National leader Christopher Luxon identified it early in the debate when he remarked, “This is getting like The Chase.” His reference to the TV gameshow elicited a lightning response from moderator Paddy Gower, “It’s better than The Chase.”

It is hard to blame Gower for bringing some gameshow pizzazz to politics. So far, this campaign has been boring and the general reaction to TVNZ’s first leaders’ debate was summed up in two words TV executives dread – “snore fest”.

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Three’s tendency in recent years has been to hype its political coverage. It seems every new poll is “dramatic” or “unmissable”, and viewers get advised to brace themselves because, “it is going to be a doozy”.

When they went live to Gower during the 6pm news hour to promote the debate, he told viewers to “expect the unexpected,” and warned the leaders to “walk in with their A game”, because he was “going straight up the guts”.

A comedian warmed up the audience at Auckland’s Q Theatre with some dubious jokes. Gower came out with five minutes to go, dropped the F word, said he was nervous and then hugged the male floor manager. The crowd of 200, half of them under 25, was eating out of his hand.

In many ways this debate and the first TVNZ debate were reruns of 2020. After a disappointing performance in the TVNZ debate Jacinda Ardern turned it around with a high energy performance in front of Gower and the live audience. It was the same for Chris Hipkins. After a flat performance at TVNZ, the Labour leader was high energy and spoiling for a fight. Both Gower and Luxon knew he would be. The audience felt the energy and liked it.

Three’s studio team threw in a bit of colour, literally. The crowd sitting behind Luxon’s podium was lit with a blue cast and the group behind Hipkins was bathed in red.

Gower went with the same method and tactics that worked well for him in 2020.

Gower ensured the debate had pace and pizzazz.  Photo: Newshub, Warner Bros. Discovery ANZ

He put real life scenarios to the leaders and pushed them hard to respond with real answers rather than talking points.

Realness was underlined by cutting to people in the audience. People like Preeti, a diary owner whose shop is repeatedly robbed. Gower told the two leaders that despite fog cannons, alarms and security gates, young offenders smashed their way into the dairy and stole vapes, lollies and energy drinks.

Hipkins and Luxon went at each other over the effectiveness of boot camps for young crims. Gower let them go. Hipkins claimed the last National government had exacerbated the problem by closing police stations. Luxon used his “get out of jail” card early. “Chris you have had six years and crime has got worse.”

Some of Gower’s scenarios were hypothetical but they felt real. “Let’s say there is a gang funeral, a Mongrel Mob, in small town New Zealand. Five hundred people turn up and lots of those people attending hate the police. Do you [Luxon] expect the police to go in there and confront them over the gang patches?”

The law-and-order issue sparked vigorous exchanges. It got shouty, maybe too shouty.

Luxon told Hipkins to calm down. Hipkins knew this time that calm was his enemy and bare-knuckle brawling was going to be a more rewarding technique.

Luxon responded: “I know you’re keyed-up and I appreciate that you have got to come out here and have a bit of a fight and that’s good. Let’s do that but do it respectfully.”

Gower was fine with a bit of brawling. He still had control and only shut down a leader when it was clear they weren’t answering the question he had posed.

Part of Gower’s skill is to provide examples that everyone can relate to. To reduce the complex to something simple.

He proffered that under Labour’s plan to take GST off fruit and vegetables the price of an orange would fall from around $1 to 85 cents. Could Hipkins guarantee that it would stay at 85 cents, and the supermarket wouldn’t suck up the savings? Hipkins talked about seasonal fluctuations and offered no guarantee.

There were moments when using real life examples bordered on being exploitative. Gower pointed to an audience member who is in her early 30s and has stage 4 terminal bowel cancer.

Her question, said Gower, was whether either leader would lower the age of (free) screening and save the lives of Kiwis. Both men committed to bringing the age down to match Australia where it is 50 or as low as 45 if you ask to be screened.

The debate did give more glimpses into the personalities of the two leaders.

Did they like maths at school, asked Gower. Yes, said Luxon. No, I hated it said Hipkins.

Gower then asked what a half plus a quarter equalled. Hipkins gave the correct answer immediately – three quarters. Luxon appeared to ask if it was a trick question, but the sound was poor. Gower went on to say that a recent survey showed only a third of 11- and 12-year-olds could get that answer. Was this good enough? Both leaders, of course, said no.

Luxon quickly launched into National’s policy that kids will get an hour of maths tuition a day. Hipkins countered with the claim that rote learning went out in the 50s and that students now struggling at secondary had been in primary school under National’s national standards policy.

It was perhaps the only time in the debate that Luxon showed a flash of anger.

“I’m not tolerating, as we try to build one of the best small, advanced countries in the world, a system where 40 percent of our kids don’t show up at school regularly, 65,000 are chronically absent from school and half show up at high school not ready to go and half the 15-year-olds fail reading, writing and maths tests. That’s not good enough.”

Luxon’s answer received loud applause.

The format of the debate and the willingness of the leaders to mix it up produced an entertaining night for the live, and at home, audiences. TV debates need pace and the fun element but at times this contest felt rushed and important discussions cut short so that the speed didn’t drop. Maybe Gower tried to cram too much in. Did we need to know that neither leader would re-establish a combat air wing or that both would step up the war on feral cats?

Newsroom spoke to a group of the undecided voters after the debate. Most said they enjoyed it and were split over who won. Nick gave it to Hipkins who he believed had shown a lot of energy. “It was do or die for him and he really went for it.” Niral veered towards a Luxon victory. “He was in a position where he didn’t have to be as aggressive as Hipkins and I thought he handled himself very well.”

Had the debate helped them decide how they would vote? “Not really”, said Nick. “I will mull it over but there is still more than two weeks to go… plenty of time.”

Mark Jennings is co-editor of Newsroom.

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