The Biggest Liar

Optics first, truth a distant second in political leaders debate.

The Biggest Liar

Political debates are shit.

Not only do they not follow the rules of actual debates, they’re a boring yet simultaneously wildly frustrating sideshow in which politicians demonstrate their ability to give glib answers to (sometimes) important questions. What’s more, in New Zealand, they further the pretence that our political system is a two-horse race.

However, they are useful in one way: they do a wonderful job of surfacing weirdness from political journalists who think their job is coaching politicians on how they might better their appearance. In this regard, the TVNZ First Leaders debate of 19 September did not disappoint. From the Spinoff Bulletin:

According to the New Zealand Schools’ Debate Council, there’s no such thing as a draw in debating and a winner must be declared. All five adjudicators from the Herald (paywalled) gave the debate to Luxon but its assessment opens with the Herald’s political editor Claire Trevett calling it a “snoozefest” so that’s damning with faint praise.

All five Herald pundits gave it to Luxon? This is unsurprising, because the Herald was founded as a vehicle for reactionary politics and it’s stayed unswervingly dedicated to that mission for most of its long history. So, for entertainment purposes, I’m going behind the paywall to fetch some of these takes because history suggests they’ll be more cooked than a burned steak.

Audrey Young - Herald senior political correspondent

Chris Hipkins made better use of facts, such as the actual wages that have been lifted for nurses, for example, and the different approaches to addressing young criminals – an 80 per cent success rate for Labour’s wrap-around response versus an 80 per cent failure rate for National’s boot camps.

Christopher Luxon, despite saying he doesn’t do bumper stickers, relied more on glib slogans such as his answer to tackling the climate emergency: “You’ve got to have a plan and you’ve got to get things done” and his dismissal of GST off fruit and vegetables as “a couple of cents off your beans and carrots”.

OK, so Hipkins '“made better use of facts” and Luxon “relied on glib slogans.” So that means Hipkins wins, right?

A screenshot of text that reads "Winner: Christopher Luxon"

What? And this is behind a paywall. Imagine giving the Herald actual money only to receive this tier of analysis.

Thomas Coughlan’s is even weirder. I’ll just quote it at length and bold the best bits.

Thomas Coughlan - Herald deputy political editor

Christopher Luxon won tonight’s debate. He was more confident, articulated his plans more concisely, and did a better job wrestling Chris Hipkins to the ground when he was on a roll.

Hipkins’ basic message was a strong one, New Zealand cannot go forward by winding things back, but Hipkins did not cut in on Luxon enough to make that point.

Ah. Hipkins didn’t break the rules of debating by interrupting constantly. What an idiot. Clearly, Luxon won.

Fortunately, it seems to have occurred to TVNZ that its audience might like to know about a concept, underutilised in political journalism, called “the truth.” To that end, it released a fact-check of its own leader’s debate. It’s noteworthy that TVNZ journalists didn’t do the fact-check themselves; they got academics at Auckland University’s Public Policy Institute to do it.

Their finding was that Luxon had comprehensively won the debate, if by “won” we mean “lied his ass off.

For convenience’s sake, and because I’m going to assume that the highly successful businessman is an intelligent person who knows what he’s doing, I will call anything that’s “mostly untrue” or an outright untruth “lies.” And because I’ve never been great at maths, I will make a spreadsheet.

So yeah. For the avoidance of doubt, I have also made a pie chart that is less a pie chart and more the Japanese flag:

A pie chart that's actually just a big red circle.
I see red, I see red, I see red.

How did the Herald, whose pundits (lest we forget) unanimously gave the debate to Luxon, address the topic of falsehoods in the debate?

Hipkins has admitted the fizzy drink ban claim he made in last night’s debate was incorrect  Hipkins has admitted a claim he made in last night’s debate was incorrect when he said fizzy drinks were banned in primary schools.  During the debate, Hipkins made the claim as he revealed Labour’s intention to apply the ban in secondary schools, saying evidence for its extension was in the existing ban.  Today, while standing at Wairoa Airport, Hipkins fessed up, saying that he had misunderstood the result of work done by the Ministry of Education on whether fizzy drinks should be banned in primary schools.

Ah. By correcting something he got wrong, Hipkins has “fessed up.” Oddly, scrolling the same Herald liveblog that details Hipkins’ abject confession on the topic of fizzy drinks, I can’t find any mention or self-correction of Luxon’s multiple debate misstatements. But that’s OK! Optics are what matter most, and — in a time of crisis so acute that the UN Secretary General describes it as humanity having “opened the gates to hell” — we’re blessed to have political journalists to tell us which politicians have mastered the Good Look.