is going the same way.

Duncan Greive is The Spinoff’s founder

Joel MacManus: Hipkins was better, but he lost

Chris Hipkins had the better performance, but lost the debate. He was an excellently prepared and highly capable captain of a ship that’s sinking. He made the right tactical moves and was well-prepared to defend areas of vulnerability. He parried well on crime and health, and deserves credit for wholeheartedly defending co-governance.

Luxon took the win because he started from a stronger position and managed to maintain it. Polling shows the mood of the electorate has shifted towards change and National is riding that wave. Luxon managed to land several of his pre-prepared lines, got his digs in on the government’s weakest points, and didn’t get significantly rattled.

Favourite moments:

Both of them naming their biggest weakness as being too determined and too smart and too capable and too awesome.

Luxon saying “Everything is broken” in health, only for Jessica Mutch McKay to cut him off with “we know that”.

Mutch McKay mixing up their names (it had to happen eventually)

Chris Hipkins being unable to name a book.

David Cunliffe’s sexy beard.

Worst moment: 

Asking each leader what they would do in a hypothetical scenario where China attacked Taiwan. We ended up with a boring answer where both Chrises rightly avoided answering. The parallel universe where they actually responded by war-gaming the entire scenario would have been a diplomatic nightmare.

Joel MacManus is The Spinoff’s Wellington editor

As the campaign lurches into blur mode, tomorrow we’re trying something new, strange and probably dangerous: an epic livestreamed Megapod – a full 12 hours of Gone By Lunchtime from 9am. Toby Manhire will be joined by Ben Thomas and Annabelle Lee-Mather, as well as a parade of high-profile candidates and commentators, to debate, discuss and tip into delirious mode ahead of the 2023 election. Join us at this Wednesday September 20 from 9am to 9pm.


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