New Zealand has a long history of televised debates between political party leaders during election campaigns, stretching back more than four decades. That has continued up to the present, with a raft of debates this year between both major and minor party leaders on television, and lesser figures, thanks to online coverage.
The first such televised clash took place between National’s Robert Muldoon, widely regarded as New Zealand’s first television Prime Minister, and his less pugnacious opponent, Labour’s Bill Rowling, in 1975. Rowling was Prime Minister at the time, but was defeated by Muldoon, and was again in the two subsequent elections.
Muldoon met his match in the eloquent and witty David Lange in 1984, who moved up to the international stage with his celebrated anti-nuclear address at the Oxford Union the following year.
Leaders’ debates then became a standard feature of television coverage of New Zealand election campaigns, but they were of varying quality. As the state-owned Television New Zealand abandoned any pretence of being a public broadcaster in the late 1980s, and its new privately-owned rival TV3 outdid it in brashness, commercial considerations ruled supreme.
Triviality was most exemplified by the use of the notorious ‘worm’, an automated audience reaction device that rated the leaders’ performance second by second.
It most famously provided a boost to the fortunes of Peter Dunne’s United Future Party in the 2002 election, which saw the centrist minnow go from one seat to eight.
By 2011, as the television debates started to resemble game shows, the first online debate, sponsored by Christchurch’s Press newspaper, appeared. While its audience was small, National Prime Minister John Key’s skewering of Labour leader Phil Goff over taxation, with his cry of ‘Show me the money!’ got extensive news coverage.
On television, the focus turned to the hosts as much as the politicians, with executives seeing the debates as branding opportunities and a chance to give their celebrity newsreaders some credibility.
This reached a peak with the use of the current affairs host Mike Hosking on TVNZ in 2014. Hosking was fond of proclaiming he was a broadcaster, not a journalist, and expressing admiration for the National Party and Key, leading to concerns from the Labour Party about his impartiality.
But he stayed as host of the debates, which once again saw the National PM get the better of his Labour opponent.
Now, this year, Key is gone, replaced by his more lacklustre deputy, Bill English, and Labour has installed a telegenic 37-year old, Jacinda Ardern, as leader just seven weeks out from the 23 September election.
Their first major leaders’ debate, on Television New Zealand, was largely shorn of the commercial hype and triviality of previous years. Hosking was once again host, but seemed at pains not to be seen to favour the National contender. If anything, he was harder on English, effectively calling him a loser in the first few seconds. And policy positions and serious issues got a good airing.
Four days later there was a rematch on TV3, hosted by its terrier-like Political Editor, Patrick Gower. While pushing the two leaders harder than Hosking, Gower was also restrained, and covered a wide range of policy areas.
But the most substantial, and longest, contest between English and Ardern was the online debate, hosted by the Press, but rebranded as the Stuff debate, and put on in front of a lively 600-strong audience in Christchurch. It had none of the barbed one-liners that Key had wounded his opponents with in 2011 and 2014, but both leaders engaged with each other and the audience, with minimal interference from Press editor Joanna Norris.
Both television networks have also hosted minor party debates – TV3’s in the Saturday morning ratings ghetto slot, while TVNZ’s was in primetime like its two major party contests. TV3’s sole major leaders’ debate was also in a viewer-friendly mid-evening slot.
TV3’s inclusion in its minor party gathering of Gareth Morgan of the Opportunities Party (TOP) and Mana’s Hone Harawira allowed for a wide range of perspectives, but it was generally agreed in the post-debate analysis that the standout performer was Maori Party co-leader, Marama Fox. New Zealand First’s Winston Peters failed to appear, and also turned down an invitation to the TVNZ minor party event.
That one saw the exclusion of Morgan on the basis that his polling was too low, and in spite of last minute legal action against TVNZ (also a feature of the leadup to minor party debates in 2005 and 2014). But United Future’s virtually unknown new leader, Damian Light, was included, provoking a flurry of fluffy feature news pieces angled on his youth, and his same-sex partner.
The New Zealand public has been avidly following the debates this year, not least because opinion polls show the two major parties neck and neck, while the minor parties may be in danger of disappearing from Parliament, polling at or near the MMP cut-off point of five per cent of the overall party vote.
More than one million viewers watched the first TVNZ debate, with another 700,000 online, either live or delayed. TV3 also had more than a million viewers on TV alone, and the Stuff debate had 154,000 online views just on YouTube, more than twice what it got in 2014.
There’ve been many other offerings, both televised and online, not least the raucous pub-based Back Benches, the more sedate University-hosted Auckland issues debate, and TVNZ’s Young Voters’ forum, also hosted by the University of Auckland.
The final one-hour contest between Ardern and English screened on TVNZ three days before the election. While more than 800,000 voters had already gone to the polls by then in advance voting, around two million were yet to cast their ballots. Just over a million viewers watched it live on television. On top of that, more than 100,000 accessed it online.
With the election on the clichéd knife-edge, for many voters, the chance to see the aspiring Prime Ministers and hear them argue their case live, without being edited down to five-second soundbites or even more truncated snippets, may have been the deciding factor.
Mark Boyd is a PhD candidate in Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland. His research analyses media coverage of election campaigns in New Zealand and overseas. He also covered many elections in 30 years of journalism in New Zealand, Australia, the UK and the United States.