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Judith Collins watches Jacinda Ardern during the first TV debate of the campaign (Getty Images)
Judith Collins watches Jacinda Ardern during the first TV debate of the campaign (Getty Images)

OPINIONPoliticsSeptember 28, 2020

The first leaders’ debate was so awful because the old format no longer works

Judith Collins watches Jacinda Ardern during the first TV debate of the campaign (Getty Images)
Judith Collins watches Jacinda Ardern during the first TV debate of the campaign (Getty Images)

Laura O’Connell Rapira has some ideas for improving the standard of TV election debates in Aotearoa.

Last week I hate-watched the TVNZ Leaders’ Debate.

I knew I wasn’t going to like it. TV election debates are generally awful. Whoever decided fast-paced, adversarial soundbite clashes where folks speak over each other was the best way to help voters make important decisions was wrong. There is no grounded wisdom that can emerge from this whack AF process.

It’s especially strange to prioritise a primetime presidential-style debate between just two party leaders in a country with MMP. It’s a recipe for banality and a format that belongs in the past.

Like any good political nerd, I knew this and watched anyway. John Campbell gave Judith Collins and Jacinda Ardern 30 seconds each to answer questions about inequality, infrastructure, housing and health – as if complex kaupapa can be discussed in any meaningful way in half a minute.

I waited with bated breath for a question – any question – that included the words, ‘Māori’ or ‘Te Tiriti’ but it never came. Ninety minutes and not a mention. The mental health of farmers was discussed – which is good – but the 94% increase of young Māori dying by suicide over the last decade was overlooked. I’m not saying the mental health of farmers isn’t important. I’m saying the mental health of rangatahi Māori is too.

I cringed when Judith Collins claimed to understand what it’s like to be a decile two Pasifika student in today’s world because her “husband is Sāmoan”. The incredible Fili Fepulea’i-Tapua’i had asked what National or Labour will do to help students who are dropping out of school to help their families pay the bills. Jacinda said Labour would lift the minimum wage to $20 an hour. Judith said National would give minimum wage workers a tax cut that works out to be an extra $8.10 per week. Neither addressed the issue of classism and racism inherent in our education system. Could they have if given more than 30 seconds to respond?

After the debate, which was between two Pākehā and hosted by a Pākehā, the audience was treated to an all-Pākehā panel. I turned off the TV at that point and searched for an election discussion that I could see my whānau represented in. I found The Hui’s Māori electorate debates and relished the slower pace, limited interruptions and concessions from candidates that other parties have some good ideas too.

The Hui debates felt less like a game where the winner takes all, and more like a group of people engaging in robust discussion about their ideas for the future of Aotearoa. By including parties other than National and Labour, the range of ideas discussed were broader and the kōrero more interesting. When a debate only includes representatives from the centre-left and centre-right, the scope of discussion is disappointingly narrow. I’m not suggesting we entertain ideas from the far-right but a little more diversity of political thought is welcome.

Let’s imagine for a moment how election debates could be different if they were designed in service of democracy: It’s election time and Mihingarangi Forbes and John Campbell are co-hosting a series of political discussions. There are five episodes – each exploring a range of important kaupapa – broadcast across radio, television and social media.

Each event has NZSL interpreters and live captions are available in our five most spoken languages: English, Māori, Sāmoan, Mandarin, and Hindi. We’d decided as a country that democracy works best when everyone participates so we’re working together to make it possible for everyone to do so.

Each discussion takes place in a different part of the country with a diverse and representative audience. Community, hapū and iwi contribute to the questions to ensure a wide range of kaupapa are covered.

National, Labour, ACT, NZ First, Māori Party, TOP and the Greens all participate. Advance NZ have been rejected due to a media-wide commitment to de-platforming peddlers of disinformation. That’s something we felt was important to ensure a healthy democracy too.

The debates are creative in format. Short videos are played to explain the whakapapa of an issue before it gets discussed. A range of experts and people with lived experience helped make the videos. Parties are asked how they would respond to imaginary scenarios like, “What would you do if there was an earthquake in Wellington?” or “How would you respond if the US government asked us to go to war?” Each party has a group of candidates present for each discussion. Responses are considered in teams before they are answered and spokespeople are given three minutes, not 30 seconds, to allow for meaningful contributions.

Candidates are, at times, asked to identify what aspects of another party’s policies they agree with before presenting an alternative view. The format makes for much more deliberative discussions, which has attracted a whole new audience. Candidates are encouraged to make explicit their vision and values so that voters can better understand their worldviews.

Voters deserve better than the debate we were served last Tuesday night. I hope for our democracy’s sake they deliver in the next one.

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