• Joseph Kirby

Political Debates: Defamation and Disillusion


Photograph by Paweł Czerwiński


Watching a political debate during a time of global polarisation can be aggravating and disrupting. Often appearing as theatrics and pantomime, the undercurrent of debates explains a lot about the political systems that have developed within our western societies. The true value of debates appears when we see beyond the act.


Witnessing the debate unfold on September 30th showed a clear chance for the defamation of strong incumbent leadership. The words and conduct of the leader attempting to remain in power gave the impression that they were there, not as an individual fighting their corner, but as a civilised politician ready to enter into a dialogue with voters and those holding opposing views.


Labour leader Jacinda Ardern’s debate with Judith Collins from the New Zealand National Party must have been a wake-up call for most viewers who had just switched over from the US presidential debate. Respect, considered answers and a willingness to wait for a response from the opposition gave the impression that, somehow, the world had turned upside down.

Let me be clear, there was still an air of rivalry and contention in the debate preceding the choice of who would be New Zealand’s next prime minister. The distinction between the two debates in the US and New Zealand becomes apparent with the analysis and importance of the substance of exchanged views.


If done correctly, debates can create an arena for the development and understanding of the different perspectives and opinions, for the creation and ongoing endeavour of cooperation through compromise.


The focus of both New Zealand candidates was on the depth and knowledge of each matter and their plans as well as their policies for current and upcoming issues. The US presidential debate left much to be desired in terms of the future of the United States of America, its people, and the world. Both candidates placed the importance of their achievements and their opponent’s blunders at a higher significance than the prospects for their potential forthcoming term in office.


The media is also complicit in the funnelling of identity and characters to the general public, often neglecting substance in favour of the latest political show.


The preference of theatrics over substance can lead us to examine the whole political structure around us, sometimes to question why we are so caught up in the character running for office instead of their plans and policies.


The current election in the U.S. has clearly divided the American people in their support for a certain candidate or party. But is this support truly based on policy preferences and substantial overlapping of interests, or has it prioritised the persona that is portrayed? The deepening divide among the people on both political and cultural levels has only become more apparent this year with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and its devastating effects on the population.


The pandemic has exposed the differences between functional and defective western democracies. It has shown the dark side of partisanship with the accusation and vilification of the opposition and their actions.


COVID-19 has proved to be a defining factor in the New Zealand elections. The incumbent prime minister and her government have led the action against the pandemic with defining efficiency. Their decisive action to put the health of their citizens first was of major relevance in the Labour Party’s majority win in the national elections (49% of the popular vote in a proportional system).


Meanwhile, the U.S. has fractured into a face-off where the main focus is on picking apart the opponent and feeding the elements to the media. The finger-pointing and slander distract from the real issues that are going on in the day-to-day lives of the citizens.


Ultimately it is down to us, the everyday citizens and consumers of the daily reel of developments in the drama that guides our lives. We must realise that the true power is held by us. What we choose to consume and pay attention to is of utmost importance.


Seeing past the act is the first part. Changing our habits and values to disregard the events and information that seek to provoke and divide instead of inform and bind has to be the objective.


New Zealand is proof that political democracy can uphold decency, respect, ethics, and responsibility at a time when others that dominate our media are failing fundamentally.


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