Winston Peters has pulled out. And Gareth Morgan has been excluded. Even Mike Hosking has put in his apologies. But the leaders of four minor parties will be at TVNZ's "multi-party" leaders debate, which broadcasts at 7pm. You'll be able to watch it on TVNZ1, on the TVNZ website or on Newstalk ZB.
But what was supposed to be a multi-party leaders debate, in which TVNZ says all parliamentary parties - including the Labour and National leaders - had agreed to appear, has turned into a somewhat smaller affair. And one of the four party leaders is, most strangely, Damien Light - the new leader of United Future.
Of course, it could still work. Having James Shaw, David Seymour and Marama Fox in discussion with TVNZ's Corin Dann might end up being intimate enough to get some really in-depth discussion amongst these minnow parties.
Peters follows Ardern and English out
The Herald argued today that "tonight's debate is in danger of becoming something of a fizzer" with the late withdrawal of Winston Peters - see: TVNZ debate woes: Mike Hosking sick, NZ First leader Winston Peters pulls out.
Peters complained he was originally told that Ardern and English would be part of the debate, but it turned out not to be the case. He's reported as saying "I cleared my programme and accepted that invitation enthusiastically" but "I was astonished, on a general inquiry late Tuesday, to be told by them that neither Labour nor National had ever accepted the invitation" - see Ella Prendergast's Winston Peters pulls out of minor parties debate.
Claire Trevett discusses Peters' exit, and ponders whether this will backfire for his party: "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... And they also want to know how he might get on with those he'll have to work with." - see: Debate debacle - has Winston Peters done himself any favours?.
Trevett suggests the debate might still turn out to be a useful broadcast: "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."
But could Peters' decision to opt out be a smart one? Certainly, it's already given him plenty of publicity. But it's also worth noting that such leaders debates are generally better for the challenging leaders, rather than the established incumbents, and that's why Peters is best served by a debate in which he's up against the likes of Ardern and English, than he is against Seymour and Fox. In this sense, it's worth reading Leith Huffadine's article, Leaders debates: Very few votes change, but do they still matter?.
Huffadine sums up the issue: "Studies of leaders debates suggest three things: they're good for the challenging politician, don't make much difference to polls and often, and the way media reports them has more influence."
The exclusion of Gareth Morgan
The Opportunities Party, led by Gareth Morgan, took TVNZ to the High Court yesterday to attempt to get a judicial review forcing the broadcaster to let him into tonight's debate. He failed - see Sam Hurley's Gareth Morgan v TVNZ: TOP leader loses High Court argument over debate.
I submitted a sworn affidavit to the High Court, in which I argued that TVNZ's criteria for deciding entry for minor party leaders was problematic and that, in this case, it had led to an irrational and anti-democratic outcome. You can read my arguments here: Affidavit. Also, you can read the judge's decision here: Court decision.
Some journalists had sympathy for Morgan's argument. For example, Barry Soper said "you can understand Gareth Morgan's frustration at being blocked out of the TVNZ debate for the minor leaders on Friday night, even if it generally does have the lowest viewer audience of the week, it's still aeons ahead of the number of voters they're able to get to out on the campaign trail" - see: The hardest job of an election campaign.
Soper says the "point that Morgan rightly makes is that his party out polls the Maori Party, Act and United Future combined". Furthermore, "these debates can be critical as Gareth Morgan knows well, saying he simply wants a fair suck of the sav and he's on pretty sound ground, given his poll rating compared to others, if past challenges through the High Court are anything to go by."
Likewise, Claire Trevett suggests that it's rather strange for Morgan to be denied entry, when the new leader for United Future is in: "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."
But Mike Hosking - who was supposed to be chairing tonight's debate - explains the exclusion in his column, Rules are rules Gareth Morgan. He says that TVNZ needs to have rules, TOP simply hasn't met the three per cent figure in the recent opinion polls, and "if we go round bending rules, every man and his dog from every wacky party going is going to want to part of the action and the whole things becomes a farce."
Hosking says he'd like Morgan to be in the debate: "Why? Because he's interesting. Because if he'd hit 3 per cent he would have been looking to get momentum from the debate to push towards 5 per cent, which I have argued all along is an extremely big ask for any one. In fact it's never been done. A new party setting up and cracking 5 per cent has not been achieved in 20 years of MMP".
In fact, in another column last month, Hosking also laments that Morgan and his party would be a welcome addition to Parliament, which has become somewhat moribund: "He would be a new voice. Wouldn't someone wanting to auction off his support be a good example of what MMP is all about? In the market place of ideas, it's an indictment on the system the market has turned out so small. New Zealand First, the Greens, United, Mana, Act, TOP, the Maori Party. Of the seven, two aren't even in Parliament. Of the five who are, four should be back, one is on a knife edge. And with the exception of one, it's unlikely any of them will actually grow their vote. Hardly a prosperous representational system" - see: Minor players at the voters' mercy.
But some argue the judge has made the right decision in denying Morgan's attempt to force TVNZ to allow him in. Certainly, there's a very good argument to say that media freedom is too important to have the courts telling broadcasters who should be on their programmes.
Tim Watkin was the producer for TV3's minor party debate back in 2014 when Colin Craig was successful in getting a court to tell Mediaworks to add him in, and Watkin talks about this in his blog post, Is Gareth Morgan different from the rest, or just one more?.
His strongest point is about media freedom: "While as a producer, I think the audience was not best-served by his presence, the worst thing about his appearance on the programme was the way it undermined editorial independence in this country. Undoubtedly, there are strong arguments on both sides of this debate about debates. But an independent news organisation had set a clear threshold and then exercised its media freedom to decide soberly and with care that one party would not take part. The courts ordered it to do otherwise. Think about that."
And today law professor Andrew Geddis expands on this issue, and provides a very interesting discussion of the case - see: Gareth Morgan won't be on the TVNZ debate tonight. Did the courts get it right?. He suggests that there has to be a very compelling case for a judge to tell the media what to do, and therefore concludes, "I'm pretty OK with Justice Venning's decision to refuse to force TVNZ to let Morgan participate."
Finally, although it's hardly the sort of publicity Gareth Morgan is after, here's an interesting parody of what TOP stands for - see: Tom Sainsbury's: Kiwis of Snapchat: Gareth Morgan, TOP leader.