Chris Hipkins steps up at second leaders’ debate (Photo: Newshub)
Chris Hipkins steps up at second leaders’ debate (Photo: Newshub)

The BulletinSeptember 28, 2023

A different Hipkins turns up to debate and proves he’s got some fight left

Chris Hipkins steps up at second leaders’ debate (Photo: Newshub)
Chris Hipkins steps up at second leaders’ debate (Photo: Newshub)

Last night’s debate was far livelier and Hipkins has clearly received the message that he needed to step up, writes Anna Rawhiti-Connell in this excerpt from The Bulletin, The Spinoff’s morning news round-up. To receive The Bulletin in full each weekday, sign up here.

Hipkins far livelier, more prepared and more present

According to Tova O’Brien’s sources, Chris Hipkins received a phone call from former prime minister Helen Clark after last week’s debate, urging him to “fight”. Clark hasn’t confirmed that, but something happened between the TVNZ debate and last night’s Newshub debate. As Toby Manhire writes in our group assessment of the debate on The Spinoff, whatever the message was, and wherever it came from, it was clear Hipkins hadn’t just got it, “he’d ground it into a paste and injected it into his spinal cord.” If you missed the debate, you can catch up via our live blog. Hipkins was altogether far livelier, more prepared and more present last night. The consensus from us, the Herald (paywalled) and Newshub’s pundits was that Hipkins won last night. Janet Wilson’s observation that Hipkins appeared to be in “leader of the opposition” mode while Christopher Luxon took on the role of “statesman” is also worth noting. That’s undoubtedly a reflection of current polling, with last night’s 1News Verian poll once again reinforcing who is the underdog in this campaign.

No escaping the Winston Peters question

Last night’s poll was markedly similar to Monday’s Newshub Reid research poll, with National and Act short one seat of being able to form a government on their own and requiring the support of NZ First. Winston Peters made several appearances at the debate via a tweet and lines of questioning. Moderator Paddy Gower asked both leaders whether they’d work with him, prompting Luxon to say he didn’t want to just a few days after saying he would. Luxon then went on to say he didn’t know Peters, which might be true to a certain extent and, come what may, creates some plausible deniability, but Gower’s incredulous “Everyone knows him; he’s Winston Peters!” is one of the most accurate statements of the night. Good zinger but arguably, Peters’ more substantive insertion into matters of consequence this week has been his request to see National’s detailed tax costings ahead of forming any government with the party.

More entertaining, more good-humoured but how does it serve voters?

As with last week’s debate, there were more moments of agreement between the leaders. I’m unsure if it was the order of questions or the livelier audience, but these had more of an air of good humour than last week’s converged inertia. As frivolous as it sounds, last night’s debate was also more entertaining. In a campaign many describe as failing to inspire, research suggests debates lead to increased voting rates among prior nonvoters. Something of a shot in the arm can not be a bad thing, although Newsroom’s Mark Jennings raises some legitimate questions this morning about whether this format really serves voters. Jo Moir also makes a good point in clocking both leaders’ failure to properly acknowledge the people in the room whose real life scenarios were used as a kick-off for questioning lines.

Both leaders agree alcohol is more dangerous than cannabis

The debate raised matters of substance in more ways than one. RNZ has a good summary of what was promised and ruled out. Both leaders made commitments on police numbers, bowel screening and nurses’ pay. Both made claims warranting a fact check from Marc Daalder and Matthew Scott at Newsroom. Luxon initially flubbed a question about whether someone taking MDMA (Ecstasy or Molly) at a festival was a criminal, saying they weren’t before clarifying that they technically were. One of the more egregiously hypocritical moments of the night was delivered when both leaders said they thought alcohol was more dangerous than cannabis. Both leaders had said they didn’t think cannabis should be decriminalised at the TVNZ debate last week. That will undoubtedly frustrate those who’ve been pointing out the flawed logic of our drug and alcohol laws for decades. While I think last night was the first time both leaders sounded like they might have given some thought to life beyond the current cycle of economic woe, these kinds of backflips don’t help defuse a sense that both are operating in a reactive rather than proactive mode.

Keep going!