Election 2023: Chris Hipkins fires new 'lippy and snippy' attack lines at Christopher Luxon in last leaders' debate

Farah Hancock for RNZ

Trailing in the polls with only hours left to campaign, Labour leader Chris Hipkins still had plenty of fight in him during Thursday night's final debate with National's Christopher Luxon.

Hipkins had multiple new lines of attack and he made sure they were heard in an aggressive performance.

He labelled National's plan for income tax cuts a "tax swindle" and reminded viewers of Luxon's past "bottom feeders" and "wet whiny and miserable" comments.

Luxon accused Hipkins of running a "very negative, very personal, very attacking campaign" and commentator and former National MP Paula Bennett said we saw "lippy and snippy" but not much "Chippy" from Hipkins during the evening.

RNZ's analysis of the debate, however, suggests the two leaders used roughly the same proportion of negative words.

Who talked the most?

For the third debate in a row, Luxon spoke the most words of the evening, with 38 percent. This was down on his first debate on TVNZ where he spoke 43 percent of the words and slightly up on the Newshub debate, where he spoke 36 percent.

Hipkins spoke 30 percent of the words, as did debate moderator Jessica Mutch McKay.

There was plenty of interruption and not a lot of long answers. But of the 10 longest, Hipkins had six of them, up from three in the first debate, and similar to his seven in the second debate.

Luxon gave the single longest answer, responding to a question about water and sewerage infrastructure with 163 words.

What was said

Once again, Luxon said "actually" incredibly frequently. Like the first and second debate, it was by far his most used word, said 52 times. At one point, he even said it three times in a single sentence: "We're going to make sure that we actually get a deal in India that actually starts trade and actually gets moving of capital and people and innovation."

But it was, actually, used fewer times than in the last two debates - 69 times in the first debate and 76 in the second.

It seemed to catch on as "actually" was Hipkins' fifth most-mentioned word. He said it only 13 times, behind "New Zealanders" and "think", among others. In previous debates his top words were "think" and "people".

Luxon said "Chris" 21 times, while Hipkins referred to the National leader 16 times, using "Chris' and "Christopher" eight times each.

Common words such as 'a', 'the' etc removed from analysis.
Common words such as 'a', 'the' etc removed from analysis. Photo credit: RNZ

A feature of the debate was Hipkins repeating a series of attack lines against Luxon.

In a section on welfare, he said Luxon has described beneficiaries as "bottom-feeders". He repeated the phrase three times. Another past Luxon utterance - that New Zealand is "wet, whiny and miserable" - was raised by Hipkins four times.

Hipkins also got out "tax swindle" twice.

Luxon, in response, told Hipkins to "calm down" six times. He also twice chided Hipkins for being "disrespectful".

"I think you're being really disrespectful. We're trying to have a conversation here," Luxon said.

And while Hipkins was eager to mention Winston Peters three times, Luxon didn't let the NZ First leader's name pass his lips a single time.

The catchphrases used heavily in the months leading up to the campaign have largely been retired. "Coalition of chaos," used by both leaders, was absent again last night. "Wasteful spending," a past favourite of Luxon's, was only used once. Hipkins' "bread and butter," did not make a showing.

RNZ also counted how many times each leader used certain words which relate to key topics. The most mentioned keyword was "economy" which was mentioned 18 times, followed by "tax" which was said 16 times.

How many times words were used.
How many times words were used. Photo credit: RNZ

Dodging the hard questions

A common tactic to avoid answering a question is to use what's referred to as a 'block and bridge'. The politician acknowledges the question using a 'block' and then uses a 'bridge' phrase to move the topic to something they are more comfortable with.

Luxon continued to use variations of "what I say" heavily, using it 12 times. This was the same number of times he used it during the longer format Newshub debate with Paddy Gower and up from eight times in the first TVNZ debate.

Blocking and bridging terms.
Blocking and bridging terms. Photo credit: RNZ

What was the vibe?

According to a language sentiment data dictionary, which rates words as either positive, neutral or negative, Luxon used the highest percentage of positive words and the highest percentage of negative words.

In previous debates Luxon has also used a bigger percentage of positive words, however this was the first debate where he used a bigger percentage of negative words than Hipkins.

Positive and negative words.
Positive and negative words. Photo credit: RNZ

How we analysed the data: The debate was transcribed by Otter.ai and then manually cleaned to improve accuracy. Cross talk - where debate participants spoke over each other was removed where words were unintelligible. Interjections when intelligible were included. Text was analysed using R and the Quanteda package.