One party leader wins the feel-good vibe from the first TV leaders debate, while another actually resets his party's campaign and lays down a new bottom line

The first TV leaders debate of the year on Three's The Nation this morning was full of zingers and a reminder of the diverse and vital political views our minor parties offer, at a time when their relevance has suddenly dwindled. It allowed Marama Fox to shine, but more importantly provided a reset platform for the Greens.

Fox filled up the room with her quick wit. She lacks the numbers to give credibility to her policies, but that's not really her tikanga. She's a heart politician and one who has kept her integrity despite all the dead rats she has had to swallow to be 'at the table. 

But the significant event of the morning came from the otherwise subdued James Shaw. Whether due to the trials and travels of recent weeks, or if he was strategically trying to stay above it all as the major member of the minor party club, Shaw looked weary. But he did both his party and this campaign a favour by declaring a Green bottom line for any future government he may be part of.

On stage, Lisa Owen asked him to choose one policy he would most like to achieve if he entered coalition talks to form the next government. As Fairfax's Tracy Watkins rightly pointed out on the panel, you would have expected Meteria Turei to have answered with a policy relating to poverty... or at least to have inserted one in alongside something environmental.

Because usually politicians don't buy into the structure of those questions. They will talk priorities, but will be less than transparent with voters about how they may deal with coalition negotiations. To his credit, Shaw played it straight.

We all know there will be other priorities the Greens would bring to the table if they are in any coalition talks; many things they and Labour (the Greens have ruled out National as a partner) agree on. But Shaw said his number one priority was for New Zealand to set a zero carbon target for the country to achieve by 2050.

There's no doubting the sincerity of that commitment. Shaw announced the policy in July; in happier times for the Greens. But it was largely overshadowed by the Turei benefit fraud debate. It involves a $1b fund push New Zealand’s transition to a greener economy. Shaw likes to say "The Green Infrastructure Fund will be the Kiwibank of the green economy". It will help to fund new renewable energy plants, solar panel installations, energy efficient rennovations, biofule production and the like.

But to stress that now is tactically sensible. It focuses the Greens back on environmental issues. No-one should doubt the parties social policies, but it needs some clear air from those and to take voters' minds of them. Those who will back the Greens because of Turei are locked in. Shaw needs to bring back in the environmental vote by looking steady and sensible again.

In particular, he will want to win back some of the Green vote that has gone to Labour and to counter Jacinda Ardern's ploy to draw more by declaring climate change as her generation's 'nuclear-free moment'. 

So it's smart politics and should get some traction over the weekend, especially as he drills down and says it will be a bottom-line for any Labour-Greens negotiations. 

It also does the campaign a favour, by bringing us back to big, visionary policy. The past couple of weeks have been about leadership. The past few days have started to see that settle and a pushback from the minor parties with a string of one-liners designed to get public attention.

Gareth Morgan, the prince of policy, further dented that crown with a other foray into indentity politics, with a claim in the debate that those who criticised his 'lipstick on a pig' criticism of Labour and its new leader were 'femo-fascists". It seems he's doubling down on the name-calling in the hope it gets people's attention and make them read some TOP policy. It's a long shot.

(Though to his credit, he made the telling argument that crime rates and imprisonment rates are in no way connected.)

David Seymour had a crack too, calling Winston Peters a "charismatic crook". Peters made the woeful decision to pull out of this debate last week. At least, having refused to commit one way or the other, he finally pulled the pin. It means one of the country's best TV debaters won't feature in TV debates this election. It's an own goal for him and unhealthy for democracy.

Presumably the basis for his argument is that he should be on with the major parties. I have argued for a top 4 debate for some time, so agree with his call for that. But the problem has always been the big two parties refusing to entertain the idea.

To be frank, right now his argument is somewhat diminished. The idea that he could be Prime Minister was, however much a long shot, vaguely possible a few weeks ago. It's not now. English or Ardern will be PM in four weeks and those are PM debates.

Peters should have sucked it up and gone in to argue his points, rather than trying to score them in some silly boycott.

It left the field open for others, and Fox and Shaw happily took the opportunity Peters gave them with both hands. 


Comments (14)

by william blake on August 26, 2017
william blake

It sounds like Gareth Morgan is heading toward his natural habitat, a career in talkback radio.

by Katharine Moody on August 26, 2017
Katharine Moody

But the problem has always been the big two parties refusing to entertain the idea.

Just curious - did Jacinda's team actually turn this kind of format down this year? What might be an alternate would be a 'blind' debate - whereby each of the leaders involved answers questions in a vaccuum - same question presented to each, but unable to hear the others response. Kind of gets rid of the tag teaming thing that many were up to today in The Nation debate. And it spares the audience the nuisance of them talking over and interrupting one another.

I think that last aspect of these televised debates is what turns young voters off politics altogether. The election is not, or should not be protrayed as, a boxing-with-words match. Same goes for the 'after-match' rankings and commentary - a real turn off for the younger set of voters - they don't see these commentators as anyone of 'note' anyway - so in that regard if you must 'after-match' bring in just normal people - perhaps even all first-time voters.  They're the ones whose future is at stake.

by Chris Eichbaum on August 26, 2017
Chris Eichbaum

Great commentary Tim but I contest the view that Manama Fox is a folksy type with a Tikanga infused halo of integrity. It was Fox who was the person to first use the term 'slave labour' when the Labour Party was under fire for its intern scheme in Auckland. The scheme may well have been flawed in design and execution, but the Marae providiNg the accommodation for the interns - most of whom appeared not to have any issues with the initiative - deserved better than to be publicly disparaged by the co-leader of the Maori Party. She is more a Lady Macbeth and not to be confused as an 'innocent flower'.

by Kat on August 26, 2017

Time to have a close look at overhauling MMP I say.


by Nick Gibbs on August 27, 2017
Nick Gibbs

The Green's bottom line is to see National out of power. They'll accept any amount of Neo-liberalism or Co2 in the atmosphere, as long as the Left are in charge. 

by william blake on August 27, 2017
william blake

Wow Nick you weren't calling Metiria Turei a neo liberal last week.

by Nick Gibbs on August 27, 2017
Nick Gibbs

Very true William. I said she had difficulty telling the truth, and that makes her neither neo-liberal nor socialist. Just dishonest. I think that applies to the Greens as well.  They want to be called an enviromental party but haven't done anything but talk about it for 18 years. And should Jacinda gain enough seats in Sept, she knows she doesn't have to offer James much or indeed anything, just as along as National aren't in power the Greens are happy. On the other hand National might offer them a great deal for their support but will be rebuffed by the Greens. That's bad politics and bad for the environment they supposedly champion.

by Tim Watkin on August 27, 2017
Tim Watkin

Chris, I accept those comments seems disproportionate, but they hardly seem to equate to Lady Macbeth labels. The Maori Party and Labour have exchanged some harsh barbs this year and she's fighting for her political life. The chance to have a crack when it later turned out to be less than fair, well, she's far from the first MP to go down that route...

by Tim Watkin on August 27, 2017
Tim Watkin

Katharine. I'm not doing that stuff now so don't know. But every party I've dealt with has played games with availability and who they are willing to debate at one stage or another... maybe the Greens are the exception. They almost always make themselves available in the interests of transparency.

And to be fair, Seymour is good as well.

by william blake on August 27, 2017
william blake

Nick we we will have to disagree about the Green Party's hidden Neo liberal agenda, most right wing pundits complain that Green policy will 'ruin' the economy. But you seem to be saying that your antipathy toward Green is their (unfounded) duplicity toward the environment and would rather vote for the party with the honest but proven track record of wrecking it.

by Ross on August 27, 2017

They want to be called an enviromental party but haven't done anything but talk about it for 18 years.

National has been in government for the past 9 years. What has it done to combat climate change and to improve the environment? In fact, the Government is being taken to Court for not doing nearly enough re climate change. At the ame time National has promised to build more and more roads if elected. I'm not sure how that will reduce the effects of climate change.

most right wing pundits complain that Green policy will 'ruin' the economy

Most right wing pundits have a terrible memory - they forget that the Greens voted for National's last budget. Those extremist Greens!


by Tim Watkin on August 27, 2017
Tim Watkin

Nick, I would have thought that declaring a binding zero carbon commitment as a bottomline without which they will not go into government was proof of the exact opposite of what you're saying.

Ross, probably the best thing they've done is the funding for the research alliance. Supposedly some good research findings coming out of that. Fingers crossed. Otherwise, it seems very little.

by Mamari on August 28, 2017

Chris, goodness me. Lady MacBeth? Rubbish. What on earth equates the great female behind-the-scenes-manipulator of Shakespeare with a single public attack from Marama on Labour for what was a dreadful situation? If you are referring solely to viciousness, there has been viciousness from the MP to Labour, true, mainly from Tuku and his attacks on Nanaia last year, but also coming back in spades from the Labour Māori caucus against the MP.  I agree that Awataha Marae did not deserve such opprobrium, but there was most definitely a problem there that had to be pointed out, the problem was eventually dealt with, and let's not see its like again.

by Nick Gibbs on August 28, 2017
Nick Gibbs

To be clear, I don't think the Greens are Neo-liberal but if offered by a great coalition deal by National would still chose to sit in the opposition benches rather than give Bill English Supply and Confidence. That determination to see the end of National seems to be their only real bottom line and its not an environmental one.

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