Wellington, October 13,2023
In their final poll-eve debate on Thursday, Labour’s Chris Hipkins revealed the “mongrel” in him while National’s Christopher Luxon appeared presidential.
But both leaders cancelled each other out on the big-ticket issues that mattered most to voters.
FTA with India
Trade relations with India got prime time attention, but left both leaders looking incoherent and naive.
Hipkins pushed Luxon on the feasibility of getting a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with India and unwittingly confirmed the suspicion of sceptics that his pledge to undertake a trade mission to India in the first 100 days of a Labour government was likely an empty election promise that turned the proposed visit into a lost cause.
But Luxon also appeared out of his depth by committing to getting a FTA with India that Hipkins rightly said India did not want.
In effect, the credibility of both leaders on trade relations with India looked dubious two days out from election day.
Cost of living
A mother of three from the audience asked an emotive question about families that were struggling to make ends meet. Hipkins was handy with his statistics to show the government had lifted 77,000 children out of poverty. “I don’t want to see children in New Zealand living in poverty,” he proclaimed loftily, and committed to ensuring that “people who are reliant on benefits – those who can’t work – can actually make ends meet.”
But Luxon wanted to link benefits to inflation rather than wages, which Hipkins saw as a bid to cut benefits.
The question of aging pipes and sourcing the funds to fix them came up via the imagery of a giant sinkhole in Auckland that was “sending 100 litres of human waste into the Harbour per second.”
Luxon pledged to repeal the Three Waters Act passed by the government and “give ownership and control of those assets back to local councils.”
His solution to the infrastructure deficit was for councils themselves to create “council-controlled organisations off their balance sheets [that would] access long-term debt funding and financing.”
Hipkins thought that was a revenue model that would not work because “councils can’t fix this problem.” Instead, he pushed for “affordable water reform.”
Hipkins wanted to know how much funds a National government would set aside for water infrastructure. Luxon fell back on “unallocated allowances that would fund water infrastructure in a different way.”
Hipkins then quoted the Auckland mayor as saying that, under National’s scheme, water bills would double. Luxon offered to speak to the mayor.
Luxon was taking the long view on water infrastructure. “The way to deal with things is a 30-year pipeline of projects. You put a scaffolding in place, the infrastructure in place, to handle these issues.”
But the back-and-forth on critical infrastructure came across as lacking in clarity, urgency or conviction. Both leaders appeared to be stuck in a manhole.
Luxon said the country was divided along the lines of “employers versus employees, landlords versus tenants,” and so on. The segment trailed off without either side getting down to the nitty-gritty or touching on specific examples of why New Zealand society was intrinsically racist.
The debate closed with each leader delivering a vision statement for New Zealand. Hipkins drew an apocalyptic picture in the event that National came to power while Luxon focused on the need for change.
Apart from everything else, General Election 2023 may be an object lesson on the need to get the messaging right without losing sight of the message.
Venu Menon is an Indian Newslink reporter based in Wellington