Saturday, September 23, 2023

Peter Wilson: Week in Politics: Leaders' debate fails to catch fire

The leaders' debate Chris Hipkins had to win but didn't, more bad news for Labour in the latest poll, ACT and NZ First reluctantly agree they could work together.

Chris Hipkins needed to win Tuesday night's 1News debate with Christopher Luxon and he didn't. He didn't get near it - and most commentators called it a draw or gave it to Luxon.

National's leader just had to survive the first head-to-head, and he did more than that. With Labour's poll ratings slumping, supporters would have been looking for a standout performance from Hipkins and they didn't get it.

The Herald put four senior journalists onto it. They found it underwhelming but each of them declared Luxon the winner.

Claire Trevett, political editor: "I'm sorry, but what a snoozefest. Better luck next week, Hipkins."

Shayne Currie, NZME editor at large: "There was little inspiration and virtually no vision for the future of our country. Is this what we're in for, for the next three years?"

Audrey Young, senior political writer: "Neither actually excelled but Luxon dominated the event, both timewise and his assertiveness."

She thought it was probably because of the questions: "Hipkins was almost always on the defensive, offering nothing new."

Thomas Coughlan, senior political reporter: "Christopher Luxon won. He was more confident, articulated his plans more concisely and did a better job of wrestling Chris Hipkins to the ground when he was on a roll."

Coughlan said Hipkins' basic message was a strong one: New Zealand could not go forward by winding things back. "But Hipkins did not cut in on Luxon enough to make that point, and when Hipkins did have the mic he didn't make his points clearly enough."

Stuff was less certain, with Tova O'Brien saying voters might feel they were the losers. "It's a draw - but given Hipkins so desperately needed to knock this one out the park, Luxon can chalk this one up as a win of sorts."

Political editor Luke Malpass's report was headlined 'First blood to National - a battle fought in National's territory'.

"Overall, taken on its own merits, this debate was a draw," he said. "Taken in the broader campaign, it's loss for Labour. Hipkins needed to shift the dial, [but] the runway is shortening and he didn't land any real blows on Luxon."

RNZ's political editor Jane Patterson said in her Power Play the debate was largely respectful. "While civility is great, it made for a low energy affair in an election campaign that badly needs some sparks," she said.

"Lagging in the polls, Hipkins would have been looking to land a damaging, if not fatal, blow on the man who wants his job - but that never eventuated."

Patterson said neither disgraced themselves but nor were they particularly inspiring. "Both had been claiming underdog status in the days leading up to the debate, but afterwards no one could claim to be the clear victor."

Newsroom's Mark Jennings had a slightly different perspective. He said viewers were probably relieved when the 90-minute debate ended.

"While it wasn't boring, it certainly wasn't scintillating," he said.

"Luxon seemed better prepared. His voice felt stronger and it had more cut through than Hipkins. The National Party leader gave the impression he wanted to be there. The Prime Minister, not so much."

After the debate they both gave themselves eight out of 10, which seemed a bit generous.

RNZ actually ran a word count, and reported Luxon was the winner on that score. He said 6196 "discernible words" against Hipkins's 4491.

That meant Luxon spoke for 43 percent of the time and Hipkins 31 percent. The rest of the time went to moderator and TVNZ political editor Jessica Mutch-McKay.

TVNZ, which ran the debate, used its Vote Compass - which it describes as a "civic engagement application" - to seek viewer response.

There were 2947 respondents to the question, "From what you saw, heard or read about the debate, who do you think won?"

The result was 42 percent for Luxon and 26 percent for Hipkins. The rest didn't know.

TVNZ said it drew 1.09 million viewers, which was similar to the 1.16 million who watched Jacinda Ardern's debate with Judith Collins in 2020.

National down two points; Labour down one point in latest 1News poll

The night following the debate, 1News ran the latest of its Verian polls.

There wasn't much change compared with the previous week, with National down two points to 37 percent and Labour down one point to 27 percent.

It was Labour's 27 percent that drew the most attention.

"Hipkins is staring down the barrel of a record defeat," said the Herald's Coughlan.

"On current polling, Labour would crash out of the Beehive with the worst result of an incumbent major party in the MMP era. [This is] even worse than the current record holder: Jenny Shipley's National government, which took 30.5 percent of the vote in 1999."

The Greens and ACT picked up the slight fall in support for the main parties, both of them coming in two points up at 12 percent.

In the preferred prime minister stakes, Hipkins and Luxon both held 23 percent.

On the poll figures, National and ACT would just be able to form a government with 61 seats between them.

The poll also showed, for the second straight week, that NZ First had reached 5 percent.

That's enough for seven seats without winning an electorate.

Seymour's worst-case scenario

At this point in the campaign, with 21 days to go, the polls are showing that the most critical circumstance on the night is likely to be whether National and ACT end up with enough seats to form a coalition government, or whether they'll fall just short and need NZ First, assuming it gets back.

Having to go to Winston Peters for the numbers he needs to govern is something Luxon doesn't want to talk about. He knows he might have to, and that's why he won't rule out working with Peters.

Coughlan said that was more likely than often thought. "National's support has fallen during the last five campaigns from its average polling at the campaign's beginning," he said.

ACT leader David Seymour doesn't want NZ First in the mix.

His worst-case scenario is National and ACT failing to secure enough seats for a majority, NZ First returning and Luxon being forced into three-way negotiations.

It happened in 2017 when NZ First won nine seats and the Greens eight. Peters forged a deal with Labour which relegated the Greens into supporting a Labour/NZ First minority coalition government.

Although it's highly unlikely, the 2023 version would be a National/NZ First minority coalition supported by ACT, which would not be part of the government.

The difference this time is that on current polling, ACT would have about twice as many seats as NZ First and be in a much stronger position to claim the role of senior partner to National.

However, for Seymour it's still a horrible possibility should his party win fewer seats than current polling shows and NZ First wins more than is expected.

On Thursday night, the minor party leaders had their turn for television time when Newshub ran its Powerbrokers Debate featuring Seymour, Peters, Te Pati Māori's Debbie Ngarewa-Packer and the Greens' Marama Davidson.

In its report following the debate, Newshub described it as "explosive", which it wasn't, Stuff said it was "rollicking", which was better, and the Herald thought it was "chaotic and entertaining", which was about right.

RNZ said it was a firecracker compared with the damp squib leaders' debate.

"The most interesting thing to emerge from the debate was the reluctant willingness of ACT and NZ First to form a three-party coalition government with National," RNZ's Maree Mahoney said.

"Peters said his party would work with anyone to fix the country", her report said, and went on to quote Seymour: "Ultimately, if a parliament's elected by the people then you make it work."

However, they both jabbed at each other as they have been doing since the campaign began. "He's like an arsonist showing up at a fire and saying 'I'm here to help'," Seymour said.

Davidson saw the problems that could emerge: "Do people actually think Luxon is going to be able to manage these two, for real?"

Commentators generally felt Davidson was the standout performer. She and Ngarewa-Packer agreed on most things and high-fived on tax policy.

Seymour tended to take too long to explain his policies while Peters had been there, done that on most issues and therefore knew better than anyone else how to fix them.

The campaign week was sprinkled with minor policy announcements as Luxon and Hipkins toured around meeting people and visiting factories and farms.

The policy deluge has become torrential and it must be just about impossible for people to remember who is offering what.

RNZ has done its best to help with its policy guide, which includes everything except those considered too vague to put in.

Even with the policies all nicely set out, it needs commitment to get through them.

Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament's press gallery, 22 years as NZPA's political editor and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire. This article was first published HERE


Anonymous said...

Hipkins claim of “NZ cannot go forward by winding things back” is totally contradictory. A return to Tribal rule via He Puapua thinking and the continuation of Treaty of Waitangi bogus claims, exactly why the country can’t go forward!

Anonymous said...

Don’t forget the farcical fake language from the past that will take us all forward.