Last night’s TVOne debate may well reinforce the idea that the minor parties will determine this election.
Prime Minister Chris Hipkins and National leader Christopher Luxon ended their one-and-a-half hours with Luxon probably slightly ahead, though a stalemate might be a more realistic assessment.
But there was nothing of any importance that was new in what either leader had to say.
Instead, Hipkins had to defend Labour’s past and Luxon his own inexperience.
However, neither leader tripped over or landed a knockout blow on the other.
Afterwards, Luxon was keen to point out that he had been “respectful.”
Hipkins’s post-debate verdict was a little stronger, claiming that the debate showed Luxon could not answer questions about his policies.
Perhaps surprisingly, there were no questions about potential government arrangements, though both leaders took a flick at the other’s potential political partners.
Hipkins kicked that off.
“With all due respect, Chris. Winston Peters and David Seymour have been running circles around you,” he said.
“Winston Peters brings chaos wherever he goes.
“I’ve ruled out working with Winston Peters because a stable government does not come from working with Winston Peters.”
Luxon reverted to his long-rehearsed claims that a Labour-Greens-Maori Party government would be a “coalition of chaos.”
“Labor has had an excellent majority. It has not got things done,” he said.
“Imagine when you throw Te Paati Maori, the Greens, and I’d argue you’ve got the support of the gangs there as well actually into that mix; that’s not great. “
Hipkins’s immediate response was defensive and focused on the claim that his government had done little rather than the prospect of having to work with potentially troublesome coalition partners.
“That is absolutely ridiculous,” he said.
“Yes, it’s been a challenging three years. For the first nearly two years of this parliamentary term, we were leading the country through a global pandemic that did make it harder to get things done.”
And then a defence of his own role as Prime Minister.
“I would say that when I took over as Prime Minister in January, we needed to get back to focusing on the bread-and-butter issues, the basics that New Zealanders want us focused on.
It was clear that Hipkins was trying to get the message across that there were parts of Labour’s past he wanted to break with.
He was surprisingly frank about Kiwibuild.
“KiwiBuild was an unrealistic promise, and I’ll be really clear about that,” he said.
“I’ve refocused the government’s effort onto making sure that we are building more public houses so that’s more affordable rental accommodation.
“And my priority is first home buyers.”
Later, he repeated his criticism of Kiwibuild at the post-debate media conference.
His admission begs the question as to why the 2017-2020 Cabinet persevered with it.
“At the time, it was an unrealistic promise,” he said.
Then things changed with the 2020 – 2023 government and the sacking of Labour’s first housing minister, Phil Twyford.
“We literally refocused our efforts on making sure we’ve stimulated private sector housing developments; we were building about 40,000 houses a year through the private sector.
“That is a significant increase. And we’re building more public ones. We’ve built 13,000 so far, and many more are under construction.”
This crystallises the challenge that Hipkins faces in this election campaign.
He is not just fighting Christopher Luxon, but in many policy areas, he is having to distance himself from his own government’s record.
“We’ve had an incredibly disruptive six years, and I’m pretty open about the fact that we haven’t fulfilled all of the commitments that we have made,” he said.
“We’ve had to deal with a few other things along the way.”
And so Hipkins now has to convince that a Government, which by his own admission has at times failed, can now be trusted to deliver over another term.
“I made a commitment when I became Prime Minister that all of the commitments I put before the electorate this election, I’m absolutely confident we can deliver on in the next three years.
Luxon has a pretty simple key message.
“We’re going backwards and the economy is in bad shape,” he said.
“I see it and I feel it every day. But it doesn’t have to be like this. We can be so much better.”
But as Hipkins must battle his government’s record this campaign, Luxon must battle his own lack of experience in politics.
“ I honestly come from outside of politics. I’m not a career politician like Chris or many others that are there,” he said.
“I’ve come to this job because I choose to do the job. Because I want to do the job. Because I think the country can be so much better than this.
“I’m used to getting things done and getting things sorted and turning organisations around. I think that’s what New Zealand needs.”
Luxon has the luxury that he can talk about the future, whilst Hipkins must deal with the past.
He was obviously struggling last night with what should have been a simple question about leaders he admired because that meant dealing with the name that he has been carefully avoiding on the campaign trail: Jacinda Ardern.
So, which leader he had worked with did he admire the most?
“I respect many leaders that I’ve worked with,” he said.
“Jacinda Ardern is a good close friend, and I respect her enormously. I respected Helen Clark as a leader.
Jessica Mutch-McKay: “Who would you put at the top? Who do you most admire as a leader?
Hipkins: “I’ll get into trouble with both of them If you ask me to pick one.”
And that pretty much summed the debate up. It was a night of equivocation rather than difference.
Both leaders rehearsed their standard daily campaign lines on the economy, health, law and order and housing.
They were perhaps surprisingly sophisticated in dealing with a tricky question about how they might react to a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
“I don’t think we should speculate on hypotheticals because actually it would be damaging for international relationships, and it could be damaging for world politics,” said Hipkins.
Luxon needed no prompting for his response.
“I think this is what where there has been bipartisanship under successive governments is our approach to foreign affairs, and our relationships with our key partners have actually been very consistent between governments.
“And I’m with Chris. I think it’s not helpful having a hypothetical,” said Luxon.
Both leaders followed that up by committing to the nuclear-free legislation.
And that summed up the debate; of course, there were differences, but both proved to be closer together on more issues than might have been expected.
It is their potential government partners who would put the salt in the stew.