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hipkins VS luxon: what voters learned from the first debate

Power Play - So what did we learn after the highly anticipated first debate of the 2023 campaign?

One thing - that Labour's Chris Hipkins and National's Chris Luxon are alike in quite a few ways: both bought their first home in their early 20s, their contribution to fighting climate change is a family electric car and recycling, and they have both been to church a lot recently - mainly in the course of the campaigning. Asked what they admired about each others' leadership style, they both said commitment to their family.

They both gave themselves a pretty generous eight out of 10 for their performances in the TVNZ leaders' debate that revealed little new in the way of policy, or any deeper personal insights into them as leaders.

It was largely respectful, and while civility is great, it made for a low-energy affair in an election campaign that badly needs some spark.

There was a friendly chemistry between the pair off-camera - they chatted before the debate and during the ad breaks. In the first, Hipkins went to reporters in the audience to say hi. Asked how he thought it was going he gave an unenthusiastic, "Oh it's alright."

Hipkins had talked about the large number of undecided voters ahead of the debate, calling it an opportunity to get their attention; but apart from promising to ban fizzy drinks in secondary schools, there was not much more to captivate would-be voters than what's been rolling out on the campaign day after day.

Lagging in the polls, Hipkins would have been looking to land a damaging, if not fatal, blow on the man who wants his job - but that never eventuated.

He had little to lose and could have come out firing - make Luxon uncomfortable, put him under pressure. There were some interjections, but nothing that put Luxon off his stride. Hipkins did become animated and challenged Luxon over the health inequalities for Maori and Pasifika with National's proposal to scrap the Maori Health Authority, but that energy was missing from much of the rest of the debate.

He did have a one-liner ready to crack out in the post match stand-up with reporters: "Twenty days and one debate down, and we still don't know how the National Party's going to pay for their tax plan.."

Hipkins said he would go back and watch the debate as part of his prep for the next one, unable to resist one more jibe: "You always learn something doing these types of debates. I learned that no matter how many times you ask him a question, Christopher Luxon will continue to refuse to answer it. I have a lot more sympathy for you guys now than I did before".

1News  debate - Chris Hipkins and Christopher Luxon

Photo: TVNZ / Andrew Dalton

Luxon was asked afterwards if he thought the debate would have changed anyone's mind, or shifted the dial for either of the parties.

He hoped "it was a good platform" for people to hear them both speak and present their "respective ideas about how to take the country forward… hopefully the New Zealand people got something out of that, got a better sense of who we are as leaders."

Neither disgraced themselves, but nor were they particularly inspiring. Both had been claiming underdog status in the days leading up to the debate, but afterwards no one could claim to be the clear victor.


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