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Hectic debate and ‘low blow’ sets tone for NZ election sprint finish

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

On Thursday night, Prime Minister and Labour leader Chris Hipkins brought the fight to Opposition Leader Chris Luxon in a televised debate watched by an estimated one 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.

Hipkins said Luxon’s “moral compass was gone” over his opposition National party’s tax policy, reminded him of prior comments that NZ 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 Mr Hipkins privately asked his opponent “are you going to answer any questions tonight?”.

He repeated the line during the hour-long contest, making Luxon look flat-footed.

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,” Hipkins 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 (as Hipkins is nicknamed), we saw lippy and snippy”.

Wellington’s daily newspaper The Post said Hipkins took a “scorched earth” approach while NZ Herald senior political correspondent Audrey Young said the 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.”

The leaders did agree on some things, with both saying it was time to shut down New Zealand’s greyhound racing 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 said 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 in New Zealand following Saturday’s vote.

Polls show about 9 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.”

-AAP

Topics: New Zealand
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