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Election 2023: Chris Hipkins and Christopher Luxon come to life in fiery leaders’ debate

Derek Cheng
National Party leader Christopher Luxon and MP Paul Goldsmith outlined the party's plan to put more restrictions on gangs. Video / Mike Scott

Chris Hipkins and Christopher Luxon have both pledged to keep the number of police higher than the number of gang members, lower the age for bowel cancer screening, and have pay parity for all nurses.

They also promised to lift 80,000 more children out of poverty by 2028 - though Hipkins said Luxon’s plan to peg benefit levels to inflation rather than wages would increase poverty - showed support for menopause leave for women, and were open to taxing charities.

They each promised to match Australia for bowel cancer screening, which would see the age lowered from 60 to 50, and to 45 for some people.

The National and Labour leaders clashed during the second leaders’ debate last night, which was moderated by Newshub’s Patrick Gower in front of an audience of 200 undecided voters.



The debate traversed a range of topics including the cost of living, law and order, the under-resourced health sector, falling education attainment, and how to breathe life into an economy with little wriggle room in coming years.

It followed a 1News Verian poll showing National and Act would need NZ First to form a government, the second poll this week to do so.

Labour and National have already released most of their major policies, and with overseas voting starting and advanced voting beginning on Monday, the pressure was on Hipkins to find some way to resonate with voters.

And Hipkins came out firing.

“You haven’t said one thing you’d do differently,” Hipkins said as Luxon went through the boot camps for young offenders plan that the previous National Government did, with 83 per cent going on to re-offend.

“There’s no evidence that will work ... You’re repeating the same mistake over and over again,” Hipkins said.

Luxon, who said his boot camps would be better, retorted at one point: “It’s not going to make great TV if we’re talking over each other. Calm down ... You like to say things but that doesn’t make it so.”

At one point Luxon said Hipkins needed a hug because of all his negativity.

“You don’t like to be challenged,” Hipkins said. “If you answered questions I wouldn’t need to challenge you.”

When the debate turned to gangs, Luxon said gang members are voting for Labour, to which Hipkins said: “That’s nonsense.”

There are currently about 9000 gang members and 10,700 police, and they both promised to keep police numbers higher than gang members. Both parties have committed to increasing the number of police by 300 over the next four years.

Labour leader Chris Hipkins and National leader Christopher Luxon in the second televised leaders' debate which aired on Three. Photo / Three
Labour leader Chris Hipkins and National leader Christopher Luxon in the second televised leaders' debate which aired on Three. Photo / Three

Luxon wouldn’t say if he expected police to approach gang members and rip patches off them, but he wanted patches banned from public places.

Provoking an audience laugh, Hipkins asked him how police would identify gang members if they were patch-less.

On the scenario of a gang funeral, Luxon said he expected police to enter the funeral and go after gang members while Hipkins said that would be dangerous and they should go after them once the funeral was over.

Luxon also said he didn’t think a teenager taking the illegal substance MDMA at a festival was a criminal, before back-tracking and saying they were a criminal. He was comfortable with current drug laws, which criminalise drug use.

Hipkins said though they were a criminal under the law, he was open to reviewing drug laws. This is not something Labour was willing to do in the past six years, and is an issue where the Greens have tried to push Labour into a review of a law that is widely considered outdated.

Hipkins also said he was open to decriminalising cannabis, having voted in favour of legalising it in the referendum.

Luxon had a go at Hipkins over the increase in government spending, but Hipkins said hundreds of millions of dollars of that money had gone to pensioners, health and education.

“You’re saying those things are wasteful spending. That’s not wasteful spending.”

On quickfire questions, they agreed feral cats were pests and should be included in 2050 predator-free, and that there should be menopause leave for women. Luxon was okay with exporting live animals, with conditions, while Hipkins was against it.

Asked who would be a better foreign minister out of Judith Collins or Winston Peters, Luxon said he hadn’t thought about it.

“That’s not a great endorsement of Judith,” said Hipkins. “You know she’s the one on your team.”

National Party leader Christopher Luxon. Photo / Dean Purcell
National Party leader Christopher Luxon. Photo / Dean Purcell

Neither of them said the country was racist, but Hipkins said Luxon wanted to work with people who are “race-baiting”.

He read out a statement from a NZ First candidate that both agreed was racist. “Christopher, you’re willing to work with these people,” Hipkins said.

Luxon said it would be a last resort to work with NZ First and its leader Winston Peters in order to change the government, but he wanted a National-Act coalition.

“You worked for him for three years,” Luxon said, to which Hipkins said: “And I’d never do it again.”

Luxon wouldn’t say if NZ First leader Winston Peters was good for the country, saying he didn’t know him.

“Everyone knows him!” Gower exclaimed.

On a wealth tax - wanted by the Greens and Te Pāti Māori - being a bottom line to form a government, Hipkins said he didn’t think it would ever come to that.

“You’re not going to have leverage,” Luxon said.

Hipkins said: “Where’s your crystal ball? I didn’t know you had one.”

The Labour leader added that Act wanted to have more access to semi-automatic firearms, to which Luxon said “not going to happen”.

On tax, Luxon wouldn’t say if he would resign if he couldn’t raise the expected revenue from his foreign buyers tax.

He said he was committed to delivering tax relief as Hipkins interjected: “You’re not answering the question.”

Neither committed to cutting fuel taxes though National wouldn’t add any further taxes this coming term. Hipkins said National’s Emissions Trading System would push petrol prices up, which Luxon rejected.

Hipkins said it was a good investment to pay $90 million to Fonterra, which made a profit of $1.6 billion, to help the company cut emissions because otherwise the Government would have to buy international carbon credits.

Luxon said it was corporate welfare and profitable companies should invest in cutting emissions themselves, prompting Hipkins to say cutting that funding would push the price of petrol up by 40 cents a litre.

They both said forestry companies were responsible for forestry slash, and agreed to a bipartisan framework for moving communities impacted by climate change.

Luxon said he agreed with Labour’s policy to restrict vape stores around the country to 600 stores.

“That’s my policy, are you adopting it?” Hipkins asked him.

Labour leader Chris Hipkins. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Labour leader Chris Hipkins. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Luxon wouldn’t say if he regretted saying abortion was tantamount to murder, but repeated that he would resign if there was any change to abortion laws.

Asked who was New Zealand’s best Prime Minister, Hipkins said it was a tricky question.

“Are you going to say Chris Hipkins,” Luxon asked?

“Are you?” replied Hipkins, before eventually saying Michael Joseph Savage. Luxon opted for Keith Holyoake.

After the debate, Hipkins said Labour’s fiscal plan, released yesterday, showed more spending in coming years for health, which would enable further action for nurse pay parity and lowering the bowel cancer screening age.

He said he would look into menopause leave for women, but noted that he hadn’t committed to implementing it. He gave himself a nine out of 10 for his performance in the debate.

“The campaign might have started slow but I’ve decided I’m going to enjoy the rest of it and this is the kind of energy you’re going to see from me.”

He said NZ First, which was “absolutely playing the race card”, and Act were dividing New Zealanders who “deserved better than that”.

“I’m not sure where he’s been for the last 40 years,” Hipkins said about Luxon’s claim he didn’t know Peters.

He said it was no secret he was going after NZ First “and the racist statements they are making”, adding it was hard to go after National because the party wasn’t saying anything or releasing the numbers behind its tax package.

Asked if he was the king of the zingers, given his energetic interjections, Hipkins laughed and said he was the “king of the gingers”.

Luxon said it was a robust and free-wheeling debate, and he gave himself seven out of 10.

Asked if he would stake his leadership on bringing in his proposed foreign buyers tax for New Zealand homes worth over $2m, he avoided the question and said he was confident in his numbers.

He said he didn’t want to work with Peters, but it was a last resort and better than a Labour-led government.

The first leaders’ debate was widely seen as dull and lacking in new information, with Luxon winning by default given he had more to lose and didn’t make any mistakes.

Earlier this week Luxon said he would pick up the phone to Peters if he needed NZ First to change the government, though his first preference was for a National-Act coalition. Hipkins and Peters have both ruled each other out.

A third leaders’ debate will be held next week.

Derek Cheng is a senior journalist who started at the Herald in 2004. He has worked several stints in the press gallery team and is a former deputy political editor.