Yesterday morning five leading mayoral candidates – Goff, Swarbrick, Crone, Palino and Thomas – visited Mangere’s Ngā Whare Waatea to debate the issues facing South Auckland. Mana magazine editor Leonie Hayden was there.
At 9.30am I arrived for the powhiri, as instructed, and waited at the entrance to be called on to Whare Waatea, the urban marae in Mangere run by the Manukau Urban Māori Authority (MUMA). Somehow I was the only one that didn’t get the memo that it was OK to go straight into the wharenui. Even as Victoria Crone and her assistant headed past I still wasn’t prepared to risk it. I don’t need that kind of bad juju in my life.
Eventually Radio Waatea’s station manager Bernie O’Donnell came to get me and explained that as an urban marae, a mihi whakatau (less formal welcome for opening events that aren’t based on marae) is sufficient to open proceedings.
They were still waiting on a few of the candidates to arrive. “I don’t know if half of them know where Mangere is,” he chuckled.
Yesterday morning’s debate featured the same line-up as the RNZ /AUT event at the beginning of the month — Mark Thomas, Phil Goff, John Palino and Vic Crone — with the addition of 22-year-old Chlöe Swarbrick, who I imagine was included at the insistence of debate chair Willie Jackson. There’s nothing Willie likes so much as a plucky young upstart.
It was a small crowd, without much media presence. MUMA offer wraparound services within the marae complex — a charter school, Whānau Ora, Restorative Justice and prison rehabilitation services, a food bank and a funeral home. Unlike some of the stale, pale meetings and debates that have been covered in the War for Auckland, this one was a brown wash, comprised predominantly of young Māori women that work at the marae services — not a Nimby or a homeowners association in sight.
A whakatau by Ngāpuhi kaumatua Kingi Taurua, he of the full-face moko that banned the Government from Te Tii marae in Waitangi, was followed by a more informal welcome by Waatea breakfast host Dale Husband, who talked about the kaupapa of the marae and explained the importance of not thinking of all South Aucklanders as living on “struggle street” and that a large number of middle-class South Auckland Māori contribute to the super city too. A lot of earnest nodding by the candidates, but I’m sure it was news to a couple of them.
As the live radio stream kicked off, Jackson introduced candidates with short, provocative bios (“Phil Goff, the oldest candidate running”, “Vic Crone, favourite of the right.”) Candidates were then given two minutes to give an opening statement.
Straight out the gate, the loudest applause and murmurs of approval were reserved for the youngest candidate. Swarbrick is bright, quick on her feet and her policies have been admired by some fairly crusty pundits, but sometimes having someone you physically identify with can make all the difference. Swarbrick had the young women in the room in the palm of her hand from the moment she acknowledged the lack of diversity in the mayoral line-up (the only candidate to do so), and called opposition to Māori seats “covert racism”.
The suits didn’t stand a chance.
Among the usual rehashing of issues such as housing and homelessness (yes they have all been in a South Auckland boarding house and have talked to an actual homeless person) and transport (Goff wants light rail to South Auckland, Crone and Thomas anticipate it would cost billions), some of the South Auckland specific issues included the Fletcher’s development at Ihumatao, a place Palino seemed to be hearing about for the first time, and the lack of protection for wāhi tapu sites and sites of cultural significance under the new Unitary Plan.
Three candidates backed compulsory Māori seats versus the Independent Māori Statutory Board—Goff, Swarbrick and Palino (I originally mistook Thomas’ flip-flopping as support). But most telling was the appalling lack of local knowledge by all of the candidates. ‘Pop quiz’ questions that were meant to add levity to proceedings revealed that none of the candidates were particularly engaged with everyday Māori or South Auckland life.
Based on figures from the 2013 census, ‘Manukau City’ makes up approximately 23 per cent of Auckland’s population. The city’s future mayor was sitting at the table yesterday and any way you slice it, that community engagement with South Auckland Māori and Pacific communities didn’t exist, most disappointingly from Phil Goff, proudly born and raised on the mean streets of Papatoetoe, which suggests perhaps he’s lost touch with his roots.
Len would have breezed through the pop quiz. Just saying.
While none of the candidates conducted themselves terribly (or it can be argued they all did an equally terrible job) Swarbrick, whether by virtue of age or inexperience, doesn’t come across as a politician on the campaign trail and the audience responded to that. A little youth group leader, perhaps, but one you’d be comfortable talking about an embarrassing problem with.
New Jersey-born restaurateur John Palino probably fared worst, clearly having no knowledge of the area or people. He also made numerous references to his book that everyone ignored, and pouted like a spoiled toddler when he didn’t get to answer a question.
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