Felix Desmarais: Luxon exceeds expectations in first debate

Chris Hipkins and Christopher Luxon clashed across a range of issues.

Analysis: The TVNZ First Leaders' Debate proved Chris and Chris are not just alike in name, but also nature, writes 1News political reporter Felix Desmarais.

It's time to call it - without a doubt, Chris will be the Prime Minister of New Zealand after the election.

And after watching the TVNZ First Leaders' debate, viewers could be forgiven for wondering exactly what difference it will make if it is Chris Hipkins or Chris Luxon.

It was most starkly clear as the two leaders answered Jessica Mutch McKay's quick-fire questions.

In two rounds with 20 questions, Luxon and Hipkins largely agreed on 19 of them. The only disagreement being on whether the health system is broken, which it would be difficult for Hipkins to have answered in the affirmative, given it could be perceived as conceding a defeat in that area.

Granted too, one question was on their favourite beach (Onetangi for Luxon, Raumati South for Hipkins) and favourite book. Hipkins said he barely had time to read them and Luxon said he was currently reading The Inner "Mind" of Tennis - it seems this book is more likely to be The Inner Game of Tennis.

It's summarised online as "how to improve your game and discover your true potential by increasing your concentration, willpower and confidence". It was an interesting answer since it's well documented one of Luxon's favourite books is Man's Search for Meaning by Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl.

Shockingly for many viewers of the Millennial generation and below, both leaders also estimated they bought their first home at 24 - a pipe dream for most these days.

There was also apparent disagreement when it appeared Luxon misunderstood a question on whether free lunches should be given to all students in all state schools. He said in his answer it should be better targeted, suggesting he doesn't favour it being universal.

He later clarified National's position was indeed aligned with Labour's on free school lunches - to keep it targeted.

Favourite beach: Raumati South

You get the picture. On substantial policy questions, the two leaders were almost inseparable.

There were also times when one leader would say something that could easily have come out of the other's mouth, like when Hipkins said the market should decide where EV chargers spring up, not the Government (National has pledged to deliver 10,000 electric vehicle chargers by 2030 if elected).

There were four minutes at the beginning of the debate (less if you're counting intros and so forth) where the leaders discussed their own vision, before Hipkins gave the first strike, laying into National and what he says it may cut.

Luxon performed far above any expectations set for him by the commentariat, however, never losing his cool and delivering the odd mild zinger, such as saying his tax cuts were "better than a couple of cents off your beans and carrots".

The challenge with debates is holding ground, maintaining a dominance and assertiveness but keeping the tone balanced. Both leaders managed this competently, but Luxon's ability to do so was perhaps more impressive given he's had far less experience in such pressurised scenarios.

Hipkins is one of the country's more experienced politicians - at this stage, he's pretty much seen it all. If he had lost the plot in this environment, it would have been a massive failure on his part. He didn't.

By seven minutes in both leaders were fiery and ready to fight. Hipkins seemed more hungry to scrap for votes than he has on most days on the campaign trail.

One thing that lacked, however, was distinct personality from either Chris. New Zealanders, of course, care about policy. But they also - as is naturally human - want to have a sense of who these two men are. That impacts trust.

We saw it, for better or worse depending on one's stripes, in John Key's "show me the money" line, Judith Collins' "talofa" and Jacinda Ardern's "You discovered poverty last week".

Favourite book: Something about tennis.

The best we got was a bit of a sassy moment from Hipkins saying "here's an outcome for you" on emissions - a dig at Luxon's proclivity to say he's an "outcomes" guy. And a very good line from Luxon when asked what he had done personally to combat climate change: "My wife's got the most famous EV in the country" - a well-toned self-deprecating joke about his Tesla controversy earlier this year.

Luxon also did well on occasion to tell the "story" - that is, to illustrate things for viewers. Asked what it was like having bought his first home, he painted a picture of sitting in that home with wife Amanda with a TV sat on a box and two deckchairs in the home. That did well to tell Luxon's rags to riches, hand up not hand out, personal responsibility story. It was well played.

He also did well to remain on message but not so robotically and repetitively as he has done in media conferences in the weeks and months in the lead up. That was a real risk to Luxon going into this debate - while repetitive messaging in a 6pm soundbite might work, it doesn't in a 90 minute debate. It's too transparent for viewers to see. Luxon managed to avoid that.

All eyes now turn to the Multi-Party Debate on October 5, as with few substantial differences clear between the two major parties, the next government's flavour may well be far more defined by who it goes into coalition with.


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