Election 2023 debate moments: Chris Hipkins says he's not holding back, Christopher Luxon admits 'clanger'

Labour leader Chris Hipkins brought a fire and gusto during Newshub's leaders debate on Wednesday night that's not yet been seen from him on the election campaign, volleying jabs at National's Christopher Luxon who later admitted he performed worse than in a previous clash.

But Luxon also flicked back barbs on a number of occasions, often asking Hipkins why he hadn't introduced initiatives he was now promoting during his last six years in power.

The face-off between Hipkins and Luxon, moderated by Newshub's Patrick Gower, was a high-octane event, with applause, laughter and gasps from the live audience throughout.

There were commitments from the leaders, including lowering the age of bowel cancer screening and doing more bipartisan work on moving communities away from flood zones.

But the debate was dominated by the intense sparring between the two wannabe-Prime Ministers. 

At one point in the debate, as Hipkins questioned how National would funding increasing nurse pay, Luxon said: "This negativity from Chris isn't good for him."

"I feel like I should give him a hug or something. It's not working for him," the National leader said to laughter. 

While Hipkins initially gave a big grin at Luxon's suggestion of a little leader-to-leader affection, he then hit back at the National leader saying, "you don't like to be challenged".

"If you actually answered any of the questions, I wouldn't need to challenge you quite so much," Hipkins said, with the audience in applause.

The incumbent Prime Minister, whose party is trailing National in the polls, was later asked by Newshub whether he had gone into the debate with a strategy of taking potshots at Luxon.

"It was an energetic debate. I really enjoyed it," he replied. "Of course, I'm gonna challenge Christopher Luxon on the fact that he is not answering any of the questions that are important to New Zealanders. New Zealanders deserve the answers to those questions."

He was also asked if he should have shown the more energetic, fired-up approach he had taken on Wednesday earlier in the campaign. 

"The campaign might have started slow, but I've decided I am going to enjoy the last two-and-a-half weeks of it, so this is the level of energy you're going to see from me in the next two-and-a-half weeks," he told media.

"It's been a challenging year and our campaign probably a wee while to get up a decent head of steam. I'm really enjoying myself now, I'm fully going to enjoy the next two-and-a-half weeks of the campaign."

Asked if he wasn't holding back anymore, Hipkins quickly replied: "Nope, absolutely not."

He would bring the same energy as on Wednesday night to the rest of what he called a "marathon", Hipkins said.

"Let me be really upfront with you, I am going to fight to win," said the Labour leader, who also rated his performance a nine out of ten. 

Chris Hipkins fronting media after the debate.
Chris Hipkins fronting media after the debate. Photo credit: Newshub.

Also speaking to media after the debate, Luxon said Hipkins "came out pretty aggressive". 

"All I have seen is Chris Hipkins getting incredibly negative, very attacky, wanting to talk about National and us all the time, rather than actually running on his record or coming forward with his ideas on how to take the country forward."

Luxon gave himself a seven out of ten in the debate, a point below what he gave himself after last week's leaders' content. 

Asked by Newshub if he was admitting he did worse this week, Luxon said: "Yeah, but I was happy with my performance."

"I was able to make the case around ideas on education and health. I think that's important. Those were good conversations to have."

He admitted to reporters that he had a "real clanger" when he got mixed up on the illegality of MDMA. 

Asked during the debate whether he believed people who took MDMA at festivals were criminals, Luxon said he didn't think they were. 

"Look, I think we've got the right approach to it at the moment - which is a health approach to it and I think it's entirely appropriate," he said.

However, he soon caught himself and clarified MDMA is illegal.

He told reporters afterwards: "I think that was nerves at the beginning and I was overthinking the answer."

Christopher Luxon fronting media after the debate.
Christopher Luxon fronting media after the debate. Photo credit: Newshub.

While not in attendance at the event, New Zealand First's Winston Peters was a major topic of discussion, with the leader even tweeting at one point during the debate that all Hipkins and Luxon "seem to be doing is talking about and attacking Winston Peters".

The increased focus on Peters has come about from Luxon stating on Monday that he would be willing to work with NZ First in Government if he absolutely needed to. 

The Newshub-Reid Research poll released hours later revealed that he would likely be in that position, with National and ACT not able to cross the 61-seat threshold with NZ First. The poll also revealed a majority of Kiwis believe that three-party Government would be chaotic.

Hipkins has already ruled out working with Peters, leading the Labour leader to repeatedly attack Luxon over the prospect of National and NZ First teaming up in Government.

One of the most memorable moments of the night came after Hipkins said some politicians were playing the "race card" during this election and that Luxon would be willing to work with them, something the National leader said was "unacceptable."

The Labour leader then revealed he had come armed with a quote from a NZ First candidate. 

"I get a bit angry about this, because this is a direct quote," Hipkins said before quoting the individual talking about Māori

"We are the party with the cultural mandate and the courage to cut out your disease and bury you permanently," Hipkins said the candidate said last week.

Hipkins then turned to Luxon and said: "Christopher, you are willing to work with these people. Why?"

The National leader said he didn't want to work with NZ First, but would to stop Labour, the Greens and Te Pāti Māori from holding power after October 14. He said that statement was racist.

Luxon pointed out that Hipkins had worked with Peters. NZ First was in a coalition Government with Labour between 2017 and 2020, with Peters at one point acting as Prime Minister with Hipkins as a senior minister.

"And I would never do it again," Hipkins replied. 

Hipkins would later say Peter was bad for the country, while Luxon said it was a decision for the voters.

"I don't know him and I don't want to deal with him if I have to," Luxon said.

When Gower pointed out that everyone knows Peters, the politician who has had a major influence over previous governments, including positions like deputy Prime Minister, Luxon said there was "good in everybody."

Hipkins said a National-ACT-NZ First Government would be a "three-ring circus".

Luxon hit back: "You have got a five-ring circus to manage on your side if you get Te Pāti Māori with two co-leaders, the Greens with two co-leaders, and yourself who can't even manage your own Cabinet or your own caucus."

NZ First leader Winston Peters.
NZ First leader Winston Peters. Photo credit: Newshub.

There were barbs being thrown from the two leaders early on in the debate.

On the topic of crime, Hipkins spoke of the Government's circuit breaker scheme, the successful programme intended to fast-track support to youth offenders to try and stop recidivism. 

Luxon responded by saying that despite the Government's interventions, crime has got worse and National would enforce "serious consequences" on criminals.

But what does that mean, Hipkins threw back. It was the first time of several where Hipkins questioned whether all National had was slogans.

Luxon said National planned to introduce military academics for serious young offenders, but Hipkins jabbed that these have had previously had a poor track record in stopping re-offending. Luxon said National would take a different approach to what has been done in the past. 

Amid further interjections from Hipkins about National's approach to youth crime, Luxon said: "It's not going to make great TV if we are talking over top of each other. Calm down."

Tax, which has been a big focus of this year's election campaign, was also hotly debated.

Hipkins said Kiwis would benefit from his party's policy of removing GST from fruit and vegetables and defended it against criticism that the full savings wouldn't be passed on to consumers.

Luxon jumped in to say that Hipkins was expecting someone to be going around with a clipboard checking on the prices, a reference to Hipkins previously saying the Government's new Grocery Commissioner would make sure the savings were passed on.

On his own tax policy, Luxon wouldn't commit to resigning if the party's proposed foreign buyers tax doesn't bring in the amount of revenue National expects it to. Instead, he repeatedly said he was committed to delivering tax relief.

"That's not answering the question again. He never answers the question, does he," Hipkins said.