The "Great TV Debate" Debate

Why Helen Clark and John Key are right—TV networks collude—and MMP purists are wrong

Helen Clark and John Key are right—a series of eight-way television debates during Campaign 08 would be a waste of their time, and a tax on the patience of viewers and voters.

What voters need is undistracted head-to-head televised debates between the two politicians—one of whom will lead the formation of New Zealand’s next government. And those debates need to occur at the beginning and end of the campaign.

What voters do not need is the distraction of six third-party leaders worming their way around the key questions the viewers want them to answer: who will you align with and what is your bottom-line price?

This is a crunch campaign between the major political parties and their leaders.

Both know that there is a mood for change among the voters—and Key is being positioned as the “champion of change”. Both know that the volatile state of the world’s financial markets means that voters could switch to high-security mode—“trust me, you know me” is Helen Clark’s pitch.

In this environment, a sudden, mid-campaign voter landslide in either direction is a strong possibility.

Both major parties have significant new policies ready to launch in the campaign—Key on tax and Clark on social development (probably student fees or upgraded childcare).

Voters need the opportunity to see Clark and Key test each other and define clearly their differing visions of New Zealand’s way forward. We need this without the clutter of third-party leaders coat-tailing their way back from the brink of electoral oblivion.

Let the MMP purists howl. Let them suggest that Clark and Key have been colluding to exclude the minor parties. Let them claim that the major television networks are colluding to uphold the principles of MMP democracy. They are talking rubbish.

Thanks to Tim Watkin’s probing on Pundit, it is now clear that there has been collusion—collusion between the major TV networks to force Clark and Key into the constraints of their proposals for eight-way leaders’ debates.

Neither of the major networks is strongly inspired by the shared commitment to MMP democracy claimed jointly by their respective news chiefs. Neither wants to concede competitive advantage to the other, and neither wants to take a decision that could put schedule stability, ratings and revenue at risk.

The major networks’ collusion has been driven by risk-minimisation more than anything else, and inviting the eight Parliamentary party leaders into their debates achieves two practical ends.

First, it condenses the number of debates and reduces disruption to their normal programme schedules.

Second, it reduces the risk of repeat of the successful High Court challenge that Peter Dunne and Jim Anderton mounted against a decision to exclude them from the line-up of minor party leaders participating in TV3’s campaign debate in 2005.

State-owned and largely commercially-funded TVNZ has retreated from its original eight-way debate proposal, and will run a Clark versus Key contest and a separate debate for third party leaders.

Privately-owned and almost completely commercially-funded TV3 has taken a totally commercial decision: no separate, low-rating third parties debate

Logical analysis of the major party leaders’ decision to insist on head-to-head debates shows it reflects commonsense more than collusion.

There are four television networks making calls on their time for debates. TVNZ, TV3, Prime and Sky have all been in there pitching the same kind of propositions. One of my sources tells me that meeting all their demands for leaders’ debates would have taken seven to nine days out of the tight campaign schedules that both Clark and Key are running. Both camps had come to the same conclusion before their discussion started.

Major party leaders simply do not have that kind of time to spare in a crunch campaign. They know a multitude of leaders’ debate will dull their impact, and impair their ability to undertake other forms of campaigning. They are forced to prioritise the demands on their time—and they have opted for the best outcome from the voters’ perspective as well as their own.

Third party leaders are not being excluded from television debates by the leaders’ decision. TV3 alone has taken a decision to exclude a third party leaders’ debate from its campaign coverage.

Third parties will have plenty of opportunities to put their case to voters on television—in TVNZ’s minor parties’ debate (and at least one other channels is planning one); through their taxpayer-funded television advertising; and in the “fair” and “balanced” TV news and current affairs coverage of the campaign that will be demanded by a more vigilant Broadcasting Standards Authority.

If the MMP purists were strict in applying their doctrine of democracy to the Great "TV Debate" Debate, the absurdity of their demand for eight-party television debates would quickly become apparent.

By my count, there are 21 political parties contesting this election. So why draw the line at eight?

Clark versus Key, head-to-head, in live free-form debate gets my vote any day.