Election 2023 debate moments: Christopher Luxon misspeaks, Chris Hipkins makes unexpected announcement, calls KiwiBuild 'unrealistic promise'

National leader Christopher Luxon has admitted misspeaking on at least two occasions during the first televised leaders' debate of the 2023 election season, while Labour's Chris Hipkins has owned up to making an unexpected policy announcement.

The TVNZ event was for the most part a very mild-mannered affair, with no election-defining zingers or inspiring pieces of rhetoric from either of the men vying to be Prime Minister.

Similarities between Luxon and Hipkins were revealed, such as both leaders purchasing their first homes in the early twenties and their support for bilingual road signs. Later there was another similarity - they both gave their performance an 8 out of 10.

But there were also a few clashes, particularly in the areas of tax and crime. An issues monitor released this week showed the cost of living and law and order are the most important topics for Kiwis.

Afterwards, Luxon had to clarify two comments he had made.

During the debate, the National leader spoke of his party's view that co-governance should be bound to the management of local, natural resources and shouldn't extend to national public services, like in the health sector.

"What we don't need is two systems creating two separate bureaucracies, like the Māori Health Authority for example. I want to be able to deliver those services through Māori health organisations… they do it locally, they are in touch with their local communities."

He said a "by Māori, for Māori" approach is a "great solution" and "we invented it in the National Party."

Asked by Newshub at a media standup following the debate whether National really invented that approach, Luxon put his comment in the context of his party's previous work in Government with the Māori Party. 

"What I meant to say was that we are big supporters of it. Whānau Ora is something we are very proud of and we'll continue to do that," he said. 

Whānau Ora takes a Māori approach to wellbeing, with whānau placed at the centre. It was created in 2010 when National and the Māori Party were working together.

During this segment of the debate, Hipkins also took aim at Luxon, arguing the Māori Health Authority was an example of Māori delivering for Māori. He also said people shouldn't be scared by the concept of co-governance, which he said meant shared decision-making.

Luxon also later had to clarify another remark he made during the debate.

Asked in a quick-fire session whether he supported free lunches for all students in state schools, Luxon initially said, "Yeah I think we should" before then suggesting National would target it.

At the media standup, Luxon said he misheard the question.

"What I meant to say was that we will continue with the current policy as it currently stands and look to make it more effective. The position is the same as the Government's."

The current Ka Ora, Ka Ako delivers lunches to the top 25 percent of students in schools and kura facing the greatest socio-economic barriers. The Ministry of Education says 230,000 students receive the lunches at 998 schools and kura.

National's Christopher Luxon.
National's Christopher Luxon. Photo credit: Newshub.

Hipkins also made an unexpected policy announcement during the debate.

On the topic of sugar, Hipkins said he believed fizzy drinks should be banned in secondary schools. The Government has already moved towards only allowing healthy drinks to be offered in primary schools. 

"We will do that if re-elected," he said, before also noting sugar isn't the only thing that causes tooth decay and promoting Labour's free dental for under-30s promise. 

Questioned by media on whether that was a Labour policy he was meant to announce on the campaign trail, Hipkins said: "Well I think I basically just did."

"We know kids' dental health is significantly improved if we cut down on the sugary drinks that they consume, particularly when they're at school. Now, if parents want to serve them to them at home, that's parents' choice, but they shouldn't be serving them up at school."

But while Hipkins was announcing new Labour policy, he was also taking fire at the old. 

He said he believed "KiwiBuild was an unrealistic promise" and he had focused the Government's efforts on building public houses and wanted to prioritise first home buyers.

KiwiBuild was the Government's flagship housing policy when it first came to power in 2017 - a promise of 100,000 new houses that failed to meet its targets and was eventually significantly altered. 

Asked by Newshub if he had ever believed in KiwiBuild, Hipkins said he had supported it previously but "certainly thought it was going to be an ambitious commitment".

Labour's Chris Hipkins.
Labour's Chris Hipkins. Photo credit: Newshub.

The rest of the debate was full of the two leaders trying to promote their key messages while also taking a jab at their opponent when they could. 

Hipkins, in particular, took several opportunities to throw barbs at Luxon, calling National out on alleged holes in its tax plan, saying Winston Peters and David Seymour would run rings around him in any coalition negotiations and attacking the proposed boot camps idea.

"It is all about marketing and spin," Hipkins said of National. 

"When you break it down, the National Party's tax cuts don't actually add up to much for most New Zealanders. National can't say how they are going to pay for it."

National is proposing to adjust income tax brackets to account for inflation while also offering childcare tax credits and other smaller changes. While an "average household" with children with an income of $120,000 would be better off by up to $250 fortnight, a full-time minimum wage earner would just get $20 every two weeks.

This would be paid for a number of revenue streams, including a new tax on the purchase of properties worth more than $2 million by foreigners. While National argues this would bring in about $740 million per year for years, some economists expect the amount would be much lower.

The National leader defended the policy by saying they've received advice that the plan can work, though it hasn't released any modelling.

Luxon also hit out at Hipkins on tax, saying National's plan was better than Labour's proposal to remove GST from fruit and vegetables, which would give Kiwis about $4 per week if the savings were fully passed on.

"It is better than a couple cents off your beans and carrots. Let's be clear, none of the GST coming off fruit and vegetables is going through to customers or consumers," Luxon said.

"Everybody says it is going to go to the supermarkets. Your own Minister of Finance, Grant Robertson, said he doesn't believe in it and your own tax expert group didn't believe in it."

Hipkins said the new Grocery Commissioner would make sure the supermarkets pass on the savings.

Luxon stuck to his lines throughout the debate, especially when speaking about National's policy of offering tax relief and cracking down on crime. He also repeatedly threw back at Hipkins the line that the Labour Government had had six years to deliver what it was now promising.

Yet, despite some argy-bargy, sessions of quick-fire questions revealed many similarities between the two political leaders - afterwards they even both gave themselves 8 out of 10 for their performances. 

Neither believed New Zealand should become a republic right now, the Government should introduce a vacant housing tax or force sporting bodies to take a particular position on transgender peoples' participation. They did support bilingual road signs and keeping New Zealand's ban on nuclear-powered ships in our waters.

There was some disagreement, such as Hipkins saying the health system wasn't broken while Luxon said it was, and Luxon wanting cellphones banned in all schools, while Hipkins said it's up to schools to decide.

Both leaders said they were in their early 20s when they purchased their first homes. They were asked after the debate whether they could be seen as out-of-touch given today's housing situation. 

"I know its challenging, it's very challenging," Luxon said.

He said he and wife Amanda saved everything to buy their first home.

"Amanda was in her first job teaching, I was in my first job out of university in Petone and we did everything to buy that house and then the interest rates went up, and then we were really challenged and stressed about it. So I know what that feels like."

He said it was the Government's job to increase the private housing, rental and state homes supply.

Hipkins said he accepted it's "getting harder and harder for first time buyers". 

"That's why I'm very focused on making sure that we're supporting first home buyers. That's why I'm prioritising them over overseas investors when it comes to buying New Zealand houses."

Luxon said he "really enjoyed" the debate, though it went "very fast".

"I hope that actually for New Zealanders watching it was a good chance for them to get a sense of what both parties have on offer."

Both Luxon and Hipkins said it was for others to decide who came out on top. 

Hipkins said it was a "good opportunity to debate a range of issues". 

"You always learn something as you're doing these sorts of debates. I learned that no matter how many times you ask him a question, Christopher Luxon will continue to refuse to answer it.

"I have a lot more sympathy for you guys now than I did before," Hipkins told reporters.