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August 8, 2011 | by  | in Opinion |
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Politics with Paul – Televised Leaders’ Debates

Emulating the 2008 agreement between Helen Clark and John Key, the Prime Minister pulled out of a planned TV3 multi-party leaders’ debate last week, announcing he would only debate Phil Goff one-on-one in the lead-up to the election. Goff subsequently said he would only participate in a multi-party debate if Key did, and consequently the debate has been scrapped. This leaves the voters with only two presidential-style (read: one-on-one) televised leaders’ debates to be held by TVNZ.

Since first being broadcast in 1984, televised leaders’ debates have become a central fixture of election campaigns in New Zealand. With the introduction of MMP in 1996, and consistent with a key premise behind the electoral system, there have generally been efforts to represent a multiplicity of views in these influential affairs. Until 2008.

To be sure, there are undeniable benefits from having Goff and Key debate one another exclusively. As David Farrar over at Kiwiblog points out, this gives the two leaders the opportunity to explain themselves thoroughly, and respond to the opposing leader’s assertions, creating a real ‘debate’. The all-inclusive debates, by contrast, can turn into trivial affairs characterised by populist soundbites rather than policy clarification and discussion. However, there were always going to be one-on-one debates regardless, so the point is redundant.

Moreover, multi-party debate is crucial in the era of MMP, where the post-Election landscape is characterised by coalition deals forged between the victorious dominant party, and generally like-minded minor parties. It therefore follows logically that voters should be able to make their decision based not only on the policies of that dominant party, but also on the policies of potential support parties, which bar a few exceptions, are relatively predictable in their affiliations.
“A spit in the eye of democracy,” is how Victoria University’s Steven Price—an adjunct lecturer in media law—put it in a discussion of the 2008 decision.
In a political environment no longer (entirely) monopolised by National and Labour, the voting public should have the opportunity to compare Key with Brash, with Dunne, and with Tariana Turia. Likewise, the public should be able to witness Brash and Turia facing off to see how that dynamic’s working out for them.
On the other side of the equation, the voters should be able to evaluate the dynamic between Goff and Norman/Turei and Goff and Harawira. Goff and Turia would be a particularly fascinating one, helping voters to determine whether Helen Clark’s departure from Labour means that Turia’s animosity over the 2004 Foreshore and Seabed legislation has now been laid to rest.

Voters might have also gained clarity in whether there is any actual potential of a deal being struck between the Greens and National, as suggested earlier in the year.

In an election accompanied by a referendum on our electoral system, this is a move that undermines both the purpose and effectiveness of MMP in highlighting and encouraging the continuing dominance of the two major parties. Accordingly, for someone who purports to support MMP, Goff’s complicity in the decision is astonishing.

Goff should have refused to take Key’s bait. Had Goff stuck with the planned debate, Key would have been forced back to the table. A non-appearance when Goff was appearing simply wouldn’t be an option for the Prime Minister. As Green co-leader Russell Norman argued, “John Key would look like an idiot if Phil Goff and everyone turned up to the debate and John Key didn’t.”

Finally, if this announcement reveals anything about potential outcomes for the election itself, it’s simply that Goff’s decision has just deepened Labour’s grave by another foot, as alluded to in the No Right Turn blog last week:

“Both leaders have reasons to favour this arrangement—Key because he looks good next to Goff, and Goff because he’s a moron who doesn’t understand that he looks bad next to Key.”

Bad move indeed.

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