The best-ever New Zealand election leaders' debates

by Paul Little / 31 August, 2017


Better Bickering: Leaders’ debates revisited.

One of the least eagerly anticipated parts of any election is the televised leaders’ debate. These days, whether pitting the two main parties’ leaders against each other, or including leaders of all the smaller parties in a warm and inclusive melee, they tend not to be landmarks in history.

Unlike the debates that featured domineering National Party leader Robert Muldoon.

Muldoon was leader of the Opposition when he went head-to-head with Labour leader Bill Rowling in 1975. Rowling had been thrust into the role on the death of Norman Kirk and was always a diffident public performer.

Popular memory would have it that Muldoon wiped the floor with Rowling, but a viewing of the evidence shows something rather different, even if the latter was often caught looking at the camera as though he hoped it would go away.

The debate is in black and white, giving it a Bergmanesque quality, the pair’s existential isolation only reinforced by the presence of a three-member panel: David Beatson (chair), Gordon Dryden and Bruce Slane, doing their best impression of mildly avenging angels. Topics among the issues of 42 years ago: the cost of housing has gone up 50 per cent in three years; young people are struggling to buy a home; there are too many immigrants; the government needs to act to stop property speculation.

On the other hand, there are phrases uttered that will never be heard again in a leaders’ debate, such as Rowling’s “I might intervene here if I could, Mr Chairman.” The closest he gets to a personal attack is to say somewhat pointedly that “ballyhoo is not my style”.

But false modesty was as much the rule then, as now. Asked to list his weaknesses, Muldoon confesses he is probably a little “too blunt and too simple in my answers”. He could say that safely, knowing the audience would hear it as “honest and straightforward”.

But for the most part, the debate sticks to facts and the issues, with the pair quoting percentages and arguing about the domestic content of the inflation rate in a way that would have voters today losing interest quicker than you could say, “What’s on Netflix?”

Nearly 10 years later, in 1984 and in colour, a considerably more pugnacious Prime Minister, now Sir Robert Muldoon, confronts another new Labour leader, David Lange, in the role just over a year. Both arrived with a high reputation for oratory, and history remembers the encounter as one in which a snarling, reptilian Muldoon was outclassed by the gracious, god-like Lange.

Again, a re-viewing of the debate shows something different. Muldoon is clearly on the defensive and lashing out. Asked to define his party and its values, he spends most of his allotted time attacking Labour. Before long, Lange is telling him to contain and control himself. “No abuse, Mr Lange,” retorts Sir Robert.

Lange is often as snide and personal as his opponent, but in a more gracious way. If this were a smirking contest, a judge’s decision would be necessary to determine the result.

This election came in the wake of numerous party defections on both sides, but Lange describes Labour as “a team [that] has not defected… has not spawned another party… In my team, Derek Quigley didn’t jump off.”

Muldoon: “John Kirk did. Mat [Matiu] Rata walked out.”

Lange: “And you’re welcome to any of them.”

Muldoon: “Don’t be unkind. Some of them are good people.”

The two of them are like an old married couple whose relationship has been reduced to constant bickering.

“If you’d just let me finish… it’s a simple question – you’re still not answering the question... you’re not putting it accurately at all… Just contain yourself and we’ll get through it.” At times, it’s like listening to Winston Peters arguing with himself.

Lange finishes with a rousing rallying cry for a Labour-led recovery – undercut by a line from Muldoon that has echoed enigmatically down the years: “I love you, Mr Lange.”

This was published in the September 2017 issue of North & South.

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