TV viewers interested in politics will be hoping that Christopher Luxon and Christopher Hipkins watched the Powerbrokers Debate on Three last night. The lively contest between the leaders of the minor parties contrasted sharply with the bland performances of the Labour and National leaders on TVNZ two nights earlier.

The debate, hosted by Newshub Nation’s Rebecca Wright, won’t have pulled in the million-plus audience of the first leaders’ debate but it was a lot more watchable, and we learned things.

Things like:

  • David Seymour and Winston Peters will work together if they must.
  • The Act Party is unlikely to enforce any bottom lines on National if they form a government together.
  • The Greens and Te Pāti Māori will demand a wealth tax if Labour needs them as coalition partners.
  • The performances of Greens co-leader, Marama Davidson and NZ First’s Winston Peters stood out.

Act’s David Seymour and Te Pāti Māori’s Debbie Ngarewa Packer didn’t perform badly – they just weren’t as on form as the other two.

Davidson came to the debate with a clear strategy. A laser like focus on taxing the wealthy to combat poverty. The words ‘climate change’ and ‘environment’ barely passed her lips. She made a point of using the te reo word Matua (father or uncle) when addressing Winston Peters who chose not to demur. She formed a tag team with Ngarewa-Packer, frequently high-fiving the Te Pāti Māori co-leader after she’d had made her point.

Davidson and Ngarewa-Packer formed a pairing in the middle of the foursome. Photo: Tim Murphy

When Wright invited the leaders to debate the cost-of-living crisis, Davidson was straight onto the attack.

“We can unlock the wealth in this county. It is completely unacceptable that 311 families own more than $85 billion dollars when people are struggling to go to the supermarket. There is no need for that, that is a political choice and the Greens have shown the plan for how we can make sure that is shared among everyone.

Wright put it to Davidson that the Government needed to rein in its spending too.

Davidson replied, “The Government needs to prioritise people’s wellbeing and the wellbeing of the planet.”

Wright: “I will take that as a no.”

Ngarewa-Packer grabbed the baton. “We want to give more weight to the SFO to chase up the $7 billion in tax evasion that this nation has. When we did our numbers, we had 2.1 million people living off less than $30,000 dollars a year. That’s unacceptable and overnight everyone here could change that. What we want to do is flip the tax system upside down….by taking the GST off kai we’d have $16.4 billion saved for (the people of) this country. “

There appeared to be no fact checking going on in Three’s control room or the figures were correct.

Davidson took her chances well. Spotting that the camera on her was displaying a red light (indicating it is currently supplying the vision going to air) she looked straight down the barrel and delivered her message. “We have seen how popular the idea of our wealth tax is and that is what people can vote for. If they like the idea of a wealth tax they can vote for the Green Party.”

Sensing that his opponents were scoring points, Peters hit back.

“These people (Davidson and Ngarewa-Packer) are about envy politics…. These wealthy people they talk about, well a lot of that wealth is offshore. Now, we’ve already got 39,000 mainly young people we can’t afford to lose leaving this country and then you will see capital flight and we will be straight into the Third World. That’s what’s in prospect for this country.”

Peters posed a question of his own to Ngarewa-Packer. “Are you going to tax Māori corporations? (the implication being she doesn’t want to).

Ngarewa-Packer replied, “Oh my god…(yes) and I’m going to tax Pākehā ones too…honestly where are you coming from?”

Seymour repeated his refrain that reckless and poor-quality government spending is at the heart of our cost-of-living problems.

“We have a bare cupboard, this Government is at nearly $200 billion of debt and the solutions we hear (from Davidson and Ngarewa-Packer) is that someone somewhere has done too well and if we whack them and take their money that’s going to solve the problem….we need to create better conditions for businesses to invest more and create better jobs….make it easier for the next generation to build homes.

“If we keep doing what we are doing we will become a kind of a middle-income country – nice to visit but not a great place if you get sick and need the latest drugs.”

When Wright moved to the topic of crime and suggested gangs were the major problem the debate heated up.

Davidson: “It isn’t just gangs that are committing crimes, we really need to pull that back. What I know is when people have something to lose and something to belong to, that is how we stop crime and I’ve seen that work in the community.”

Winston Peters can’t believe what he’s just been hearing from David Seymour. Photo: Tim Murphy

Peters: “The biggest victim of crime in this country is Māori and Pasifika and the reality of it is that we’ve got all these excuses – it is colonialism or it’s the system…. How do you fix it?

“You start with the gangs – you outlaw them just like Queensland and Western Australia…we are not going to let them bludge off their own people and the rest of the country.”

Wright: “So you are just going to lock them up?…There’s 9000 of them.”

Peters “Yes, we are going to lock you [gang members] up and we will not be having the judiciary deciding that the lack of breastfeeding is the problem; we are going to deal with it properly.”

Wright then put it to Seymour that his criminal containment policy didn’t fit with his frugal approach to government spending.

Wright: “You want to spend a billion dollars adding 500 prison beds a year and each prisoner costs $200,000 a year to house.”

Seymour: “The cost per day of having 10,000 of the worst offenders in prison is one dollar per New Zealander. So, to be safe from criminals I don’t think it is that expensive.”

Ngarewa-Packer wanted to bring the argument pack to poverty.

“We don’t believe this policy of being tough on crime and soft on poverty is the way forward.

“Poverty is the problem; it is why we have so many issues. People are being recruited into gangs as they go into the prison system. Status quo doesn’t work. We can’t prison our way out of this.”

At this point Peters sprang what was probably the surprise of the night – that financial fraudsters should not be incarcerated.

“There is a whole lot of people in prison that should not be there. They’re white-collar criminals who should be out there working six days a week…. I want them out there with [electronic] bracelets around their ankles slaving it off for the next three or four years to pay back their debt to society.”

In the final segment of the debate Wright asked what ‘bottom lines’ the parties would insist on before going into government with the major parties.

Ngarewa-Packer was adamant that Te Pāti Māori’s bottom line was a wealth tax.

Seymour, having previously suggested that Act might in some cases withhold supply – approval for government spending – if National didn’t make policy concessions, seemed to soften his position.

“Our first preference is to have a tight working relationship with the Nats. We believe we can work strongly together, joining hands around the Cabinet table to put in place a plan to fix the economy and unite the country that has been divided by the current Government.

“People will judge us in three years’ time if we have made progress in these areas (economy, crime and reducing co-governance) than National would have made alone.

Wright put it to Seymour “So there aren’t any bottom lines” and moved on to Winston Peters who said the Act leader and he needed to put aside their differences and not make life hard for National.

Peters; “No matter what we think of each other we’ve gotta form a much better government, that means you’d better get some adults in the room and leave your trousers on for goodness sake….you can’t run a government where every bill and act is going to have to be approved by another party you will paralyse the government.

“We’ve ruled out Labour, we are not going that racist separatist path anymore in this country.”

Davidson used her turn to needle her male opponents.

“Do people actually trust, it is going to be close [the election] do people trust Luxon to manage these two [Seymour and Peters] for real?”

Wright posed the question “David, Winston, can you two work together?

Peters replied that he could. “This country is in such a serious crisis that I’ll work with anyone. Listen up, me and my colleagues will work with anyone to try and fix it now.”

Wright: “David will you work with Winston?

“Ultimately if Parliament is elected by the people, then you make it work but I just say it is not credible for the guy who has more chances than anyone to fix New Zealand’s problems that he should get another one.”

And then it was over. Was there a winner? The consensus – the audience was mainly made up of journalists – Winston by a whisker.

Mark Jennings is co-editor of Newsroom.

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