The Green Party has lobbied the television networks to take part in prime-time televised leaders' debates during the election campaign alongside Labour's David Cunliffe and Prime Minister John Key rather than being lumped in with the minor parties.
Andrew Campbell, the Green's communications director, confirmed it had put in a formal request to both networks to debate National and Labour rather than the smaller parrties because it was in a much stronger position in the polls. "It seems ridiculous to put a party with a genuine strong support base, a significant portion of the electorate, in the same debate as people who can't even win their own seat without the help of another party. Why would we debate a person who can't even win it's own seat without help?"
3 News' news boss Mark Jennings said he would consider the request, but "I think there's more chance it won't happen."
He could see the Green Party's point of view but it was unlikely the major parties would agree. It would also raise issues such as how to split the allocated time. "I have told them traditionally these are debates between the potential Prime Ministers. There has been an increasing trend toward Presidential style campaigning and that also adds focus to the head to head debates."
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Mr Campbell said the networks were letting themselves be "bullied" by the major parties. "Our view is that National and Labour have undermined democracy in the last couple of elections by essentially bullying TV One and TV3 as to the format. It shouldn't be up to the leaders of National and Labour what the format is." Mr Jennings denied he was being bullied. "But if neither Key nor Cunliffe turn up, there is no point having just the Greens."
National's campaign chair Steven Joyce said National wanted to keep the one-on-one debates but that did not necessarily mean Russel Norman would miss out. "We will be very happy to debate with the leader of the largest Opposition party at the time. You never know, maybe the Greens will get there. They're not that far behind." A spokesman for Labour David Cunliffe said it was up to the networks to decide on the format, but it was traditionally between the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition.
TVNZ's Head of News John Gillespie said he was yet to consider the request. The prime time debates are the best chance for extended coverage of a party leader on television during the campaign. TV One usually also has a prime time debate between the smaller parties. 3 News did not have one last election and Mr Jennings said it was deciding whether to host one this year. "To be honest, minor party leaders' debates in prime time are not a big rater." He said non-prime time current affairs shows on TV3 did cater for such debates.
Broadcasting time is a precious commodity during the pre-election when it is strictly regulated for political parties other than appearances on news and current affairs programmes.