Labour says National is chickening out after the party confirmed Christopher Luxon had no free evenings between now and the election to participate in The Press leader’s debate. 

The debate – a regular in the election campaign – was supposed to go ahead Tuesday night in Christchurch however with Chris Hipkins isolating with Covid-19 a new date had to be found.  

No blunders, but no blows either
Fact check: Did Hipkins and Luxon say anything false?

Labour said it offered up every evening next week, except Thursday, which is when TVNZ is hosting its multi-party debate. 

Newsroom understands Labour also offered up Grant Robertson to take Hipkins’ place tomorrow. 

National had suggested putting the two parties’ deputies – Nicola Willis and Kelvin Davis – up against each other instead.

But Labour’s campaign chair Megan Woods said Luxon was taking advantage of Hipkins’ sickness to “slip out of the debate entirely”. 

“They’re now publicly proposing Nicola Willis or Chris Bishop should take his place, an admission after last week’s Newshub debate that Christopher Luxon just can’t cut it next to Chris Hipkins. 

“National’s polling is falling and it’s as simple as this – Luxon wants to minimise the number of appearances between now and the election where he’s asked questions he can’t answer and where he might get shown up for being evasive, so he’s taken advantage of Chris Hipkins’ illness.” 

She said he was scared. 

“Christopher Luxon has a habit of walking out of press conferences when the questions get too hard, now he is chickening out of a debate.” 

But National’s campaign chair Chris Bishop said Labour was resorting to “desperate and dirty tactics” to say Luxon was pulling out of the debate.

“Over the course of this election campaign we’ve had lies about the winter energy payment, various outlandish claims about National firing all the teachers and selling all the schools. 

“The latest lie today is that the National Party has pulled out of a leaders’ debate when the leader of the Labour Party, the Prime Minister, has Covid and therefore can’t make the pre-arranged leaders’ debate.

“For the Labour Party to claim that National is therefore pulling out of a debate that they themselves have said they cannot attend is absolutely ridiculous.” 

It did not make sense for Luxon to debate another Labour Party member, Bishop said.   

“People are assessing Chris Luxon against Chris Hipkins and he’s not going to debate any old random joe schmoe in the Labour Party.” 

Luxon had events on every night and there was no other suitable evening to move the debate to. 

“We have a very busy campaign schedule over the next two weeks, our last two weeks … has been set in stone for a long period of weeks, if not months actually.”

Labour needed to front on why it would not confirm whether Kelvin Davis was up for a debate with Nicola Willis instead, he said.   

“I offered that publicly on Morning Report this morning and there has been radio silence.

“I think it makes sense for the deputies to go up against each other.” 

Green Party candidate for Wellington Central Tamatha Paul casts her vote on the first day of early voting. Photo: Emma Hatton

The attacks from both sides come as early voting opened Monday at around 400 locations.  

Green Party co-leader James Shaw and Wellington Central candidate Tamatha Paul voted today at one of the sites at Victoria University’s Kelburn campus.  

Shaw said it was important voting was made as easy as possible.

“I think the reason why turnout was so high [last election] is because the Electoral Commission made it easy for people to vote through advanced voting and by having polling booths where people are at.” 

Just over 90,000 votes were cast on the first day of early voting in 2020, with almost two million in the lead-up to election day – 68 percent of the total votes cast.

Luxon also turned out to vote in the Botany electorate, alongside his wife Amanda.  

He said a lot of Kiwis were “over” the campaign and embraced early voting.  

“They want to be able to make their decision and actually start the change they want to see happen.” 

He said it was good for democracy. 

“New Zealanders have embraced it and found it convenient and actually probably leads to very good levels of voter turnout, because people can find it in convenient places.  

“You’ve seen this year that there’s now supermarkets where it’s possible to vote and other locations and actually bringing it to people I think has actually been good for democracy.” 

Labour’s Grant Robertson said it was important everyone had an opportunity to vote. 

“There’s plenty of opportunities over the last few weeks for people to have heard from us and we do still have those two weeks to go, so we’re out campaigning.” 

Before 2011, voters needed a special reason to cast their ballot early; however since that requirement was removed early voting has become more popular each election.  

In 2020, 1.98 million votes were cast early, in 2017 it was 1.2 million and in 2014 it was 700,000. 

Emma Hatton is a business reporter based in Wellington.

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