In the wake of the first pre-election televised leaders’ debate the commentariat has reacted with predictable banality. The focus, masquerading as analysis, has been almost solely on who “won” or “lost”, rather than what the two leaders said. The debate has been variously compared to an All Blacks’ test, a boxing match, or dismissed as a “snorefest”.
Coincidentally, while Television One was screening the leaders’ debate, its sister channel, Television Two was screening the reality show Celebrity Treasure Island, where competitors challenge each other in a series of contests, and are steadily eliminated until there is only one survivor. The various commentators’ reactions suggest they wanted the leaders’ debate to be the political version of Celebrity Treasure Island.
Since Sir Keith Holyoake and Norman Kirk fronted up to a rowdy debate at Victoria University in 1969, televised leaders’ debates have been a feature of our election campaigns. Over the years, there have been moments of drama in each of them.
The 1969 debate was interrupted frequently by chants from anti-Vietnam war protestors led by the Progressive Youth Moment. The more they chanted, the more Holyoake played to the home television audience, saying “Keep on going, you’re getting me 100 votes a minute”. In 1984, there was Sir Robert Muldoon’s memorable “I love you too, Mr Lange” line at the end of their final debate, widely seen at the time as an early concession of his election defeat a week later. And who could ever forget Sir John Key’s “show me the money” line which destroyed Phil Goff’s campaign in 2014?
But these moments have been few and far between. The main purpose of leaders’ debates is to better inform voters of the policies and positions of the two most likely contenders to become Prime Minister at the ensuing election. They are not gladiatorial sporting contests, and do not deserve to be treated as such, a point too many of the commentators seem unwilling to acknowledge.
I am pleased this weeks’ debate was a straightforward, civilised affair, without histrionics and drama, where the two leaders treated each other with courtesy and respect and made their points in a considered way, without resorting to a slanging match. As such, each provided a good opportunity to assess not only what they had to say, but also their authority and conviction. I felt we had a better picture by the debate’s end of what both stand for, and their likely priorities in government.
On that basis, Christopher Luxon appeared more confident, concise, and certain than Chris Hipkins. Hipkins was able to draw on many aspects of his government’s
record to bolster his arguments but was hampered by some of its failings over the last six years. Luxon appeared to have a more positive message, even if aspects of it were more contestable assertions than absolute facts, whereas, as the incumbent, Hipkins was inevitably on the defensive.
Given the overall situation, Hipkins needed a stronger performance than he was able to deliver. While he was predictable and competent, he is unlikely to have lifted Labour beyond its current standing. Luxon, more of an unknown quantity before the debate, with therefore less to lose, sounded authoritative and organised, and probably solidified rather than added to National’s current support. Overall, the evenness of the debate played more into Luxon’s hands than it did Hipkins’. Although there are more debates to come, Luxon’s performance has made it more difficult for Hipkins to come back more strongly in these without appearing strident and more desperate.
However, those still seeking a “knock-out blow” from the debates may be misjudging the current public mood. What they dismiss as “flat” and “uninspiring” may be more in tune with the current mood of voters than they imagine.
Over the last few years, the pandemic, and the uncertainties it has given rise to, have changed the world forever. On top of that, there have been the global economic crisis and political upheaval in Ukraine, the threats to stability in the Taiwan Straits, and the unprecedented series of adverse weather catastrophes, exemplified by the cyclones here earlier in the year. The cumulative effect of all these events, that have happened over a very short period, has shaken people’s confidence to an unparalleled degree.
It may well therefore be that amid all this turmoil, people in New Zealand, like those elsewhere, are yearning for a restoration of certainty and predictability, so they can get their lives back on track. There may no longer be the attraction to so-called bold and inspirational leadership that there was a few years ago. Instead, a new era where solidity and reliability prevail over big, aspirational promises of change, may be upon us.
If that is so, then the commentators who lament the lack of drama in the leaders’ debate and the wider election campaign are missing the point. This may not be the year where big and bold is best, but rather one where who can do what they say they will do matters more. In that regard, both Hipkins and Luxon may well be more in touch with the public mood than the drama-seeking commentators might like.