Televised leaders’ debates are a traditional part of election campaigns. The TV networks, voters and opposition parties welcome these gladiatorial contests. But, as Mark Jennings writes, prime ministers tend not to be so keen.

Jacinda Ardern and Judith Collins will soon go head to head in the first leaders’ debate. Will it be the mother of all debates?  Probably not, but both the titleholder and the challenger need to land at least a couple of decent blows.

Otherwise, there is little reward for all the time, training and nervous energy they invest in these staged heavyweight contests.

Round one will, as usual, be hosted by TVNZ. The party leaders will have a rematch the following week on Three. The final showdown will come just two days out from the election with another debate on TVNZ.

For the politicians it is gut-wrenching stuff. Stumbling or bumbling or just being off your game is demoralising for the leader and their party. Loyalists, as we know, rarely change their party vote but elections are about winning over the undecided – the sort of voters who watch TV debates.

The pressure is huge, and I saw it firsthand when I was director of news at TV3. Highly capable politicians like Helen Clark, John Key, and Winston Peters had a different air about them when they arrived at the studio on debate night.

Clark seemed to be in a slight trance – zoned in for the task ahead and almost casually oblivious to the mechanics of television going on around her. Key tried to be his normal chatty self, but only momentarily before looking to disengage. Peters was always late, brusque, needing a cigarette and querying which leader would get to go first or last. 

The unflappable former co-leader of the Greens, Jeanette Fitzsimmons, who always performed well in debates, once told me it was a terrifying ordeal. For some, it was too hard. Māori Party co leader Tariana Turia’s nerves took hold of her to the point where she had to be replaced by Dr Pita Sharples during a commercial break.

The leaders of the major parties usually look outside their own media teams for help when preparing for the debates. In recent times, Labour has used Linda Clark – former TVNZ political editor-turned-lawyer. 

National has relied on the husband and wife team of Bill Ralston and Janet Wilson.

Ralston was political editor for TV3, head of news at TVNZ and editor of Metro magazine before he started coaching politicians. Wilson was a television journalist who hosted TV3’s Nightline programme in the 90s.

The television background of all three is important. Their advice extends past the likely questions and topics the host will concentrate on and into the vital areas of presentation and engagement.

Ralston himself hosted leaders’ debates when he was at TV3 and Clark has regularly appeared as a commentator on election night programmes. Both are still well plugged in to the media industry and have good insight into the style and skills of the presenters who will host the debates.

The time taken up by coaching, the desire to limit opponents’ TV exposure, and their own fear of a making a mistake are why prime ministers agree to as few debates as they can.

This reluctance is almost anti-democratic. When MMP was introduced, the leaders of all parties in Parliament, and some outside, took part in the same TV debates. These were lively and revealing affairs. 

Now, the leaders of National and Labour refuse to be involved in multi-party debates. If the PM isn’t doing the debate then Leader of the Opposition also declines because they don’t want to be seen as having less status. 

The consequence is that the multi-party debates are now much less relevant and fewer people watch them.

TVNZ hosts the one major multi-party leaders’ debate, if you can even call it that. Three has relegated its minor party debate to 9.30am on a Saturday.

New Zealand doesn’t vote for a president but we end up with presidential-style debates because the leader of the party in power holds the whip hand. The TV networks take what they can get and in Three’s case that comes down to a single leaders’ debate, sandwiched between the two TVNZ debates.

Three has been the victim of various prime ministers’ desire to control all the campaign levers they can get their hands on.

Key’s former chief of staff Wayne Eagleson (now a lobbyist) tried to cut Three out of the action altogether saying, “I don’t see what is in it for us.”

To a degree, Eagleson had a point, but democracy would seem ill-served by denying opposition parties and even the Government’s coalition partners the opportunity to put their case. The media platform that being prime minister affords a party leader (even in non-Covid times) is substantial. 

The TV networks, despite what some commentators claim, want to provide balance and analysis of the parties’ policies for the viewers. 

The demand is there. Last election, all three televised leaders’ debates rated well and it is hard to think they won’t again.  Political decisions are currently having more impact on our lives and livelihoods than usual.

The three scheduled debates are likely to have very different flavours.  The first will be hosted by ex-TV3 journalist and now TVNZ breakfast host John Campbell. Campbell will relish going first and will have meticulously researched the policies of both Labour and National. His style will be more relaxed than his predecessor, Mike Hosking, but his experience (Campbell’s tour of duty at TV3 included six general elections) will ensure neither leader gets away with an easy ride.

The best TV debate in the 2017 election was hosted by Three’s Paddy Gower – mainly because he encouraged, and actually allowed, the leaders to debate. Hosking and Campbell tend to interrogate and interview the individuals as opposed to letting the argument flow.

Not so Gower. Three’s former political editor will be in charge again this time round.

He will no doubt look to mix it up as he did three years ago with questions like “What river did you swim in as a kid? And would you swim in it again now?”

Three holds its debates in front of a large audience, which tends to give them an energy TVNZ lacks.

The final debate will be back on TVNZ but this time hosted by the network’s political editor Jessica Mutch McKay. This is a tough assignment for Mutch McKay as Campbell and Gower will have explored most of the angles. She also lacks the experience of the other two and is bound to be a bit nervous. Still, she is the only host currently working in the parliamentary press gallery and has watched the two leaders from very close quarters for a good period of time.

Mutch McKay has tended to be overshadowed by Newshub’s feisty political editor Tova O’Brien in day-to-day reporting. This is her chance to win back some territory.


22 September TVNZ 1 at 7pm: Leaders’ debate between Jacinda Ardern and Judith Collins, hosted by John Campbell.

28 September 1 (streamed): Young voters’ debate in association with the University of Auckland, hosted by Jack Tame.

30 September, Three 7.30pm: Leaders’ debate with Jacinda Ardern and Judith Collins, hosted by Patrick Gower.

3 October, 9.30am: Three: Multi-party leaders’ debate hosted by Simon Shepherd.

8 October at 7pm on TVNZ 1: Multi-party debate hosted by Jessica Mutch McKay.

15 October at 7pm on TVNZ 1. Leaders’ debate hosted by Jessica Mutch McKay.

Three’sThe Hui will also be running debates on the seven Māori seats between 15 September – 11 October, hosted by Mihingarangi Forbes.

Mark Jennings is co-editor of Newsroom.

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