Jabs and ‘low blows’: Caustic leaders’ debate marks NZ election sprint finish

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Wellington: A rambunctious and acrimonious final leaders’ debate set the stage for the final day of campaigning in the New Zealand election.

On Thursday night, Labour leader and Prime Minister Chris Hipkins brought the fight to Opposition Leader Chris Luxon in a televised debate seen by an estimated 1 million New Zealanders.

And mirroring the dynamic in the final week of the campaign, Hipkins was judged the winner by most analysts and pundits with his in-your-face display.

NZ Prime Minister Chris Hipkins and Opposition Leader Chris Luxon on Thursday night. Credit: Screenshot/Twitter

Hipkins said Luxon’s “moral compass was gone” over National’s tax policy, reminded him of prior comments that New Zealand had become “negative, wet and whiny”, and continually interjected.

The adversarial display began before the first question.

NZ Herald editor-at-large Shayne Currie reported during the opening handshake that Hipkins privately asked his opponent “are you going to answer any questions tonight?”

He repeated the line during the 60-minute contest, making Luxon look flat-footed.

NZ PM Chris Hipkins earlier this month.Credit: Bloomberg

In a surprising jab, Hipkins also berated Luxon for supporting an MP who committed a violent assault as a teenager.

“None of my MPs beat people up with a bed leg,” the incumbent prime minister said after a debate over ministerial standards.

After the debate, Luxon called it a “low blow” while former Labour leader David Cunliffe said Hipkins had overstepped the line.

“He was winning on points until that moment … it was a step too far,” he said.

Former National deputy leader Paula Bennett said viewers “didn’t see Chippy, we saw lippy and snippy”.

Wellington daily newspaper The Post said Hipkins had taken a “scorched earth” approach while NZ Herald senior political correspondent Audrey Young said deciding a winner was a matter of taste.

“If the aim of the exercise was to look and sound prime ministerial, Luxon would have won it without question,” she said.

“If the aim was to focus on the weakest parts of the other’s policy plans, Hipkins won hands down.”

National Party leader Chris Luxon, right, meets locals in Morrinsville on Friday.Credit: Getty

The leaders did agree on some things, with both saying it was time to shut down the country’s greyhound industry.

Hipkins said he had “no regrets at all” about his debate approach.

“I said that I was going to be more assertive and challenging,” he told journalists after the debate.

Labour certainly needs a heart-starter.

While the election is close between the right and left blocs, it’s been months since a poll pointed to a Labour-led government after the Saturday ballot.

Polls show about nine per cent of the electorate remains undecided.

Commentator Haimona Gray said the argumentative showing from Hipkins might have put off that crucial group.

“It is not an edifying sight,” he said.

“It looks desperate … he might have won the battle, but lost the war tonight.

“None of this feels very prime ministerial, and that will put off non-partisans looking to be inspired by a leader.”

Luxon’s centre-right National Party was ahead in the polls but is very unlikely to get a majority even with the support of its preferred coalition partner, the libertarian ACT Party, Reuters reported

Polls predict that the nationalist NZ First Party of former deputy prime minister Winston Peters will hold the balance of power. The party was Labour’s coalition partner in 2017 but has said it will not work with Labour again.

Luxon said on Friday there was a “very big mood for change” in the country.

AAP, Reuters

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