Are you not entertained?
It was a good and useful debate, actually.
Imagine you are invited to a wrestling event and you are looking forward to the best contrived drama sports entertainment has to offer. You go along hoping to see Rey Mysterio jump off the top rope to kick the Big Show in the face. Instead, you’ve got two guys in headgear, one in a blue singlet and the other in red, grappling in the finest of Olympic traditions.
And instead of Mr. McMahon running the show, you’ve got a mat chairman who just sits at the judges table keeping time. Nobody’s girlfriend runs on stage to distract the referee. There’s not a steel chair in sight.
And that was the plight facing stalwart partisans and general politics nerds in the TVNZ debate last night. The wanted to be entertained. And what they got instead was a workmanlike delivery by a prime minister and leader of the opposition who clearly don’t hold too much contempt for one another and who weren’t all that interested in pretending they did.
There were a points of agreement. There was some bickering, but not too much. The closest we got to aggression was that of the passive kind with Chris Hipkins seeming to make a point of using the formal and elongated “Christopher” to refer to Luxon.
As far as overt drama and rhetorical flamboyance goes, it’s not much to write home about.
Political enthusiasts may see the encounter as somewhat lackluster owing to the restrained dynamics, absence of contrived zingers and overall . As a political debate, however, it was mature and sober and, while the participants tried to avoid being controversial, presented voters with some meaningful differences in policy and style.
For the most part, the moderator Jessica Mutch McKay seemed to see herself as more a facilitator than the star of the show. In recent years, the hosts of televised debates have come to see themselves as the third participant which is often quite grating, Her approach deserves applause, lending as it did more substance to proceedings than a constant hunt for viral moments allows.
Not that she was entirely passive. There was no shortage of attempts at filibustering and evasion from the participants. Quelle surprise. These are politicians, after all.
But good moderation and mostly good questions allowed clear contrasts to emerge as the evening progressed. If you were an uninformed voter you would have come out of the evening with a much better idea of where the parties stand on issues such as health, housing, climate change and crime. Even I, as a politics addict, found myself a bit better enlightened on things like National’s boot camp proposal.
The leaders steered away from painting grand visions of and this is also something that annoyed people looking to be entertained by a real life version of an Aaron Sorkin drama. Even if they did have grand visions, however, the constraints imposed by the MMP system are designed to stop them being implemented. It’s weird that stalwart advocates for proportional representation also lament a lack of transformational governance.
Last night we had a grounded debate that reflects the fact that politics, at its core, is about stewardship, not dramatic spectacle. And, in that regard, I thought it was a breath of fresh air. It may not have been a blockbuster, but it was real, and sometimes reality is more important than showbiz.