National leader Christopher Luxon has pulled out of any rescheduling of tonight’s Press debate, which has had to be cancelled because Prime Minister Chris Hipkins has Covid.
The cancellation has given National an excuse to avoid a debate, which was always going to be a risk for Luxon.
But at the same time, it may have dashed Labour’s hopes of using the debate as a platform for a come-from-behind victory like Australian Labour Prime Minister Paul Keating pulled off in 1993 after a TV debate performance ten days from polling day that revived his campaign.
The Press debate, which is an hour and a half without commercials, has developed a reputation as a defining campaign event ever since John Key humiliated Phil Goff with his “Show Us the Money” line in 2011.
Labour has long believed that Luxon, who many commentators have said lost to Hipkins in the Newshub debate last week, would have been at a disadvantage up against the Prime Minister in a setting which placed a premium on a more detailed knowledge of government.
National’s campaign chair, Chris Bishop, yesterday was forced to say about Luxon that “he’s not afraid” to debate Hipkins.
“He has events on every night next week, so if the Press debate is during the evening, then it makes him unavailable to do that debate,” said Bishop.
Questioned further, he claimed not to know about Luxon’s travel plans — which seemed slightly disingenuous given that he is the campaign chair.
But Bishop’s defence didn’t stop Labour from posting an image of Luxon in a chicken suit on social media.
Bishop’s Labour counterpart, campaign chair Megan Woods, said they had tried to get the debate rescheduled.
“Despite Labour working constructively with the organisers and offering flexible dates next week when he is out of isolation, or an alternative to sub in on the original date if other dates don’t work – National looks like they are still declining Luxon to take part,” she said.
Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson simply played the partisan political game when he was asked for a response.
“It’s quite clear that Christopher Luxon knows that he lost the last debate to Chris Hipkins,” he said.
“He’s got a fiscal plan that doesn’t add up. He’s got a tax plan that doesn’t add up. He’s got a massive hole now where he’s not supporting water reform.
“He is running scared from the debate. He should just make sure he can find a date next week. We’ve offered alternatives.”
Luxon himself is somewhat dismissive of debates.
“I think there’s a lot of hype, and everyone puts a lot of store on them, but I actually think there’s a lot more going on,” he told Mike Hosking on Newstalk ZB yesterday.
“Going into this whole process, it’s the first time I’ve done debates.
“The country doesn’t need a great debater. It needs a great manager and a great leader.
“And I think people actually say, yeah, it’s a piece of how I get a sense of who Chris Luxon is or who Chris Hipkins is.
“For me, as a leader of the Opposition, it’s a chance people get to see you a bit more than what you’d normally get as an opportunity or oxygen in the media environment, but it’s a piece of it. It’s not all of the deal.”
Luxon’s interview with Hosking was yet another demonstration of his unfamiliarity with the government process rthat might well have tripped him up in debate with Hipkins who has eben a Cabinet Minister for six years in some of the most complex of the Government’s portfolios.
Asked by Hosking whether Mark Mitchell would be sacking Police Commissioner Andrew Coster, Luxon said that would be a matter for him.
But it won’t.
As Mitchell has previously explained to POLITIK, it is ultimately a matter for the Prime Minister himself, who, under the Policing Act, must make any recommendation about Coster to the Governor General.
Usually, that would require a Cabinet decision.
Mitchell cannot do it on his own.
The removal of Reserve Bank Governor Adrian Orr might also be tricky.
National has been out after Orr for some time. In December 2021, after he became finance spokesperson, Simon Bridges said ideally, he should go. So did ACT leader David Seymour.
Orr’s contract expired in March 2023, and Bridges thought that too far away from the election caretaker period to prohibit the government resigning him, much as he preferred that they did not.
Luxon said that Orr was the fourth biggest printer of cash in the world.
“We shut the joint down like no one else did ever,” he said.
“And as a result, all of that created massive asset price inflation and domestic inflation.
“Then Orr takes his foot off the accelerator plant and sat on the brakes. Interest rates go up.
“All of a sudden, the economy goes into recession or no growth, and then you get the risk of rising unemployment. “
Hosking: “Why is he in work then? “.
Luxon: “The point is, I want to do a full review of the Reserve Bank.”
Hosking:” A review with a view to what?”
Luxon: “Well, to understand what role … “
Hosking: “You’ve just explained what they did.”
Luxon: “Well, I think they I think they made it worse.”
Hosking:” There’s no question they made it worse. Why is he still in work?”
Luxon: “Well, he’s there for five years because Robertson signed him up. I think he should have done what English did, which was actually. ….”
Hosking: “Why wouldn’t you pay him out? Would New Zealanders, if you wrote the rest of his contract off and said, I’m sorry mate, you failed, you’re gone?”
Luxon: “I would certainly get good leaders in across the whole of the public service, and we’ll have that conversation when we get there.”
But the Reserve Bank Act sets out a procedure for removal of the Governor, which is essentially for misconduct or failure to carry out instructions from the Bank’s board or “just cause”.
The whole point of the Bank’s independence is to protect it from capricious political interventions.
It is these sorts of nuances and subtleties that Luxon frequently trips up on and which Labour would have hoped to open up in the Press debate.