What happens when you put a bunch of farming students in a deeply National electorate in a room with their local candidates? Alex Braae went to the Lincoln University election debate to see the political equivalent of an abattoir.
Despite the protestations of most of the candidates, there’s only going to be one winner in the Selwyn electorate this time around.
It’s being relinquished by top former National MP Amy Adams, who enjoyed the biggest personal majority in the country. As a combination of rural Canterbury, farming service towns and a few bits of suburbia, there’s pretty much no way in for any other party.
Next in line for the seat is Nicola Grigg whose background is in farming and careers include journalism, public service work, and a long stint in the office of former Prime Minister Sir Bill English. Even in a seat a weak National candidate would walk all over, Grigg is an unusually strong first-time candidate, and as the debate put on by the Lincoln University students association showed, the other parties are largely putting out fresh meat.
Labour has put up Reuben Davidson, a community board member in Banks Peninsula on the eastern edge of the electorate. He’s a long-time TV producer (including working for seven years on What Now) and has been involved with community work since the quakes. But a list ranking of 67 doesn’t exactly demand attention.
Davidson, however, came prepared with answers to the questions that had been flagged in advance around student welfare, agriculture, the resource management act and contrasting rates of Māori graduation and imprisonment. Most of those answers were read fairly closely from notes. He got a nightmare draw in having to give the first answer to the first surprise question from the floor – about what his party intended to do about the urban-rural divide.
“It’s an issue, and it’s something we need to address,” he started, before pivoting to talk about the RMA and regional development funding. Davidson also somewhat optimistically said that if voters made him the MP for Selwyn, he’d ensure a decent share of various pots of money ended up in the electorate.
Grigg pounced. “I applaud your sentiment, but it’s so hard to believe that when we have a prime minister who openly talks about it being yesterday’s industry, and we have a minister for the environment who’s openly against farming.” The first point seemingly referred to an Ardern soundbite from the first leaders debate which National candidates have been gleefully misrepresenting, and the second is probably something David Parker would contest, even if many farmers believe he holds those views.
But Grigg was in an excellent room for that rhetoric. Leaning on the table like it was a farm gate, she reeled off stats about fencing and riparian planting, how that money was all coming out of farmers pockets, and how actually, most urban areas were in breach of their resource consents over waterway pollution. “It’s frankly hypocritical now for the government to turn around and say ‘yay farmers, thanks for getting us out of the Covid lockdown’ when actually, all they’ve done is make things so much more difficult.”
“I’ve got my 65-year-old dad down in Mt Somers, wringing his hands and saying ‘I don’t know how to farm my way out of this rubbish’,” said Grigg before drifting into an aside for the audience. “He probably said shit but I can’t say that right now.” The crowd who caught it, loved it. After all, at a school training the next generation of farmers, many of them could probably relate.
While their skirmishes played out, a full-scale war erupted between the Act and NZ First candidates. Act was represented by Stu Armstrong, a healthcare industry salesman with terminal cancer, who’s running for the party to support the End of Life Choice referendum. NZ First didn’t have a candidate, but Youth Wings star Jay McLaren-Harris flew down from Auckland to represent his party.
He was a curious inclusion among bunch, dressed in a sharp suit and bearing the smooth mannerisms and oratory of someone who’d spent several terms as a senior cabinet minister. “I speak your language, I’ve been in your shoes,” he said in his introduction, gesturing languidly to a room full of students in hoodies and leggings.
It kicked off with McLaren-Harris talking at length about Act’s (now dropped) policy to put interest back on student loans. While he was talking, Armstrong waved his arms and shouted that it was no longer party policy. Next time he got a chance to speak, he chided McLaren-Harris on not keeping up with the news. “Maybe he was too busy with the SFO,” Armstrong jabbed.
The final candidate on stage was first-year University of Canterbury student Abe O’Donnell who had a brutal day at the office representing the Greens. Perhaps in other, more politically sympathetic rooms, he would’ve shined. But in this one, he appeared completely out of his depth, stumbling through answers that started with a strong statement about party policy before getting lost and coming to abrupt conclusions.
A few burly lads in stubbies and boots quietly muttered at most of his contributions. The ripples were more widespread when O’Donnell brought up regenerative agriculture, a concept that hasn’t exactly taken off in mainstream farming circles. At times it was almost like watching an excruciating teen comedy movie in which the main character forgets it’s their day to present to the class. His afternoon was iced by McLaren-Harris, who put a friendly, if patronising, arm around him at the end of the debate, and encouraged the room to give O’Donnell a round of applause for running as an 18-year-old.
Perhaps the candidate who came out of it best was the one who wasn’t even invited. Calvin Payne, an independent running on the catchy slogan of “No Payne, No Gain”, leapt to his feet near the end and implored the crowd to vote for him as a local. Some students called him over afterwards and asked disappointingly why he hadn’t had a chance to speak more.
The turnout was very strong, with well over a hundred students coming in to hear from their candidates. That might not sound like a lot, but Lincoln University only has about 2,000 full-time students. They listened in mostly attentive silence, came up with good questions to ask the candidates and mostly got reasonable answers to them.
For many of them, especially those who’ll stay around Selwyn, it might end up being memorable as a first look at a politician who could represent the seat for a generation. Grigg will have done a lot to hammer home an idea for the farmers of the future – that she and the National party are now and forever on their side.
Alex Braae’s travel to Lincoln was made possible thanks to the support of Jucy, who have given him a Cabana van to use for the election campaign, and Z Energy, who gifted him a full tank of gas via Sharetank.