John Key's refusal to share the stage with the leaders of smaller parties in this year's election debates is not new. In the last election he and Helen Clark jointly decided to take part only in head-to-head encounters.

Key says most votes are cast either for National or Labour and that leaders' debates are a chance for the public to assess two competing claims to the premiership. That's only partly right - and to the extent that it's wrong, it's completely wrong.

In each of the last two elections, roughly 1.8 million voters party-voted either National or Labour. That leaves almost 500,000 who did not. To blithely dismiss more than 20 per cent of the electorate is highhanded and arrogant. The last time we looked, the ballot paper was not constructed in such a way that we chose the Prime Minister before proceeding to cast votes that would decide the composition of the Government.

Voters both deserve and want to see Key and Goff go head to head. It is an important part of the campaign process in a country where the political landscape is still dominated by the two major parties. But that is not all they want and need. In the MMP era, voters are inevitably thinking of how the next Government might be composed. They vote strat-egically, as Key will be advising National voters to do in Epsom.

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So the all-party bunfights matter. Watching potential coalition partners in the same room - even in the artificial environment of a television studio - can communicate much about the possibilities (and impossibilities) of certain alliances. It makes for more informed voters.

All that said, it's fair to add that the multi-party debates are not of much value in throwing light on substantial policy matters. An hour of soundbite platitudes can actually obscure more than it reveals.

For the first time in some years there are substantial policy differences - particularly in the areas of taxation and partial privatisation of state assets - between National and Labour, and they deserve extended examination. That being so, it is a pity that Key rebuffed the proposal by the New Zealand Herald for a Town Hall debate in Auckland. Perhaps the prospect of a discussion which did not feature a chance to gather one's thoughts at each commercial break was a distasteful one.

The Prime Minister's disinclination to present himself for public scrutiny is true to form. He has been notably absent from Radio New Zealand's morning and evening news programmes. It is his lieutenants - English, Joyce and Brownlee - who front, while Key sticks to his smile-and-wave photo opportunities.

The debacle of his appearance in May on BBC's Hard Talk, when he blanched and wilted under some precise but otherwise pretty routine cross-examination, doubtless hardened the party's resolve to keep him out of harm's way. But as he seeks re-election, that is not good enough.

National is riding high in the polls and, by some counts, could govern alone if an election were held tomorrow. Such margins tend to contract as polling day approaches but if complacency is giving way to disdain, the Nats deserve to be called to account.

This country faces massive economic and social challenges over the term of the next Government, not least among them levels of child poverty of which any Government should be profoundly ashamed.

The question voters face in November is not just who should lead through the next three years, but what the rival contenders intend to do about the mess we are in. National, as the incumbent, owes an explanation for the past and a vision for the future. And Key needs to realise that smiling and waving won't cut it. He needs to earn re-election and not just take it for granted.

- Herald on Sunday editorial