Saturday, April 13

The TVNZ leaders debate

Usually smack talk before a big fight consists of blokes trying to convince their opponent, the world, and perhaps themselves, that they are on target for a knock out victory in the first round. We have seen the opposite in the prizefight for New Zealand’s premiership. Sure, Chris Hipkins and Christopher Luxon have traded blows, but many have been self-inflicted.

“I am the worst debater,” said one.

“No, no, there is no greater debater in the world than that other Chris,” said the other.

Prior to the first leaders’ debate, it was an all out self-deprecation battle for the title of ‘underdog’. This isn’t without good reason. Both Chrises will have received political advice that it is better to under-promise and over-perform in this first debate. It just gets a bit farcical when it turns into a race to the bottom.

A race that ultimately, in my opinion, Chris Hipkins won. Kinda. It is more the sliding polls that place Hipkins in the underdog seat, rather than his prowess (or lack thereof) at debating. He also faces the challenge of trying to justify the last 6 years of Government actions.  However, ultimately, it is simply that National looks like a Government in waiting and Labour’s election comms reek of opposition already.

The TVNZ Leaders’ Debate

Both candidates appeared pretty relaxed as Jessica Mutch-McKay introduced them. Christopher Luxon had a smile on his face and where he has been accused of plastering on a false smile in the House, this one came across as genuine. He looked excited to be there, but was attempting to keep things low key. Likewise Chris Hipkins looked quite relaxed if a little less excited to be there.

The strategies of the two Chrises were revealed almost immediately. Gone was Jacinda Ardern’s “relentlessly positive” approach as Hipkins opened not with why people should vote for Labour, but why they shouldn’t vote for National. This is consistent with the path he has taken with his campaign overall. On the other hand, Luxon’s plan was clearly to be the light at the end of the tunnel. As he has said many times this campaign, “help is on the way”.

Overall, the debate was a bit lacklustre. They never really got out of second gear. Partly, this could be because they seemed to agree on an awful number of questions, especially in the rapid fire rounds. They both oppose decriminalisation of marijuana, both voted to change the flag, both like bilingual signage and have both had speeding tickets. They even both bought their first homes at about 24 years old, a fact that made this millennial weep. As Damien Grant said on the Working Group / Taxpayers’ Union post-debate panel, “it was a great debate between two centre-left politicians”.

The biggest differences surfaced in the areas of justice and co-governance. Both of these matters could have easily tripped Luxon up with his responses being scrutinised by a media and commentariat that largely promotes Labour’s position on these things. However, National has obviously been workshopping his answers and he delivered empathetic and pragmatic lines. But, the two apolitical types in my office both felt that Hipkins was stronger on co-governance because he was able to give short answers and came across as confident.

Hipkins was always going to struggle with law and order. His Government’s record is simply too atrocious to be able to defend. Any recently announced measures are seen as too little too late. Luxon made sure to hit him where it hurts with his line about reducing the prison population, but all he had to do was say it, the policy is a self-inflicted wound for Labour in itself.

Despite Jessica Mutch-McKay challenging him on the efficacy of bootcamps for young people who have committed crimes, Luxon was able to mostly get through by claiming his plans are different from previous attempts at this approach. It is a policy that the media and chattering classes do not like, but it polls well with New Zealanders.

The (alleged) supermassive black hole in National’s tax plan which Labour has thrown its whole campaign into came up, but thankfully wasn’t the focus of much of the debate. It comes down to Hipkins saying it doesn’t add up and Luxon saying that independent economists have said it does. The average Kiwi doesn’t give rat’s bottom about fiscal holes though. Most of us go cross-eyed at the numbers talk and most have no idea what PreFU is.

What matters to New Zealanders (a phrase that featured on many debate bingo cards) is an articulation of overall approach. Spend or save? Austerity or splurge? If I vote for this Chris will he tighten the belt or spend more? And then, New Zealanders want to know how our biggest problems will be solved and what public services will be invested in.

On this front, Luxon came out on top with his insistence that tax relief is better than artificially lifting wages only for costs to go up at a faster rate. Hipkins’ GST offering looked meagre next to the $15 billion tax relief plan from National. The Prime Minister also struggled to convince Jessica Mutch-McKay and Luxon that the 15% dropped off fruit and veg would not be slurped up by the big supermarkets.

Mutch-McKay asked the two men if the New Zealand health system is broken. Unsurprisingly, Luxon said ‘yes’ and Hipkins said ‘no’. Hipkins was hamstrung on this as after 6 years and system reforms, he couldn’t well say his health system was broken. But when people are so acutely aware of wait time blow outs, staff shortages, striking doctors, and emergency room shutdowns, his answer went down like a cup of cold sick.

This topic led to questions about the Māori Health Authority and race-based prioritisation of health care. Luxon said he would scrap the Māori Health Authority citing its recent abysmal review and promoting his needs-based policy instead. Hipkins response was that Māori and Pasifika people need to be put first because they have higher needs. While personally I was more convinced by Luxon’s positions, I do wonder what those outside of the beltway would think.

The two Chrises were largely on the same page when it came to climate change, despite Hipkins’ best efforts to put distance between them. However, when it came to agriculture and rural communities, they diverged once more. Luxon was supportive of farmers and the efforts they make to be efficient and environmentally friendly. He said New Zealand can be proud of the fact that we have some of the world’s most efficient farmers. All the while Hipkins chanted “not true” next to him.

The most memorable moment of the debate for me, wasn’t something that either Hipkins or Luxon said. It was when Jessica Mutch-McKay asked the loaded question of what we should do if China invades Taiwan. So loaded that there was a real possiblity that the answers could trigger a world of pain for our trade sectors.

Our relationship with China is hugely important and the superpower has demonstrated its willingness to punish trade partners who speak ill of its actions. Australia experienced this when China slapped tariffs and trade restrictions on a wide range of agricultural products and this is said to be at least in part a response to then Prime Minister Scott Morrison calling for an investigation into the origins of Covid-19. Australia’s anti-dumping tariffs, the AUKUS agreement, and the diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics are also a likely contributors.

A throwaway comment from either Luxon or Hipkins that offended China could well have seen the communist nation seek to punish us via our exports. While we need to be prepared, China has thrown its weight around sufficiently that these conversations should happen behind closed doors. It was a reckless question for Mutch-McKay to ask, but both men answered it well by deflecting.

Another question that got right up my nose was in one of the quick fire rounds. Mutch-McKay asked if they thought trans people should be allowed to play sport. A ridiculous question and one that I hope she just misread because no one is arguing for trans people to not be allowed in sports. What is in contention, is whether males who identified as women/girls should be allowed to compete with and against women and girls.

Luxon reiterated National’s ‘neutral’ cop out saying that it is a matter for sporting organisations and Hipkins echoed it. It is difficult to understand how Hipkins could do this when his Government recently passed the Integrity Sport and Recreation Act which gives effect to an independent crown entity which can force sporting bodies into action based on things like player wellbeing. Given that a Green Party amendment to “ensure representation from the rainbow community” it is likely this commission will intervene on behalf of transgender males seeking to take part in women’s sport.

As the debate wore on, Luxon seemed to tire a bit and the number of ‘actuallys’ in his answers began to increase. He got caught up in a few more long-winded answers and needed to take a breath and remember his strategy. Hipkins, conversely, was steady throughout.

Most commentators seem to have called this first leaders’ debate a draw or a marginal win to Luxon. That Luxon exceeded expectations will have been a confidence boost for him and Hipkins will be relatively happy with how he got through the debate dodging his record as he went. I am hopeful that we will see a bit more fire in their bellies in future debates. There were a few burns and zingers, but they both seemed to want to just get the first debate under their belts calmly. The closest we got to a burn was when Luxon said that Labour would be in coalition with Te Pati Māori, Greens, and gangs.

I wasn’t particularly enamoured with the post-analysis panel on TVNZ so I flicked over to the Taxpayers’ Union and Working Group Podcast panel and was impressed by the political breadth. Held at the Backbenchers pub across from Parliament, the panel consisted of Fran O’Sullivan, Dr Bryce Edwards, Simon Wilson, and Jordan Williams. It was hosted by Martyn ‘Bomber’ Bradbury and Damien Grant. It is well worth a look for diverse mix of reactions, but be warned Bomber is in true Bomber form and Simon Wilson keeps picking fights with Jordan Williams.

The Great Infrastructure Debate was hosted by Stuff earlier in the day as well. James Shaw, Chris Bishop, Simon Court, David Parker, and Shane Jones were questioned by Tova O’Brien on their parties’ approaches to our massive infrastructure deficit. It is well worth a watch if you are into more dry policy chat!