Mark Boyd: Debates put leaders in the spotlight, voters crowd for a look

Labour leader Jacinda Ardern, left, and Prime Minister Bill English at the Stuff Leaders Debate in Christchurch on Thursday.
JOHN KIRK-ANDERSON/STUFF

Labour leader Jacinda Ardern, left, and Prime Minister Bill English at the Stuff Leaders Debate in Christchurch on Thursday.

OPINION: New Zealand has one of the longest histories of televised (and now online) election debates in the world.  The leaders of our two major parties first started jousting on live television in the 1970s, a decade after the United States but before Australia.  Incredibly, the UK didn't have a real election debate until 2010, and hasn't since.

So the debates are seen as a highlight of the campaign, allowing the voting public to see our potential prime ministers up close and unedited, rather than cut down to five-second sound bites (that's what the average is now) or even shorter and more meaningless snippets.

This election there's been a wealth of them, and to my eye, the quality has vastly improved on the past.  No irritating worm, no inane questions about date nights.  Both television networks, and online offerings such as Thursday's Stuff Leaders Debate, have delivered the goods.

Mark Boyd: We've got a real contest on our hands this election, and the voters definitely want to hear what the ...
ALEX BURTON/STUFF

Mark Boyd: We've got a real contest on our hands this election, and the voters definitely want to hear what the contenders for the top job have to say, straight from the horse's mouth.

TVNZ's Mike Hosking clearly took heed of the torrent of criticism directed at him in the leadup to the first English-Ardern clash.  He was pretty even-handed, and if anything, slightly harder on the PM, effectively calling him a loser in the first seconds. 

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As a member of the studio audience, it would have been nice if he hadn't completely snubbed us, but we got the consolation of chats in the breaks with Bill and Jacinda, even though they looked like they were selling timeshares in Taupo.

Over on TV3 a few days later, the irrepressible Paddy Gower neutered his inner pit bull to morph into an all-business huntaway, gruffly shepherding the National and Labour leaders back into the policy paddock when they strayed.  A lively South Auckland audience that was allowed to be more than just a backdrop also made for better viewing.

But for my money, the Stuff Leaders Debate (and yes, I am well aware that it is allied with this publication) was the standout.  More than 90 minutes, no commercial breaks, no grandstanding by the hosts, just good, solid, thrashing out of positions and policies, with Ardern and English engaging with each other, and the vocal, but not too raucous, audience. Putting the emphasis on what should be the purpose of these debates, informing the voters, rather than the ad-selling imperative of commercial television, undoubtedly helped.

Whatever the format, the voters are lapping them up.  More than a million watched the TVNZ major leaders' debate, with another 700,000 online, either live or delayed.  TV3 also pulled more than a million on TV, and Stuff had 115,000 views on YouTube alone, twice what it got in 2014.  If you missed them first time around, they're all still available online.

We've got a real contest on our hands this election, and the voters definitely want to hear what the contenders for the top job have to say, straight from the horse's mouth.  Roll on the final showdown on TVNZ on 20 September.

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* Mark Boyd lectures in politics and international relations at Auckland University

 - Sunday Star Times

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