Beyond the election debate soundbites

Dr Matthew Birchall
NZ Herald
5 October, 2023

What is the purpose of televised leaders’ debates?

Ideally, these staples of the political calendar should inform, educate and entertain. If done well, they provide voters with a deeper insight into the candidates vying for the 9th Floor and the direction they intend to take the country. That, surely, can only be a good thing.

But do our leaders’ debates still fulfil their traditional purpose, or are they quickly becoming a relic of a by-gone era?

This year’s offering has done little to inspire confidence in the current setup, even though viewer numbers remain strong.

The first leaders’ debate, hosted by TVNZ’s political editor Jessica Mutch McKay, can generously be described as staid. Economist Shamubeel Eaqub was less charitable, labelling it “grey, beige, [and] horrid.” Whatever your choice of adjective, it was far from illuminating.

The same catchphrases and talking points that have been rehearsed ad nauseam in 2023, whether in town halls or on TikTok, appeared once more. We learnt that both Chrises are fairly agreeable, and that their reading habits leave much to be desired. On New Zealand’s lamentable productivity and other vital areas of government, not so much.

The second debate was little better.

Although Paddy Gower injected some much needed energy into proceedings, it felt contrived and superficial. There are surely more pressing questions to ask than whether they would give Warriors halfback Shaun Johnson a knighthood. After all, these are the men who want to occupy New Zealand’s most important office.

It has not always been like this.

Watching the 1984 debate between incumbent Prime Minister Robert Muldoon and a young David Lange is like entering a different political universe. If you want to catch them in action, check out the recording on NZ On Screen. It is a terrific resource – and a reminder of what we have lost when it comes to political debate.

The eloquence of their responses, the topics up for discussion and the general tenor of the exchange reflect a political class that was serious about serious matters. Not for them idle chit-chat about the Warriors.

Sure, there were barbs and zingers. At one point, Muldoon called Lange a demagogue, a quip laden with delightful irony given his stewardship of “Rob’s Mob.” For his part, Lange patronised Muldoon like only a trained-lawyer could.

But that was a mere garnish to the main course.

Take the back and forth on Anzus, the security agreement between Australia, New Zealand and the United States. Both Muldoon and Lange spoke at length on the geopolitical and moral implications of New Zealand’s involvement in the alliance, with Lange reiterating Labour’s opposition to nuclear propulsion and weapons and Muldoon maintaining that this would likely force the country out of its most significant security arrangement.

Their dexterity and command of detail stand in stark contrast to today’s virtually non-existent discussion of foreign policy. In the first TVNZ debate, we learnt simply that National and Labour have a broadly bipartisan approach to the thorny issue of how to deal with China. That is almost certainly a good thing, but it raises the question as to what this bipartisan position entails. And it is all the more striking given the recent publication of MFAT’s uncharacteristically forthright 2023 Strategic Foreign Policy Assessment.

Regrettably, you can rinse and repeat the contrast between the ’84 debate and today’s iteration across the full sweep of public policy.

Why is this so?

The format we have adopted is almost certainly part of the problem. In the Muldoon and Lange debate, each leader had one minute to state their position on a topic, followed by ten minutes of open discussion. This allowed the leaders to elaborate on their key points, moving beyond slogans and soundbites, which in turn facilitated a more dynamic and wide-ranging debate. As a result, viewers could better assess which leader demonstrated competence and control.

Nowadays, our leaders’ debates appear geared towards “gotcha” moments that will subsequently gain traction on social media. Cue the rapid-fire questions about the candidates’ favourite beach or familiarity (or lack thereof) with MDMA. These details may well round out our picture of the men who want to be Prime Minister, but they do not belong on a flagship leaders’ debate. It is the sort of fodder more suitable for a podcast or a light-hearted segment on a current affairs show.

Just as instructive is the physical setup of the ’84 debate. Though it may appear old-fashioned now, the leaders sat at the same table and spoke directly to each other, rather than the television audience. This intimate arrangement not only heightened the tension in the room but also offered viewers a deeper glimpse into the conduct of the two men. Looking back on it now, one can’t help but feel that a similar setup would be preferable to today’s manufactured and less authentic televised debates.

Of course, the quality of a debate hinges on the calibre of its participants, and it is here that the gulf between 1984 and 2023 becomes most evident. New Zealand has many excellent journalists, but how many could match Ian Johnstone’s performance that July evening? Are our pundits in the same league as Lindsay Perigo or Ian Fraser in their prime? The post-debate analysis alone would suggest not – and that is before we even begin to compare Lange with Hipkins and Muldoon with Luxon.

Leaders’ debates have long been a cornerstone of the democratic process. But it is time to rethink what we want to get out of them. That very few will rue the loss of a third debate between Hipkins and Luxon speaks to a format that no longer lives up to its ideals. My suggestion? Go and watch the 1984 recording and experience the magic that a first-class debate can inspire.

To read the article on the NZ Herald website, click here

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