The first Auckland Central debate took place last night, despite the lack of a National candidate. Josie Adams went along to watch Helen White, Chlöe Swarbrick and the rest.
The Auckland Central electorate stretches from the depths of Grafton across the Hauraki Gulf to Aotea (Great Barrier). Its residents are Waiheke’s hippies and vintners, the yuppies and the homeless of the CBD, students in seven-person flats in Newton, and small dogs in Ponsonby.
It’s a diverse electorate, and its candidates should match: they range from a 26-year-old small business owner and politician through to a 68-year-old small business owner and politician. The Greens’ Chlöe Swarbrick represents the rainbow community, youth, and evidence-based policy. Labour’s Helen White, an employment lawyer, has a focus on housing and schooling. New Zealand First’s Jenny Marcroft wants you to party vote NZ First.
But newest to the table is Tuariki Delamere, back in action. He first entered parliament in 1996, and immediately joined cabinet as minister for immigration. Now, 20 years after his brief stint in government ended, he’s running in Auckland Central as a candidate for the Opportunities Party.
All four were present at last night’s Auckland Central debate, hosted by the editor of the Ponsonby News, Martin Leach. Vernon Tava of the Sustainable NZ was there, too. And with the National Party having a miserable time getting around to replacing Nikki Kaye (a new candidate will be selected tonight), East Coast Bays MP Erica Stanford filled in. There was no sign of the Act candidate, Kartini Clarke.
With a packed audience sat very far down in the tiny children’s chairs of Freemans Bay Primary School, the candidates gave on-brand opening statements: Labour loves schools, National loves business, Sustainability NZ loves sustainability.
TOP’s representative opened reluctantly. “I’ll be walking the talk,” Delamere said of his return to politics. “At least until the 19th.” When the bell rang to signal his turn to speak was over, he nodded. “I’ll give up.”
Delamere had reached out to give TOP some pointers a few weeks ago, and it asked him to stand in the void left by ex-candidate Joshua Love. Love, who messily split with the party last month and is now standing as an independent, was watching from the audience.
Delamere played it safe over the night with anecdotes from his earlier years: in 1998 he announced the same rights would be afforded to gay and lesbian couples applying for permanent residency as were given to straight couples. In the 1970s he set the world record for long jump somersault, a technique that was quickly banned.
TOP supports raising the refugee quota, and Delamere would specifically like Auckland Central to advocate for taking in climate refugees from nations like Kiribati and Tokelau, which are losing ground each year. “I’d like to see that the refugees we look at first are climate change refugees, those who are sinking under the ocean,” he said. “They’re ours. They’re our brothers and sisters.”
There was next to no antagonism among the participants. White responded to a remark made by Stanford about beneficiaries living in cars by explaining that many people living in cars do, in fact, have jobs; that poverty is still a reality for people on a minimum wage, or part-time hours. “We do need benefits to rise, and we do need to stop punishing people,” she said. This was as firey as it got – at least between the debaters.
The same couldn’t be said for the candidates in the crowd. A question from the audience was not what it seemed. “I’m Jasmine Ward, Advance New Zealand candidate,” said our surprise guest, attracting gasps and even one “whoop!” from the crowd. “I have a question for Helen.”
She wanted to know if White had ever refused a meeting with a constituent. The clear impression was that White was being teed up for a gotcha. Disappointed groans and whispers ran through the crowd and came out of Leach’s mouth: “She’s not an MP,” he said. “She doesn’t have constituents.”
It wasn’t over. A yell came, and an accusatory finger. “He’s recording for Jami-Lee Ross!” A man with a handheld video camera, apparently an associate of Ward’s, was revealed. What secrets the cameraman took away from this public meeting may never be known.
The room had just settled down when another candidate in the crowd took the mic. “I’m from the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party,” he said. “I’ve got a question for Chlöe.”
It became clear that Swarbrick, a legalisation advocate, was expected to explain the contents and the effects of the 1975 Misuse of Drugs Act and the 2013 Psychoactive Substances Act. “You’re telling me I have 45 seconds to do this,” she said. She took a breath, stood at full height, and began.
She rattled out the details. The bell rang and, milliseconds later, before Swarbrick had reached the end of her sentence, Marcroft rushed out a blessing: “She can have my time!” Our rapid lesson in the devastation caused by synthetics concluded. The ALCP guy returned the microphone. Balance was restored.
Marcroft was there to ask for the party vote. She’s a fan of stable government, creating jobs, and “sensible policy”. She put forth a two-port solution to Auckland’s dire harbour issues that was supported almost unanimously by the debaters: she’d divide up the functions into two separate ports, one in Northport and one in Tauranga.
Tava wasn’t there to make enemies, either. His stance was clear-cut: create a sustainable environment. He’s a fan of doing this via innovation and private enterprise, but insists that saving the planet can go right down the middle. “We can do it by being a centrist party prepared to work with Labour or National,” he said.
Stanford wasn’t there to make friends. The MP represented her party’s policies well, even though they weren’t well-received by all. The two biggest laughs of the night came when she said National had “an enormous pool of talent to draw from”, and “there’s a reason we’re saying we’ve got a strong team”.
Many of the policies Stanford touched on – using Kiwisaver funds to start a business, championing the agricultural industry, charter schools – might have delighted other crowds, but they bombed here. Part of Nikki Kaye’s success in Auckland Central was recognising that despite its wealth, it was also home to many lower income and marginalised people. Socially progressive values and an environmental lean are what this group wanted, and they got those from Swarbrick and White. Of Labour, Swarbrick said: “We are the conscience of that party.”
The Greens’ goal is a Labour-Green government, but for now in Auckland Central the fiercest battle is between the two parties. Whether that battle drowns out the National candidate, or helps them sneak through the middle, remains to be seen.
“You can decide who you vote for tonight,” said Swarbrick.
“You don’t need to decide who you vote for tonight,” said Stanford.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.