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Expert's guide on what to look for in first TVNZ leaders' debate

Ahead of TVNZ’s political leaders’ debate tomorrow evening, a debating expert says while he’s hoping to see arguments based on logic, a reasoned debate won’t necessarily make for good political TV debating.

Jacinda Ardern and Judith Collins. Source: 1 NEWS

Zachary Wong, the chairperson of the World University Debating Council and the president of the New Zealand University Debating Council, said there was simultaneously nothing and a lot alike when it came to comparing traditional debating and debating on TV.

“The starting point in debating is that everything that we do is about making a logical argument,” Wong, also a debating coach and a competitive debating judge, said.

“Often, you’ll see people making assertions … as a debating coach, I help people explain why something happens.

“Far too often in high school debating and also the debating we see on TV, we see lots of assertions about things that they think they’re going to do, rather than explaining how things are actually going to happen.”

But, emotion can play a bigger role in swaying voters, he said.

“Politicians on TV are trying to entertain the audience at home, while a judge of a debate is not there to be entertained, but persuaded,” Wong said.

“What’s going to win the politicians the most votes? Maybe not following my advice.

“But, if politicians really want to have a meaningful discussion, I think they should be using logic and reason, as well as be engaging.”

Wong said taking on a similar mindset could help voters when they watched debates.

“Engage with what you’re watching, rather than just be a passive viewer who just absorbs it like a sponge,” he said.

“I think the easiest thing to do as someone at home is to ask yourself a question about what they say.

“So if they say house prices are too high, ask yourself: ‘Have they explained to me how they’re going to make house prices cheaper?’

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“Or, ask yourself: ‘Why is something important, and why does it matter to me?’”

Part of the equation also involves calling out statements that politicians make that aren’t accurate, Wong said.

University of Auckland politics lecturer Dr Lara Greaves said “‘gotcha’ moments” and “zingers” had a role to play in televised debates, even though they weren’t necessarily the best thing for democracy.

Greaves said this was especially the case in the age of social media sharing and memes.

“There are a couple of things that go into good governance. One is having really good policies and having them really well-costed,” she said.

“The other thing that goes into government is the people being competent … being quick on the spot and being able to have good energy and bring that performance.”

She said debates were a good chance for politicians to show that energy and competence, especially because people who didn’t usually follow politics tended to tune in to televised debates.

But, in debates, it’s hard to both condense policy into something easily understandable while making it specific enough so it was clear how it would work, she said.

Greaves had some tips for the voters watching tomorrow’s debates.

“It’s really easy to go with your gut and go with who you think won.

“But, the real core thing that people need to do is sit and think about their attitudes, ideology, and view on the world and then look at what the parties are offering in terms of policy.”

She also urged people to check out minor parties’ policies too.

TVNZ’s first televised leaders’ debate will be held Tuesday at 7pm to 8.30pm on TVNZ 1 between Labour leader Jacinda Ardern and National leader Judith Collins.