The potential cancellation of one out of four crucial leaders’ debates during the current election season has raised eyebrows and tensions alike. The major political parties, at loggerheads over alternative arrangements, lend an aura of uncertainty to the debate initially scheduled to convene in Christchurch tomorrow night. This debate stands as a time-honoured tradition in the election campaign circuit, established in the wake of the 2011 earthquakes, and uniquely the only one conducted outside of Auckland.
However, the recent Covid-19 diagnosis of Prime Minister Chris Hipkins has thrown a wrench in the plans. As the Prime Minister isolates awaiting a negative test result, Labour and National parties muscle for control over the ensuing chaos.
Labour proposed to push the debate to the following week, a narrative endorsed by Finance Minister Grant Robertson. In spite of offering multiple possible dates, the Minister accused National’s leader, Christopher Luxon, of “running scared”, citing a lack of response.
Countering Labour’s proposition, National’s campaign manager Chris Bishop pointed out a pre-existing leaders’ debate scheduled for the following week. Instead, he proposed a fresh face-off between National’s deputy leader Nicola Willis and Labour’s deputy Kelvin Davis, an idea which Labour conspicuously failed to answer.
In an online flurry, both Prime Ministers released separate statements, Chris Hipkins opened to the idea of a Zoom meeting if rescheduling proved impractical. On the other hand, Christopher Luxon accused the opposition of spreading misinformation.
Observing the heated back-and-forth, NZ Herald deputy political editor Thomas Coughlan, likened the whole scenario to an angry couple refusing to address each other directly while relying on the Press as a mediator. On that note, there seems to be no debate tomorrow as things stand today.
In the midst of this political theatre, Chris Hipkin’s ill-timed Covid diagnosis as early voting commences today could not have been more inconvenient. However, even as in-person events stand replaced with virtual town hall meetings, Coughlan argues that this might afford the opportunity to engage with a wider voter base at once.
The day’s political whirlwind also witnessed other parties voicing concerns over campaign violence and yet another misstep by Winston Peters, garnering the wrong kind of attention.