Four of the five party leaders were fighting for their political lives — but seemed more content to jab at each other than try to land any big hits in last night's TVNZ debate.
The heads of New Zealand First, the Greens, Māori Party, and Advance NZ had to swallow difficult poll numbers just an hour before they took the podium in TVNZ's Auckland studio.
Only Act's David Seymour — whose party scored 8 per cent in the latest 1 News Colmar Brunton poll — could breathe easy heading into the debate.
Seymour took criticism from all sides during the hour-long debate, in particular over his support for a contact tracing card and his plan to reduce benefits to pre-Covid levels.
Seymour had argued that New Zealand needed to get "Taiwan-smart" with new technology like a CovidCard so it could maintain elimination without lockdowns.
Green Party co-leader James Shaw said it was "extraordinary" that a libertarian party would support such an encroachment on civil liberties.
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The Greens dropped to 6 per cent in the Colmar Brunton poll — close to the 5 per cent threshold to return to Parliament. Shaw acknowledged the party was on shaky ground, and urged people to vote Greens to avoid a one-party Government.
"If we do not make it back into Parliament, you run the risk of one party having all the power."
He rejected the suggestion New Zealand did not "go hard and early" in response to the Covid pandemic, saying New Zealand was the only country in the world where the death rate went down during the pandemic.
All party leaders except Advance NZ co-leader Jami-Lee Ross said they would get the Covid-19 vaccine once it was available, though none of them believed it should be mandatory.
NZ First nudged up to 2 per cent in the poll, well short of the 5 per cent needed.
Peters dismissed that result, saying it was "people out there who will decide the election". He also said he was dead against lowering the 5 per cent threshold.
Shaw, though, was keen to drop it to 4 per cent and Māori Party co-leader John Tamihere also said the threshold was too high.
When asked for innovative ideas to stimulate New Zealand's economy, Tamihere said Māori could not currently participate in the economy because many of them went to Decile 1 schools and left without a qualification.
He wanted Māori children educated the same as children in decile 9 and 10 schools, he said.
There was a rare meeting of minds between Tamihere and Peters when the Māori Party co-leader said he wanted to curb immigration to ease pressure on housing.
"Better late than never," smirked Peters, an immigration hardliner.
Advance NZ's Ross possibly stood to benefit most from the debate, as an outsider whose party was only at 1 per cent in the polls.
He criticised what he felt was the Government's "lockdowns at any cost" response to the pandemic. But he was also grilled about his "irresponsible" rallies during lockdown and whether he was fit for Parliament given he was facing fraud charges laid by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) .
Ross portrayed himself as a whistleblower, shining a light on his previous party's suspect donations.
That led to the debate's most humorous moment, when TVNZ host Jessica Mutch McKay said he and Peters had something in common - both of their parties were dealing with the SFO.
The camera zoomed in on Peters' face, and he was not impressed.
The one-hour show, being hosted by TVNZ political editor Jessica Mutch McKay, is the last televised debate between the minor party leaders, and the stakes are high for all involved.
Peters is fighting for his 27-year-old party's survival as recent polling has placed NZ First as low as 1 per cent, well below the threshold of 5 per cent required to return to Parliament.
A TVNZ Colmar Brunton poll released tonight showed that Labour would need the Greens to form a government.
Labour polled 47 per cent of the party vote, National 32 per cent, Act 8 per cent, Green 6 per cent and NZ First 2 per cent.
The Opportunities Party was on 2 per cent, and New Conservative and Advance NZ were on 1 per cent.
The poll sampled 1007 voters between October 3-7 and has a margin of error of 3.1%.
The NZ First leader and Deputy Prime Minister this morning bet NewstalkZB's Mike Hosking $100 that his party would be re-elected, saying there had been a surge in support for his party.
"I can feel it out in the streets and I can see it in the malls," he told Hosking in the latest series of leaders' interviews.
Asked what NZ First had prevented in government, Peters cited the scuppered capital gains tax, and what he said were Labour's plans to "interfere with leases", which he likened to belonging in countries like Venezuela.
He had also been a strong advocate for the Pike River mine re-entry. The Pike River Recovery Agency last week said it was more optimistic that evidence of miners could be found, and Peters said he suspected bodies would be found.
The Greens are not yet polling high enough to be comfortable, and will be aiming for a strong finish to their election campaign.
Asked this morning what he most wanted to get done in the past three years that did not happen, Shaw said a capital gains tax.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has ruled that out under her leadership, but Shaw said the Greens had come up with "another version" in the wealth tax proposal.
"It is a different tax. People have to have a vote first, and so then let's sit down and have that conversation."
Shaw said the most likely outcome of the election was a Labour-Greens coalition, and his party had achieved an enormous amount over the past term; his personal highlight being the Zero Carbon Act.
Used to being a one-man show in Parliament, the Act leader is expected to lead a number of largely unknown candidates next term, with recent polling putting the party on 8 per cent (10 MPs).
"We are taking each day as it comes," Seymour said. "If Act can play a role in holding all of them to account out there, that is a real positive."
Act didn't have bottom lines in any post-election negotiations. Even large parties couldn't guarantee their policy would survive negotiations, he said.
"If you vote for Act, then you are getting a push towards a more aggressive, more Taiwan-esque approach to health. You are getting a more aggressive approach to debt. There are other issues around the RMA, charter schools, firearm laws."
What did the last Government do that he was impressed with? Abortion law reform, Seymour said. However, he ruled out any governing agreement with Labour, and insisted a National-Act coalition would happen "by a whisker".
The Māori Party's strategy is to win one of the seven Māori seats, which are all held by Labour.
It has campaigned on a platform of a separate Parliament, health authority and criminal justice system for Māori, increasing benefits and the minimum wage, putting an end to baby uplifts, and slowing immigration.
Advance NZ, which has a significant social media presence, has been polling at around 1 per cent. Led by Jami-Lee Ross and Billy Te Kahika, its platform is based on "freedom, sovereignty and an independent NZ" and repositioning New Zealand's foreign policy towards Western countries rather than China.
Te Kahika has courted controversy by openly trading in conspiracy theories, most notably the claim that Covid-19 is a government-controlled "bioweapon".
To qualify for the debate, parties had to reach 3 per cent in a poll in the past six months.
Despite polling about 1 per cent, Advance NZ was included because its co-leader Jami-Lee Ross, a former National member, was Botany's MP.
TVNZ also relaxed its criteria to allow the Māori Party to be included after admitting it didn't adequately consider parties only contending Māori electorate seats.
The New Conservative Party unsuccessfully challenged its exclusion from the debate in the High Court yesterday.