There's no show without Punch, so the saying goes, and in the New Zealand context Punch usually means NZ First leader Winston Peters.

When the public tunes into watch the debate between the leaders of the small parties tonight, Peters will be AWOL as will The Opportunities Party leader Gareth Morgan.

The other person AWOL will be the intended moderator, Mike Hosking, who is ill, so TVNZ's political editor Corin Dann has been subbed in.

Dann is not as flamboyant as his rival at Newshub, Patrick Gower, but he is respected and knows the politicians he'll be working with well.


The swap from Hosking will at least mean there is less attention on the host and more on the people voters are actually voting for.

Peters was wanted in the debate, but opted out.

Morgan wanted in but was left out because he had not met the criteria for the debate, which required parties outside Parliament to get at least three per cent in a 1 News Colmar Brunton poll.

That is all well and good, except those same rules mean the decapitated United Future party will be in the debate because technically it has an MP in Parliament - Peter Dunne, who has abandoned ship.

The chances of Morgan's crew getting into Parliament is now significantly higher than United Future's and Morgan has also had more impact on the campaign.

Peters has long believed he was superior to the other sprats and mackerels that fill out the MMP menu.

He wants to be in with the whales - National and Labour. His grounds for this is that all polls are bunkum except the Winston Peters' Poll in which he is flying high.

Sometimes he is right - in general the Greens and NZ First tend to be the mackerels, the medium-sized parties, well above the one or two MP parties.

But Peters seems to think it's still July and Labour leader Jacinda Ardern never happened.

Since then NZ First and the Greens have both been starved of oxygen and their polling has dropped.

Peters has been less affected, but his polling is still bouncing around like a kangaroo fleeing a bushfire, anywhere from six to nine per cent.

Giving up a speaking slot on prime time television is a risky move and could be a disservice to himself.

By dint of the influence he could have on the outcome of the election, Peters is doing voters a disservice as well.

If someone is in the position he seems set to be in, people want to know what he has to say.

And they also want to know how he might get on with those he'll have to work with.

In terms of entertainment value, Peters always adds something.

But his absence does not mean it will be a flop.

Previous encounters between the smaller party leaders have been highly entertaining debates.

That is largely courtesy of Maori Party co-leader Marama Fox and Act leader David Seymour.

Behind the scenes the pair are actually quite good mates.

But in a political debate they go hammer and tongs at each other, so far apart are they politically. And they do it well.

There is only issue in which they have a united front: Winston Peters. And it isn't a warm fuzzy front. Neither can stand him.

The Maori Party is understood to be considering declaring they will not go into a government that includes Peters.

The crossbenches are a more appealing option.

Peters may not be there, but it won't stop them talking about him.

And there's another saying applicable here: if you're aren't taking part, you can't complain.