For parts of the first main leaders’ election debate, Chris Hipkins appeared to be playing catch-up to Christopher Luxon as though their roles were reversed.
It seems likely after this first bout, that Hipkins and Labour will still be on the backfoot as the campaign goes forward.
The Prime Minister landed decent blows on policy but in the key battle of debate expectations, National’s Luxon exceeded his.
Heading into the debate, Luxon needed to avoid mistakes and look ready for the top job - but in the end he did more than that.
The opposition leader consistently hit concise, rapid-fire, summarised messages, hammering away on the theme of government delivery or lack of. “You’ve had six years,” he said. Mostly he was well prepared on how to communicate effectively, dropping relateable phrases and interjecting frequently.
He wielded generalisations to avoid answering details, a low point being his “you’ve got to have a plan to get things done” non-answer on climate.
Luxon’s advantage of being able to focus on the country’s future, free of the baggage of currently being in charge, also resulted in glibness. His answer to a question on a policy that would make New Zealand a better place to live - “a world-class education system” - had all the substance of promising a bright blue cloudless sky.
Luxon was selling the comfortable illusion of political control and certainty to a public that wants positive change, whereas Hipkins’ answers were shot through with the knowledge that leaders regularly confront unknowns and surprises.
This was particularly apparent during the section on the pandemic experience, when Luxon highlighted New Zealand’s re-emergence and said “other countries got the jump on us”. Hipkins went through the strained considerations of decision-making at the time and choices that had to be made.
Luxon edged Hipkins on intangibles of presence, energy and dominance. For people tuning in who were more focused on personalities, the main takeaway would have been Luxon’s smooth confidence and assertiveness.
Hipkins leaned more into specifics and realism. He had periods of sharp attack and passion but at times seemed too restrained, especially at the beginning. He mangled the “do you personally get it” question on crime.
He was more comfortable with details and managed to make telling points about Labour’s approach and National’s prescriptions, such as on boot camps.
Hipkins tried to puncture Luxon’s polished presentation with lines such as “a slogan is not a solution” and saying that Labour has “a proven track record in reducing emissions and it isn’t just a bunch of slogans”.
His stronger moments occurred during discussions over co-governance - when Luxon’s replies amounted to a muddle - housing and action on climate.
On tax, Luxon escaped the discussion on foreign house sales fairly easily because of equal focus being given to Labour’s GST plan. Hipkins later got in a jab about “tax breaks for landlords”.
There were regular areas of agreement which illustrated their competition for the same political territory.
Overall, both leaders did a credible job and appeared evenly matched, which benefitted Luxon since he’s the one being measured against the sitting prime minister.
The good and bad news for Luxon is that expectations will be higher for the next two debates. Hipkins needs to be more consistently engaged and sharper to put his opponent under more pressure.