Auckland

One night out in Remuera

There’s a lot riding on the Epsom election, with four current MPs in the race and everything from glory to humiliation at stake – for the candidates and for their parties too. Simon Wilson went along to a debate.

How many houses were built in Auckland last year? Should a cabinet minister know the answer? After all, they’re the ones deciding how bad the problem of Auckland’s housing shortage is and what kind of resources to devote to overcoming it. Paul Goldsmith, minister of commerce, science and tertiary education, told a candidates’ meeting in Epsom this week he thought it was “about 16,000”.

In fact, said the chair, RNZ producer Tim Watkin, it was 6000. Goldsmith apologised and conceded they had not done enough.

What does it mean for a cabinet minister to get that number so wrong? He’s one of the people who decides what should be done about this crisis. He’s one of the people who insists there is no crisis.

He’s also supposed to be one of the people who says the government has the problem under control. Conceding they had not done enough was more than a little off message.

It was a fun meeting, if not a very large one. About 70 people turned up to the spacious Presbyterian Somervell Church on Remuera Rd, all there to wrap their heads around the uniquely odd circumstances of the vote in Epsom, the wealthiest and best-educated electorate in the country, the true blue seat that does not return a true blue National MP. Although the actual incumbent, David Seymour of Act, would surely argue he is the truest bluest of them all.

All four of the candidates on stage are already MPs, and there’s a lot at stake for all of them. Seymour is hands-down favourite to win the seat again but his desperate hope is that Act gets enough votes to deliver him some colleagues. And yet, strangely, he is not campaigning for the party vote in Epsom. More on that below.

The Seymour line: “Act believes that if you take something that doesn’t belong to you, you should give it back. That’s the principle on which we want to make tax as low as possible.”

Poor Paul Goldsmith. Elections are a humiliating time for him. He’ll hoover up most of the party votes, but because the National Party officially wants him to lose the electorate vote to Act, he has to be careful not to outshine Seymour. So he spent time on stage last night studying his glasses – one of the arms was loose. Short of reading a book or falling asleep he could not have telegraphed his disinterest more clearly. Dutifully represented the party line, more or less, and spoke when spoken to. It’s like he’s sitting this one out.

The Goldsmith line: “This is a very successful country, doing very well.”

Barry Coates can’t afford to sit it out. In the Colmar Brunton TVNZ poll released that evening, the Greens were stuck on 5%: if they slip from that even a fraction the Greens won’t be back in parliament. In fact, at 10 on the Green Party list Coates won’t get back unless they get to 8%.

He knows one reason his party is not doing well is that, after the goings-on over Metiria Turei, the Greens have lost the “blue green” vote. Blue greens are fiscally conservative conservationists and possibly nowhere in the country are there more of them than in Epsom. Not so long ago, when the electorate was called Remuera, the local MP here was National’s Doug Graham – who is the brother of Kennedy Graham, the Green MP who rebelled against the party over Turei and lost his place on the list. They’re all connected.

But Coates is not a blue green himself. Ex-Oxfam, he’s as fired up about poverty and injustice as anyone in his party and several times he sat forward in his seat to make emphatic statements.

The Coates line: “There’s been systematic underfunding at a time of rising population. Transport, housing, schools, hospitals, you name it. And some people want to blame immigrants? Blame the government for watching it happen.”

Labour’s David Parker was pretty feisty too. He’s another who doesn’t expect to win the seat, but his party is rampant. The quest now is not just to win but to win so many party votes they will dominate any minor party they need to work with to form a government. Parker, in his mid-50s, is one of the few former cabinet ministers in the Labour caucus. He’ll be hoping for a key cabinet post and a good party result in Epsom will reinforce his claim to that.

Parker made a point of saying only two of the candidates on stage had proven track records in economics, running large companies and working internationally, and they were himself and Barry Coates, who has an MA in economics.

The Parker line: “More people believe Elvis is alive than are voting ACT in this election.”  

United by gender, which is unusual, but divided by age. Coates and Parker are boomers, trying not to let it get them down. Goldsmith is a Gen Xer, a member of that tragic little overlooked clique. Seymour is a member of the rising generation, an actual millennial, although it would be a stretch to say he brings very much of what Jacinda Ardern brings.

Me! No me! Epsom candidates (from left): Act’s David Seymour, the Greens’ Barry Coates, Labour’s David Parker and National’s Paul Goldsmith. (Photos: Simon Wilson)

Should house prices come down? Seymour, who rents and does not own, made a joke about how that would be good for him. Parker and Goldsmith agreed prices should not fall because that would cause a recession. Both said it would be best if property values remained static while inflation rose steadily, so that over time housing became more affordable.

But that’s going to take 25 years, said Watkin.

We also need to build a lot more affordable homes, said Parker. Barry Coates said that at 65% we have the lowest rate of home ownership since the 1950s, and we’re building only half the number of houses we built in the 1970s.

Parker added, “Labour is pretty close to Act on this,” and David Seymour was like, I don’t know where to look. Parker explained, with no help from Seymour, that the two parties propose variations on an infrastructure bond system, allowing developers to invest and build at scale, and recover their money from buyers over time.

Goldsmith agreed with that too. He added that when developers tried to build more it was Labour that got all nimby about it, refusing to accept reform of the Resource Management Act, trying to stop local developments.

His example was the big Fletchers’ project in Three Kings, which has been through the Environment Court with an outcome that appears to please all sides. It’s true the project was delayed by the process, but it’s also true the process has delivered a good result for all.

Later, the irrepressible activist Penny Bright asked a question about the Tāmaki Development Company, the government company in charge of regeneration in Glenn Innes and further east. Goldsmith, it seemed, had blundered again. He said the government had replaced “thousands” of old state houses with new ones. But, said Bright, she had figures from an Official Information request showing the actual number so far is only 213. (More to come on this.)

They talked transport, of course. Seymour said, “For all the people who say you can’t build yourself out of congestion, I give you: the Waterview tunnel.”

Even the NZ Transport Agency doesn’t say that. The government’s excited about the Waterview tunnel right now and doesn’t miss a chance to say how wonderful it is. But NZTA predicts that tunnel will soon be at capacity. This is because of a thing called demand inducement: the new tunnel attracts traffic and will keep doing so, at pace, until it is full. Build more roads, get more road users. To relieve roading congestion, you need to offer enough drivers better options with public transport and active modes like cycling.

Goldsmith talked about the value of roads to families – “taking the kids to netball and so on”, which is exactly the phrase deputy PM Paula Bennett used in The Spinoff Great Debate on Wednesday. He also said the proposed East-West Link would make travel from the Epsom electorate to the airport much faster, although that argument forms no part of the business case for the road and is not officially one of the reasons that’s ever been given for building it.

Coates said, “We’re not saying no more roads, of course not, why have there been such long delays in building more public transport?”

Education got a going over, although no one talked about the hot education topic in this electorate: zoning. Seymour introduced Act’s policy of offering 20% more funding for teacher salaries, but only at those schools that remove themselves from the collective pay agreement and introduce performance-related pay. Two teachers in the audience complained about this and Seymour, perhaps knowing where his votes lay and where they didn’t, managed to abuse both of them.

Parker said “charter schools” should not drive education policy because they were irrelevant to almost everyone in the country. Goldsmith responded that “partnership schools” represented innovative thinking in education and all enterprises, especially including schools, need to embrace innovation.

Seymour may or may not have appreciated that support. He declared: “The government isn’t fixing the problem in education. The government is the problem. The government is the reason more kids can’t get a decent education.”

 

They’re a diverse bunch, Epsomites. Well, not ethnically of course, but every candidate on the stage had enthusiastic supporters in the audience, and there were also the grumpy-as-fuck people who didn’t support anyone. Because this:

“My question for you, sir,” said an angry man in a hat to Paul Goldsmith, “is, who the hell gave the National Party the right to pass our property on to narrow tribal interests?” He was referring to National’s 2011 “foreshore and seabed law”, properly called the Marine and Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Act, which he called, savouring the word, a “racist piece of legislation”.

Another man declared, “We have been misled. This election is not about housing or transport or the economy, it is the last chance we have to reclaim our democracy. The government has put in place structures for tribal dictatorships and our children are indoctrinated about it in schools.”

Goldsmith responded first. “We have done our best to promote social cohesion,” he said. He stressed that iwi have the right to make claims and there is a proper legal process for all treaty claims, which is being followed. He did not resile from that at all.

That, said the first questioner, was “deliberately evasive”. He accused Goldsmith of “seeking the Māori vote with our money”.

Coates, Parker and Seymour also all spoke strongly against the questions. Parker said, “I’m going to back the minister. Your fears that large swathes of the beaches will be lost to the New Zealand public are incorrect.” He talked about the very tough statutory tests that apply to any claim and told the audience the Labour Party has apologised to Māori because it now recognises it “should not have taken away the right of Māori to go to court” over the foreshore and seabed.

David Seymour was the best of all. He repeated the original question: “Who the hell gave someone the right?” And he said, “I’m afraid the answer is, 800 years of common law.” He was very proud to stand in the tradition of common law and the rights it gives equally to everyone. “And sometimes people you don’t like win, and that’s OK.”

It was, collectively, their finest moment.

One person asked, Was Labour proposing a return to compulsory unionism? No, said Parker.

But what about increased powers for unions? Parker said they believed workers in some low-paid industries needed the support of “standardised industry agreements”.

That will cause inflation and house prices will go up, said the questioner.

Parker said, “Are you similarly concerned about the rise in incomes of the members of the Rich List?”

The candidates talked about Labour’s tax policy and all stuck closely to their party lines, although Parker had some trouble convincing the audience that Labour will not tax capital gains on the family home or the land it sits on.

They talked about finance minister Steven Joyce’s accusation that there’s an $11.7 billion hole in Labour’s budget and party positions were stuck to on that as well. Goldsmith said “there could be” a hole.

Seymour said, “Who cares? We know the Labour Party is fiscally irresponsible. The last Labour government led us into recession and Barry Coates here is a good argument against a masters degree in economics.” Zing.

Coates shrugged it off with a bemused grin. Parker said, “We seek a mandate. New Zealand hasn’t had a fiscally irresponsible government since Muldoon.” He talked about the record of surpluses of the Helen Clark government and said, “The last Labour government took net debt to zero, and that included putting money into the Super Fund.”

And, he added, “That claim of an $11 billion hole in our budget is a deliberate lie. The National Party is now saying there’s a problem because we’ll need tough spending controls. But we have a record of fiscal prudence.”

Barry Coates then shared his views on the government’s reputation for good economic management. “What’s good economic management about poverty? What’s good economic management about 1% growth? What’s good about dirty rivers and allowing property speculators to drive up house prices?” Whether that worked for the blue greens was unclear. But he didn’t back down. There were no easy-sell save-our-native-birds messages.

Tim Watkin said to David Seymour, “What’s the point of you?”

Seymour blanched a bit. Who wouldn’t.  Watkin said, “You’re going to be in opposition this term.” He explained that Labour won’t form a government with ACT and the polls suggest National’s only chance of doing so will be with NZ First – and NZ First doesn’t want ACT either. Seymour replied that a strong result for ACT will reinforce his claim that the party should have a role in government.

In conversation later, he said opposition might actually be good for ACT. They’d be free to define themselves however they like, without being shackled to a governing party. Minor parties always find it easier to grow when they are out of power.

They all got to make a closing speech. Party vote for my party, said Goldsmith, Parker and Coates. But Seymour asked the audience for their electorate votes and didn’t even mention the party vote. Quizzed on that afterwards, he said, “I just think it can be too confusing for voters.”

What, is that part of a deal? National gives him the seat but he has to let them have the party vote? He said there is no deal, not in any formal sense, nothing like that at all.

This is crazy talk. If Seymour was a lonely person looking for a friend for the night, Epsom would be the perfect bar to walk into: most of the people there, courtesy of their electorate vote, are already halfway into bed with him.

And make no mistake, Seymour really is lonely. He hates being a caucus of one. He’s almost in despair about getting more party votes. So why isn’t he devoting himself to a two ticks campaign?

Because people find it “confusing”? Explain it to them. All over the country, voters get asked to give two ticks to their favourite party. And they’re supposed to be such clever people in Epsom – is it really too hard for them, or Seymour himself, to grasp?

simon@thespinoff.co.nz @simonbwilson


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