Analysis: ACT leader David Seymour and NZ First leader Winston Peters indicated they could work together in government, but then went on to undermine each other in a lively debate in Auckland on Thursday night.
The Newshub Nation Powerbrokers' Debate saw Seymour and Peters go head-to-head in a forum alongside Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer and Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson for 50 minutes.
For atmosphere, the minor parties' debate was a firecracker compared with the damp squib when National's Christopher Luxon and Labour's Chris Hipkins squared off 48 hours earlier.
Race issues, and what might happen in post-election negotiations, provoked the most passionate sections, as Davidson berated Peters for downplaying the rights of tangata whenua and Seymour for "race-baiting", which he denied.
In analysis afterwards, Newshub political editor Jenna Lynch and New Zealand Herald journalist Simon Wilson nominated Davidson as the strongest performer of the night, with Lynch saying she was well-versed on party policy "and she took it to Seymour".
The most interesting thing to emerge from the debate was the reluctant willingness of ACT and NZ First to form a three-party coalition government with National.
Peters said his party would work with anyone to fix the country, however, he took a dig at Seymour over the possibility of ACT being part of a confidence-only deal.
"You can't run a government where every bill and act has to be approved by another party. You'll paralyse the government. This is the lack of experience in this matter," Peters said, also mentioning the many years he had chalked up playing the role of kingmaker.
Moderator Rebecca Wright asked Seymour if he could work with Peters.
"Can anyone?" he responded.
While seeming to agree a short time later he could sit down with Peters, he went on to say: "Ultimately, if a parliament's elected by the people then you make it work, but I just say it's not credible for the guy who's had more chances to fix New Zealand's problems than any.
"He's like an arsonist, showing up dressed as a fireman saying 'I'm here to help and fix it all for you',"
At one point Davidson interjected: "Do people actually think Luxon is going to be able to manage these two, for real?" gesturing to Peters and Seymour.
Ngarewa-Packer said her party would go into any negotiations "with an intergenerational focus", and introducing a wealth tax would be a bottom line if it was involved in any coalition deal.
A wealth tax came up several times during the debate, with Ngarewa-Packer making a case for radical tax reform.
She said: "2.1 million people in Aotearoa are living on less than $30,000 a year", and that could be changed overnight if the tax advantages enjoyed by the nation's 300-plus richest families were removed.
Seymour objected to that.
"The solutions we hear is that somewhere, someone has done too well and if we whack them and take their money, that's going to solve the problem. I'm sorry, but it's not."
Ngarewa-Packer replied: "No, we're just talking about redistributing wealth. We're not talking about taking them out, it's making them pay their way."
Māori issues cause dissent
All four leaders have Māori heritage, but adopted different approaches to any discussion on improving the outcomes for Māori.
Davidson took Seymour to task for ACT's plans to abolish organisations such as the Ministry for Pacific Peoples, Ministry for Women, Ministry for Ethnic Communities and the Human Rights Commission.
He was taking away the agencies that worked to address inequities, she said.
"Really, you are [race] baiting and you always have, David, and you know it because what Tiriti [Treaty of Waitangi] justice is about is an inspirational vision," Davidson said.
Policies must address systemic racism, she said.
Ngarewa-Packer said Māori just wanted dignity.
"We were raised in a system that was not designed for us."
Peters however took a contrary view, saying the average Māori cared more about potholes being fixed rather than Māori names on ministries, such as Waka Kotahi.
Seymour defended the axing of several ministries, in part because it would lower government spending but also because his party had no time for having agencies that existed to advance the needs of specific ethnicities.
The leaders also discussed crime, with Davidson starting her remarks by pointing out gangs were not responsible for all crime, while Peters advanced a plan for white-collar criminals to be let out of prison, made to work six days a week while wearing ankle bracelets so they could have the chance to repay their debt to society.
And the prize for the most bizarre remark of the night went to Peters for this: "You've got to get adults in the room and leave the trousers on."
Little wonder that Wright rounded things off with, "I'm beginning to pity Christopher Luxon."