Local ElectionsSeptember 18, 2019

We moderated a rebel debate for the Wellington mayoral candidates RNZ excluded


It’s a hard road getting attention for outsider candidates in local elections. Alex Braae, writer of The Bulletin and stout defender of the political little guy, thought he’d lend a hand by moderating a rebel Wellington mayoral debate.

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One of the thorniest issues in any election campaign is deciding who gets a platform to speak, and who doesn’t. A candidate has basically no chance of being elected if they can’t get their message out, and that almost universally means getting media coverage. 

Social media is a red herring. It can be a great tool for energising a campaign, and reaching people who a candidate has already reached. But the vast majority of voters in any given election aren’t going out of their way to follow a Facebook page, even those of the biggest political parties, let alone an individual running for a local government place. 

That means the gatekeeping role played by media organisations is really important. And in general terms, media organisations are the right people to do that. They’re full of people whose job it is to follow these things closely, and think hard about the right questions to ask on behalf of the public.  

But it also raises the spectre of pre-vetting of candidates on the amorphous grounds of electability. It can dramatically narrow down the spectrum of what is considered acceptable opinion, in what is (perhaps naively) often thought of as a contest of ideas. The presentation of candidates plays a role here too – for whatever reason, the judgements of those who talk about electability often line up with what their idea of an elected representative should look like. 

On Tuesday, Morning Report hosted a Wellington mayoral debate. Incumbent mayor Justin Lester was invited, along with sitting councillors Diane Calvert and Andy Foster. They’re all candidates with records to run on, and plans that they want to implement. On the balance of probabilities, one of the three of them is likely to win the race. 

Three other candidates were very miffed at not being invited. Dr Jenny Condie, Conor Hill, and Norbert Hausberg all felt that they should have been included, as candidates who are running serious campaigns. They decided to host their own debate, and stream it live on Facebook – one of the candidates’ own Facebook pages in fact. I was asked to moderate it, and after a bit of thought, said yes. The live stream was not widely watched. 


Perhaps the symbolism here is a bit on the nose. The three mayoral candidates who sit around the council table were grilled by Susie Ferguson, one of the best interviewers in the country, on New Zealand’s biggest morning news show. Meanwhile, these three candidates were being questioned by me, an unkempt idiot who writes a newsletter

Being considered electable is self-reinforcing. You’re in the media because you’re electable and you’re electable because you’re in the media. Just being on Morning Report is a strong signal to listeners and voters that these are serious people, with important things to say. It also gets their name out well beyond the bubble of political enthusiasts who follow campaigns closely, and into the closest we can realistically get to mainstream discourse. 

One person on Twitter accused Morning Report of ‘picking winners’, which I don’t think is necessarily fair. They have to draw the line somewhere, because of the limited amount of time and studio space at their disposal. It’s not for me to judge whether they drew that line too strictly. Producing high quality radio is really hard work, and they would have made a judgement that they believed would best inform their listeners. 

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I have a much lower standard of what constitutes electability than many other journalists. I write a lot about the minor parties outside parliament, partly because I find them interesting, and partly because most other people in news are far too pressed for time to do so, and I believe someone should do it.  

Parties outside parliament are also totally unconstrained by having to actually act on the ideas they push, which means those ideas better reflect what they’d really like to do. They don’t have to compromise, and they don’t think about how policies will affect their governing arrangements. When people are in a position to dream, it can play a really important role in the wider democratic system. For better or worse, ideas that start on the fringe can eventually come to be common sense. 

The three candidates who took part in the alternative debate have a similar sort of function right now. Two of them, Condie and Hill, are also running for council seats, so there’s a chance they will be in a stronger position to challenge for the mayoralty next time around. Under Wellington’s STV system, any of the three may even win the top job, depending on how the preferences fall. 

I’m not making a comment on who should win that race, but I will say this: each staked out positions that were markedly different to those of the three incumbent candidates. That is evident in both what they said during the debate, and what they’ve put on their Policy Local profiles. I’d consider all of them to be more idealistic than their more established opponents. 

It’s not my place to say whether voters should choose an outsider or an insider; an idealist or a pragmatist. People are generally pretty intelligent, and can figure out what they think will work best for them.

But if you’re a Wellington voter, I encourage you to watch the debate between these three candidates. Watch the Morning Report one too. And try and go to a meet-the-candidates evening, and read the newspaper, and check out Policy Local, and ask your neighbours what they reckon. Be informed about what your candidates are saying, so that when one of them wins, you can help hold them to account. 

The Spinoff local election coverage is made possible thanks to The Spinoff Members. For more about becoming a member and supporting The Spinoff’s journalism click here.
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