A different cast of candidates at the Wellington Central debate, but at least one tradition remains, writes Toby Manhire.
It was raining on Friday night in Wellington, but only inside, and only on those who exceeded their 45-second response times. Madeleine of the Aro Valley Community Centre fired willingly, sometimes delightedly from a pump action water pistol at offenders. Spirits were high. There was much friendly fire.
In the minutes before the Aro Valley meeting of Wellington Central candidates began, there was talk of suspending the tradition of dousing candidates who overtalk. After outcry from the audience, and somebody finding a plastic toy in the back of a “laundry cupboard”, there was a reprieve. It would not be a free-for-all from the front row of the crowd, but Madeleine would wield the watery barrel of democracy for us all. A bell was deployed for a 10-second warning. “I was going to use the piano,” said the ringmaster of this bedlam staple of the political calendar, RNZ talisman Bryan Crump. “But people are sitting on it.”
This was the first debate back in the Aro Street hall after a refurbishment that meant last year’s local body event was instead held, naturally, in a funeral home. With half an hour to go to start time the hall was already rammed. People squeezed into the corners, crouched on the floor, contorted into the kitchen. “I thought the valley had gentrified,” said Crump, staring out at the rabble. “But this is chaos.” Like everyone else, he couldn’t have been more delighted.
Outside, several dozen crowded around the opened windows; a speaker was cabled onto the tarmac, and later a microphone, so the al fresco set could ask questions.
“Can everybody still hear out there?” asked Crump as the event ticked towards the two-hour mark.
“Yes,” came the reply.
“Not too cold?”
“A little bit.”
Wellington Central has been won by the Labour candidate in every MMP election since the first in 1996, when Richard Prebble took the seat for Act after Jim Bolger gave National the nod – the foundational MMP drama documented so memorably in Campaign.
In 2020, Grant Robertson won the seat for a fifth time, collecting more of the vote than everyone else combined, in a field that included three high-profile contenders: James Shaw of the Greens, Nicola Willis of National and Act’s Brooke Van Velden.
This time, all four of the above are standing again for parliament. But none in Wellington. Robertson and Shaw have both gone list-only, meaning that, should National prevail, the way is smoothed for a byelection-free exit. Willis is running over the hill in Ōhāriu. Van Velden is mounting a wedge battle on the right in Tāmaki.
In their place, three candidates can claim a chance at the prize. Ibrahim Omer, an Eritrean refugee and one-term Labour list MP, has an inspirational story to tell. Scott Sheeran, a diplomat and lawyer who recently worked as an advisor for the UAE government, is carrying the National flag. For the Greens, Tamatha Paul wants to swap a seat on the council for one in parliament.
What about Act? Who is the Prebble of 2023? There is no listed candidate for the electorate, and when the chair of the event, RNZ legend Bryan Crump, looked unsuccessfully around the room for someone from the party, Michael Appleby of the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party piped up. “They asked me to speak on their behalf,” he lied. “The Association of Cannabis and Toking.”
Appleby, a human rights lawyer and Wellington institution who is now in 70s, has been campaigning for the legalisation of cannabis since the ALCP was founded in 1996, and he shows no sign of fading. He was there bright and early on Friday night, seizing an opportunity even before the event proper had started to grab the mic and deliver lengthy doggerel lamenting the result of the 2020 referendum. “For e’en though the yes vote failed / a conversation was unveiled.”
Top’s deputy leader, Natalia Albert, was first at the mic. She wasn’t after the electorate vote – she was there for the party vote, and spent much of her speaking time on the merits of “cross-party solidarity” and ”cross-party consolidarity”. The challenges of the years ahead “will not be solved by one party, and they will not be solved by one term”.
Scott Sheeran was next. “As the National Party candidate, he expected to get absolutely soaking wet,” said Crump. Dressed in a kererū T-shirt, Sheeran made a joke about Ed Sheeran, bemoaned the lack of Taylor Swift concerts under Labour and urged everyone to vote for the kererū in bird of the year.
Sheeran grinned his way through most of what was left of the night, seeking to stay out of the firing line of both rivals and the water pistol. He closed his speech in the customary style, “Up the Wahs and Up the Nats!” “I’m really not such a bad guy,” he said at one point.
Don Franks is back on the ballot for the first time since 2008, when he won 171 votes, standing for Workers Now. His message: “The only thing we give a stuff about is low-paid workers and beneficiaries.”
It was very much a home crowd for Tamatha Paul of the Greens, and not just because she lives up the road in the valley. “I will be a hearty, strong voice for you no matter what government we have,” she said. “We need to take climate action now. We do not have time. Look at the penguins in Antarctica.”
Representing Vision NZ was Meg Lim. “Uh-oh,” groaned parts of the crowd as she was introduced. “Let her speak,” retorted others. Lim was allowed to speak through the evening, but didn’t say very much at all. Genial and bewildered, she looked a lot of the time as if she’d walked into the wrong meeting but didn’t want to cause a fuss. “A housing crisis is never good,” she said.
Representing NZ First was Taylor Arneil. He knew what kind of crowd he was working with. He was standing because “the government has utterly failed. NCEA results are up, truancy is down,” he said, before correcting himself to roars of laughter. “Now,” he intoned, “I know you don’t like Winston.” But “at the end of the day”, he continued, prompting murmurs of contemplation, “it’s much better to have a National-New-Zealand-First government than a National-Act government.”
For most of the rest of the evening, Arneil answered questions with a sardonic: “New Zealand First hasn’t announced its policy on that yet.”
“I do not come from this land,” said Omer. “But this is my home. This is the place I belong.” Wellingtonians had “opened their arms to me”, and he wanted to return that sentiment. He accepted the Labour government could have done more, before declaring that “something needs to be done about National and Act” as a stream of water arced towards him.
Appleby managed to navigate every subject, from housing to foreign policy, back to cannabis or hemp. At the last election he amassed 401 votes – 19 short, no doubt, of his target.
If it felt at times like a Green Party jamboree – one group of attendees was sharing a fruit loaf – that mood was boosted by the presence of the party’s former chief of staff and now Wellington mayor, Tory Whanau, as well as co-leader James Shaw, whose spring-loaded arm shot into the air over and over again. He ended up putting at least three questions to the candidates. He was very obviously missing the taste of rambunctious electorate debate. Disappointingly, there is no water fighting in parliament.
Speaking of which, the very day after arguing in the house that “patsy questions are a waste of time”, Shaw on Friday night asked Paul whether she agreed that voters should be aware that she was not on the list and therefore her only route to parliament was victory in Wellington Central. She did. “You’re a very naughty boy, James,” said Crump. Neither Sheeran nor Omer has a list ranking likely to return them to parliament, so it’s all riding on the electorate for them, too.
Energies had faded by about the 90-minute mark. One couple in the audience were dozing off. “I didn’t understand the question,” said Appleby, in response to what must have been the 25th audience inquiry of the night. “And I reckon it’s time we all went outside and had a nice smoke.”