Everyone cares a little bit about politics. Even if you do not want any particular candidate, you know the ones that you really do not want. So on Wednesday, February 28, at the first important political debate of the year—for there were only four people at the Otago one that no one really cared about—battle lines were drawn, and candidates from every party that polled above one percentage point were invited. NZFirst and Te Pāti Māori declined, but everyone else was out in front of a full Fisher and Paykel Lecture Theatre. And this is how they performed
Raf Manji, TOP
Replacing the previous long term leader (as long term as a leader of three years can be) who was unable to spell his own electorate and resigned at the very first annual conference, Raf Manji took to his first debate as TOP leader. Sporting a half-sleeve t-shirt under a navy blazer, he epitomised the look of an investment banker turned political science student. Employing more buzzwords than the two professions combined, all that Manji seemed to impress on the audience was that he had ideas, and they were different and new ideas, but apart from a land tax to give people a tax-free income threshold, he was light on details.
He gets good marks for comparing everything in the country to Christchurch because that, place, is an excellent microcosm for New Zealand society at large. Unlike the MPs present at the debate, Manji seemed disinclined to heckle the other candidates, which is a definite loss for his entertainment factor. Something that may come with more experience, one might assume. Popular with students, millennials on twitter, the few cat-haters leftover from Gareth Morgan’s days, and people who just want to call themselves tops.
TOP will have to more than double its greatest-ever vote count to make it into parliament. Raf Manji will have to pick up the pace in speaking, fill in the policy holes, and educate himself on a few more case studies before that happens.
Chloe Swarbrick, Green
The only candidate who did not need to once refer to her own party leaders, Chloë Swarbrick has become a brand of herself since running for Auckland Mayoralty in 2016. The most prone to heckling out of the panel, she may be awarded quip of the night for “Please, shush Simon,” directed at the ACT candidate. Undoubtedly the most popular in the room, while also operating with the home advantage as a former UoA student, Swarbrick shone as the standout in the field of reasonably mediocre public speakers as the individual skilled at reading the room and playing to it.
Though her explanation of Green climate policies fell short at many specifics, instead relying on the many buzzwords that seem to surround politics, her energy carried her words further. Let that not fool you, before the debate, she was engaging in light conversation with Chris Bishop, laughing and joking, before the cameras rolled and the heads did too. She was strong on condoning privilege, and what she saw as unwillingness in certain parties to go further in actions, which brings us nicely to the party that has made that their entire policy.
Chris Bishop, National
National. For being the second oldest party at that debate, Chris Bishop seemed unable to provide any substantive points beyond ‘Labour has failed’ and ‘We’re not Labour.” Which is a political strategy, to play off discontent with the majority, while pointing out the flaws to heighten that, yet it was his failure to suggest any concrete solutions that let him down. Especially when he turned to siding with Michael Wood on housing, which only gave other parties more leverage to compare them to each other. If you are going to walk into a debate and say the economy is, “the reason we are here,” and you have known it for months and months, you need practical solutions.
And unfortunately, the only practical policy Bishop could inform the audience of, was scrapped by his own government eight years ago. His supporters were out in force, the Young Nats on campus were all dressed up in blue, clapped harder than anyone else, and were more than willing to heckle other candidates. They all grouped together, which made for a rather sorry sight when they were bunched into a back corner.
Michael Wood, Labour
Recreating a portfolio that was disestablished fifteen years ago, the Minister for Auckland, Michael Wood graced the debate with his presence. Few university students will know much about the former UoA student, whose important experience for the role of minister have included Christmas Tree salesman and rat trapper. His role was mostly spin, to propel the audience to focus on the big and shiny achievements of the Labour government, and sweep their less successful endeavours away. Not much was provided to explain why another term would be particularly different, other than the fact that they are, “reprioritising.”
His debating skills were lackluster, perhaps he sought to take the moral high ground as the incumbent, making only brief remarks near the end of the debate while Bishop spoke. This is a debate for students, they want to see the whites of their rival party’s eyes, to see the blood pour out as you swing and swing and swing on every issue you can conceive. Attendance would undoubtedly increase if gladiatorial matches replaced the debates. Wood needs to embrace his power, and use it, if he is to have any chance in this election season.
Simon Court, ACT
A little-known name in the ACT party, that is, one of those other people who are not David Seymour, Simon Court has been a prolific white man, with accolades such as being deported from Fiji for extortion and breaking agreed contracts, and also attending Auckland Grammar School. The only candidate that required notes to refer to in his hand when he stood up, waving around a promotional booklet, which he continued to refer back to, lest he breaks the party line. ACT is bringing some heavy hitters to this election; with policies such as privatising water and even healthcare, you must applaud the party’s reliance on the messaging that they are more right-wing than National, and therefore you should vote for them.
The key philosophical takeaway is that we need to return to the idealistic New Zealand of the past. Unclear when we want to return to, and whether Court realises how strictly controlled the economy was pre-1980, and whether or not he considers the heightened racism, homophobia, sexism, and all other attitudes of the time preferable too. Other policies included lowering GST and tax rates, removing some taxes, general defunding of the government and the like. Certainly, to be popular with people who already have wealth, ACT will have to work harder to convince the University crowd.
Helen Houghton, New Conservative
Saving the best for last. And by best, I mean the party providing the most entertainment value at the expense of their own image. Helen Houghton stars in this adaptation of those films where someone falls into a position that they think gives them power, but instead fumbles their way through a series of answers with gumption. My personal favourite lines go to, “If the taxes are too high, you pay too much tax. If the taxes are too low, we don’t have enough tax,” as well as “Our children can’t read and write because they’re being taught…” The former primary school teacher really brought out the NCEA level 1 Economics and Education theory for those ones.
What Houghton actually brought to the debate, and continued to linger over her for the evening, was a regressive attitude to sexual education and transgender rights. Having submitted a petition in 2020 to stop sexual education teaching in schools, it has become a core part of the New Conservative’s policy, calling it the, “transgender social contagion.” The most outrageous part to them? Listed first on their website, it is that boys are allowed to compete in girls’ sports.
As the furries seated a few rows back from the front were proud to point out, there was little consistency of logic in her claims, and even less thought for other sexualities’ health when Houghton started talking about protecting mental health. Unable to recognise that her policies did not mesh with her audience, one should not expect the New Conservatives to change anything about it.
Although no one could really claim to have won that debate, all attendees would easily be able to claim that the New Conservatives definitely lost. After all, this is only the start of the political year, and with an election not until October, there is plenty more to come.