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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

OPINIONPoliticsOctober 8, 2023

Even the students are sick of this election

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

In the Labour stronghold of Dunedin, the Otago campus is usually a hive of political engagement. This year, a mood of frustration and apathy prevails.

I have a vivid memory of ditching high school one sunny September afternoon in 2017. My best friend and I embarked on a great pilgrimage down to the Otago University campus with hopes of catching a glimpse of the newly-appointed Labour leader, Jacinda Ardern. 

It’s safe to say that, at the age of 17, I wasn’t the most politically versed individual. I knew my parents were Labour voters: my mother always talked about the importance of helping those who are in less than favourable circumstances, and dad was our household economist. But apart from that, my mind was more consumed with which party I was attending that weekend, or who was dating who. 

After overhearing on the six o’clock news one fateful evening that the Labour Party had appointed a new leader just weeks out from the election, my ears perked up. Word on the street was that this Jacinda lady seemed pretty cool, and any excuse was a good excuse to ditch school for the afternoon to see her on the campaign trail. 

Running off rule-breaking adrenaline with no clue what to expect, we arrived at Otago’s campus. I remember feeling pure shock and overwhelm about how many people had congregated outside the university union, eager to hear what this supposed new visionary had to say. There must have been hundreds, if not a thousand, people huddled around Union Lawn, all the way up to the balcony which wrapped around the Otago University Students Association, taking in a bird’s-eye view of the spectacle. The attendees ranged from academics, university staff, students, curious samaritans and other high school students who’d knocked off for the afternoon. 

My friend and I found ourselves just two rows from where Jacinda was set to speak. Security guards whispered into ear pieces, with local MP David Clark checking his phone, anxiously waiting for Ardern to appear. Then, there she was, greeted with cheers and shouts from the crowd. Jacinda took the mic, speaking against a backdrop of election posters and red T-shirts. She dripped with charisma and enthusiasm, preaching about the new revolutionary vision she had for Aotearoa, and the transformational policy her government would supposedly deliver if elected. She said the fiscal austerity embraced by the previous National government was good for no one. Announcing policies like free first year fees, increases to weekly student allowances, and reinstating eligibility for postgraduate allowances went down a treat with the largely tertiary-focused crowd. 

Jacinda Ardern at the Labour Party campaign launch in August 2017. (Photo: Dave Rowland/Getty Images)

Witnessing Ardern speak so passionately in Dunedin, a historic Labour stronghold, was a monumental moment for many people’s political awakening, myself included. That afternoon, it was like everyone knew that Ardern, and Aotearoa, was standing on the precipice of a new era of leadership and political transformation.

Fast forward to the 2020 election cycle, and I found myself catapulted back to Otago University’s campus. This time round, I was three years into a Politics degree, in my first year as a staff writer for the student mag, fully immersed in the pandemic-induced political shenanigans happening on campus. Every week, there was a student forum or public panel, where politicians from both ends of the spectrum would come vying for votes from the Otago community. 

Although 2020 was a year of lockdowns, restrictions and online classes, the election was difficult to escape down at Otago University. The news cycle never ended: whether it was another bold Labour policy announcement or a new leader of the opposition, the anticipation, politicking and commentary was hard to keep up with. Vandalised election hoardings were posted up on fences around North Dunedin, with flats hosting leaders debate parties, taking a shot every time Jacinda mentioned the “team of five million” or whenever Crusher Collins dished out a heated comeback. While 2020 was far from a normal year, and one which caused plenty of upheaval in the academic community, the political spirit was still in full swing, and everyone watched in awe as Labour achieved a second term, a slam-dunk victory. 

This time around, things feel remarkably different. Otago University’s campus – once bustling with eager learners, impassioned academics, political fanatics, and students who just wanted to take the piss out of any politician – seems to have become a place of both election fatigue and political outrage, frustration and apathy, division and dismissal. And with good reason. We’re finding ourselves situated in an environment where our politics seems to be lacking the much-needed leadership we had during the Ardern years, paving the way for a bizarre underbelly of hostility and conspiracy to emerge from the cracks. 

Meanwhile, the current election policies reek of unimaginative centrism and a desperation to pander to the swing voter. It’s pretty disheartening looking at the options we have on the table, especially while the academic community is currently facing a $60 million dollar fiscal hole in Otago University’s budget, which is set to be solved with ruthless staff cuts, and the defunding of several departments. No political party has given us a solid answer as to how the tertiary sector will be helped, as it appears attack ads and foreign buyers are more important than higher education. 

As the election creeps closer, Dunedin feels more unsettled. On my morning walks to campus, I notice an old retail building on George Street has turned into an office for “NZ Loyal,” a political party whose policy stances include ending “UN forced climate accords based on faulty science and media driven hysteria” and the “gender ideology” that is supposedly being pushed onto children.

Once I arrive on campus, I’m greeted by my coworkers who are huddled in the hallway, discussing the anti co-governance pamphlets they found in their mailboxes over the weekend. I check my emails, my inbox flooded with aggressive messages about our “evil communist regime.” After this, I check the news, where it feels like I have to scour the entirety of our media landscape to catch just a glimpse of a comprehensive policy announcement being offered by the election frontrunners. 

Once 5pm hits, I go with other post-graduate students, lecturers and tutors to congregate for the post-work drink at the bar across from campus. After ordering a round of beers, some glasses of pinot gris, and a bowl of fries, I ask my counterparts what they make of the current state of affairs. After a prolonged stare into the pints of beer they’re nursing, the results come flooding in. “Labour doesn’t deserve my vote, so I guess I’ll vote Green” says one of my lecturers. “I can’t believe National is suggesting more tax cuts, this is abysmal,” says another tutor. My friend James, a PhD student, sums things up nicely: “It just seems like two guys from the same party.” 

Chris Hipkins and Christopher Luxon at the first TVNZ leaders’ debate of 2023 (Photo: Andrew Dalton/TVNZ)

After a pilsner-induced rant about “fucking neoliberalism” and burning through a packet of cigarettes, we pack things in for the night and head home to our rentals, trying not to think about climate crisis doomsday, or the mass redundancies and disintegration of the tertiary sector which looms over our heads. 

The lack of leadership, cohesion and vision in this current election has left many of us feeling disillusioned, lethargic and half hearted. But, who can blame us? I’ve yet to see significant engagement with the university community from the candidates hoping to win the Dunedin electorate, let alone witness a public forum or debate, especially during such a tumultuous period of time for the academic community. 

Chris Hipkins has stopped down south a few times, but has drawn nowhere near the amount of attention or engagement as his predecessor, and the presence of the National Party seems to be non-existent. The bottom line is, this political climate seems to be making people feel more isolated and unheard, pushing them to different extremes, or making it hard for even the most involved to care at all. 

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