By Russell Palmer of RNZ
With more than 16 minutes of ads spread in four blocks across the hour, and five leaders to bounce ideas and insults off one another, last night's debate made for frantic, fractured viewing.
It saw Act's David Seymour, the Green Party's James Shaw, NZ First's Winston Peters, the Māori Party's John Tamihere and Advance NZ's Jami-Lee Ross face off over - among other things - Covid-19, vaccines, debt, and the influence of China.
TVNZ political editor Jessica Mutch McKay did a reasonable job of keeping the five men in suits in reasonable order, but none of them ever really got much time to elaborate.
When they did, an interruption would often lead to the interrupter taking centre stage, often derailing the conversation to another topic entirely.
That did not suit Seymour.
"I would've liked there to have been more order and a bit more time to get each person's policy across and less interruption," he said afterwards.
"Of course, if you get cut off by the moderator and you were just about to explain what the policy was, that's very frustrating and that can lead to some real backchat."
Shaw was similarly put off.
"This kind of format, you do tend to get a few people shouting over each other. I actually don't suspect that does them any favours and that's not really my style," he said.
"I'm happy to keep my dignity and not participate in a shouting match, I think shouting over each other and being loud and obnoxious is a sign of weakness, not strength."
Despite the difficulty of getting their point across, that strength on stage Shaw alludes to may prove to be a vital lifeline for his party, which lost a percentage point - down to 6 per cent - in last night's Colmar Brunton poll.
With polls historically predicting the Greens higher than their actual election result, he admits every vote counts.
"We do know that we need to get everybody that supports the Green Party to a polling booth to make sure that they absolutely vote," he said. "I would be comfortable with a few points more. We are not being complacent."
Indeed, the debate began with Shaw and Peters both positioning themselves as the potential conscience of a governing Labour, with Shaw making what might be the Greens' clearest ultimatum so far.
"The Green Party will work in partnership with Labour ... if the Greens don't make it back in we will run the risk that one party will have all the power. Our planet is running out of time."
Peters, whose party was polling at 2 per cent, as usual rubbished the numbers. New Zealand First does tend to poll better on election day, and he said he was confident the party is in great shape.
He was also dismissive of the new details about the Serious Fraud Office's investigation into the New Zealand First Foundation.
Neither person charged can be identified but the SFO has confirmed they are not ministers, sitting MPs, candidates, staffers or current members of New Zealand First.
Peters stuck to his line that his party had been exonerated.
"We're not going to have trial by media or trial by the mob in this country ... out there are fair-minded New Zealanders who know for a start that every member of my party has been exonerated.
"I have welcomed the Serious Fraud Office inquiry from day one, and I welcome its outcome. Let me tell you one thing - I've got rid of two former Serious Fraud [Office] leaders - two, not one - and I'm not concerned about this at all."
Tamihere said the Māori Party would not work with National - only Labour. He spoke well and cut through the policy chatter somewhat with personal anecdotes and a focus on the plight of Māori.
"We can't participate in the economy because the basic education system in this country does not get us work ready regardless of what it is. So what we've got to do in the Māori Party is just speak our truth, which is that we want our children educated the same as kids in decile nine and 10 schools, and why is that wrong?"
Seymour was as usual strong on debt reduction, but asked if an austerity budget would be a bottom line if it had the opportunity to form a coalition, danced around the question until asked a third time.
"It clearly is a bottom line if that's the way you want to play it."
He later said infrastructure was important but there was "no silver bullet for economic redevelopment", a line Mutch McKay said Peters had used during one of the many ad breaks.
Seymour said he must have got the silver bullet from the silver fox. Peters says Australia two days ago brought in a budget against austerity. He said Seymour was spouting the same old neoliberal rubbish "with training wheels on".
For his part, Ross - who advocates learning to live with the virus instead of keeping the borders closed - largely targeted the Government's response to Covid-19, and repeated the misinformation spread by his party that the virus has about the same fatality rate as the flu.
While TVNZ did not correct him on air, it did send out a tweet.
He was also asked if he had the credentials to be in Parliament, considering accusations of bullying he has faced as an MP and his involvement in the National Party donations saga. Ross and three other men - Zhang Yikun, Zheng Shijia and Zheng Hengjia - are facing charges.
He said he was innocent until proven guilty. He said Labour and National were both bought and sold by Chinese Communist Party money, and asserted he was on track to win the Te Tai Tokerau seat.
That claim brought chuckles from the others. The latest polling from Māori TV has shown Ross' co-leader Billy Te Kahika winning less than 1 per cent support in the electorate.