A sense of relief descended over the TVNZ studios when Christopher Hipkins and Christopher Luxon came to the end of last night’s 90-minute debate.
Relief from the camps of National and Labour that their men gave solid performances and got though without a blunder.
Relief from TVNZ that, unlike the first debate in 2020, the production was smooth and professional.
And probably relief from the audience at home that the whole thing was over. While it wasn’t boring, it certainly wasn’t scintillating.
The first televised leaders’ debate is a bit like opening night at the theatre – everyone is slightly on edge and it’s good to get it over and done with.
The sight of Karl Mokoraka standing out the front of TVNZ as guests arrived would’ve quickened the pulse rate of TVNZ executives. Mokoraka, fresh from causing chaos at Act’s campaign launch on Sunday seemed to be in a suspiciously jovial mood.
Inside, security was waving a metal detecting wand over every audience member even though most were TVNZ employees or well-known political journalists. The studio floor manager gave a warning, albeit pleasantly, that if anyone attempted more than a polite laugh TVNZ would go to a commercial break and the offender would be ejected.
And that was part of the problem. The carefully scrutinised audience brought zero energy to the debate. The only laugh came when Luxon was asked about what he personally was doing in the fight against climate change and answered that his family had embraced recycling.
This lack of energy in the room seemed to impact Hipkins more than Luxon. TVNZ’s decision to bring the two leaders into the studio 15 minutes before kickoff probably didn’t help. The two Chrises had to make small talk (about US road trips) while they waited for 1news to finish.
Both gave excellent opening addresses down the barrel of the camera. These had obviously been well rehearsed but delivering them live, with confidence, is never easy.
In the first commercial break Hipkins casually wandered over to speak to the journalists sitting in the front row of the audience. He shook hands with them and was asked what colour his tie was. It was burgundy and Hipkins added that it was from Barkers. Luxon remained at the podium studying his notes.
He seemed better prepared. His voice felt stronger, and it had more cut through than Hipkins. The National Party leader gave the impression that he wanted to be there. The Prime Minister, not so much. The ‘I’ll ask the questions’ approach from moderator Mutch McKay seemed to suit Luxon and he was confident enough to override her at times and finish making his point. On the occasions Hipkins was cut off by Mutch McKay he ended up relenting.
Neither leader ran with too many cliches or was overly repetitive, although as the chart below shows Hipkins did use the words “circuit breaker” four times.
Before last night Mutch McKay was quoted as saying that she was going into the debate with a plan but depending on what the leaders said she was happy to throw it away. She very much stuck to the plan. While this tight structure kept the debate moving it also stifled it.
Whenever Luxon was interrupted by Hipkins the National Party leader kept his eyes fixed on Mutch McKay and got through his answers. On the one occasion he was forced by Hipkins to really engage – on the issue of Māori health outcomes – Mutch McKay interrupted and shut down what looked like developing into a genuine cut and thrust moment – something that would make the highlights reel. It would have been good if she had let it continue for a bit longer.
Several rounds of quickfire questions probably did not produce the results Mutch McKay was looking for as the leaders often gave the same answer. Weirdly, two of the questions – should te reo be compulsory in schools and should New Zealand change its name to Aotearoa– were the same questions Paddy Gower asked Jacinda Ardern and Judith Collins in Three’s leaders’ debate in 2020.
The debate did throw up one interesting insight into Luxon’s earlier years. Asked if he could identify with the struggle young people face when trying to enter the housing market the National leader recounted the time he and his wife, Amanda, bought their first home:
“We had a TV sitting on a box and one deck chair between us. Then interest rates went up and it was challenging – a very worrying moment.”
So, what conclusions can we draw from the performances? Three audience members, who said they were consultants working on Three Waters, felt Luxon had more energy than Hipkins and the debate would not impact National’s lead in the polls. One dryly remarked, “We’d better start looking for new jobs”.
When asked by media afterwards what rating they would give themselves, both Hipkins and Luxon said 8 out of 10.
It seems a high rating given neither landed a significant blow. Both leaders will now know there is little reason to fear the other. This opens the way for a more intriguing contest in round two – Three’s debate at the Q Theatre in a week’s time.
Moderator Gower will likely encourage a freer flowing contest. The live audience for this debate will be hoping last night was just the warmup.