Accusations fly over rescheduling debate

Chris Hipkins and Christopher Luxon square off in the first leaders debate of the campaign. Photo...
Chris Hipkins and Christopher Luxon square off in the first leaders debate of the campaign. Photo: TVNZ/Andrew Dalton
The organisers of a high-profile leaders' election debate say they worked to the last minute to find another date and it's "extremely disappointing" it has proved to be in vain.

The Press debate between National leader Christopher Luxon and Labour leader Chris Hipkins was due to be held in Christchurch tomorrow night, however, the latter has had to pull out because he has Covid-19.

Stuff managing director of masthead publishing Joanna Norris said National had confirmed it could not make Luxon available for a rescheduled event once Hipkins is out of isolation.

Now, accusations are being fired between both major parties, with Labour accusing Luxon of "chickening out" of the chance to take part in the debate at a new time.

Labour has posted an an attack ad on social media with Luxon dressed in a chicken suit, saying Luxon had committed to the debate "so he should show up".

Campaign chairperson Megan Woods said Luxon needed to front up to Cantabrians to say why he would not agree to a a new date.

"Despite Labour working constructively with the organisers and offering flexible dates next week when he is out of isolation, or an alternative to sub in on the original date if other dates don't work National looks like they are still declining Luxon to take part."

She claimed National's support was falling and the party was now trying to minimise Luxon's appearances in case he was faced with questions that were too difficult for him to answer.

National's campaign manager Chris Bishop hit back, saying at a media briefing it was ridiculous to blame National for the event not going ahead as the Labour representative had been forced to withdraw.

Asked by a reporter if Luxon was being a chicken, Bishop said: "That is utterly infantile and stupid. We can't pull out of a debate that's not happening. Chris Hipkins has Covid.

"Christopher Luxon is happy to debate Chris Hipkins and in fact he's done it twice and next week there's another debate on Thursday."

He said National had publicly offered deputy leader Nicola Willis to debate Kelvin Davis, Labour's deputy leader.

However, Woods responded that suggestion was another effort to keep Luxon out of the spotlight.

Bishop also said in a statement that Luxon had "a packed multi-region campaign tour planned for the final week of the campaign, which has been months in the making".

"We are looking forward to the final TVNZ leaders' debate on the 12th of October."

Meanwhile, Norris said executives had been working until earlier this afternoon to secure alternative dates for The Press event to no avail.

"This is obviously extremely disappointing to the thousands of people who were looking forward to seeing both leaders in person in the only South Island debate which is also live streamed to New Zealand's largest digital news audience on Stuff.

"For the past five elections The Press debate has been a critical moment in the election calendar with both major party leaders going head to head in front of a large, spirited audience."

Norris said Stuff was still trying to put together an alternative debate that would be held in Christchurch.