There was a lot of love between the politicians kicking off the campaign with a debate at Auckland University last night, and then it got ugly. Toby Manhire relives the good and the bad of it all.
If the curtain-raising set-piece in election year presages the 2017 campaign proper, we can expect an engaging, amicable and largely civil debate. And some hand grenades.
The University of Auckland Debating Society event (watch it here), chaired by Newshub political chief Patrick Gower, was for the most part an animated but cheerful and chummy affair – at one point Green co-leader James Shaw told 500 or so students that politicians did by and large get along, it was just that most people judged parliament on the basis of Question Time, “where everyone’s just behaving like a complete dick”. And that spirit of camaraderie was largely evidenced in the debate, until it wasn’t any more.
What happened? Following an exchange about housing and whether foreigners should be obliged to build a new house rather than buying one, National list MP Chris Bishop had a go at Mana leader Hone Harawira about his attendance record in parliament. Harawira fired back, accusing Bishop, a rising star of National’s new generation, essentially of being a lickspittle.
Bishop released another salvo, over Harawira’s taxpayer funded trips abroad. Harawira’s wife, Hilda, sitting up the front, chipped in: “I paid my own train fare in France!” Suddenly everyone was remonstrating, roaring, gesticulating at the same time. Mrs Harawira called Bishop a punk – or was it another, assonant word beginning with C?
Harawira blasted Gower for letting Bishop go down that line. “If this is a housing question you should have fucking slapped him down the minute he started making a personal attack. He’s turned it into a fucking personal attack and if he wants to go down that track, let’s do it.”
More exchanges, and then, said the Harawira to the Bishop: “Sit down Chris Bishop, you want to cut that out, or you could end up in a place you don’t want to be.” The crowd inhaled a great big oooooooooh noise, you know the one.
Everyone looked kind of bashful after that, and Harawira later apologised “for that outburst before”. Gower, too, apologised to all concerned, and he’s posted today saying he lost control for a moment, “I had totally zoned out and was just a spectator at this point”.
But enough of the fisticuffs. Who else was there? Apart from Gower, Shaw, Bishop and Harawira, Chris Hipkins was there for Labour. David Seymour was there for ACT. Fletcher Tabuteau was there for NZ First. Thank goodness Marama Fox was there, albeit fashionably late. Put it this way: it seemed already that International Women’s Day was a distant aberration. There were twice as many people called Chris on the stage as there were women.
Peter Dunne wasn’t there, having flagged the flight to Auckland crying paperwork overload. The Conservative Party wasn’t there, either, having been disinvited after refusing to put up their leader, whoever that is, and instead offering a south Auckland candidate. They did, however, have a bunch of stalwarts handing out flyers on the way in, which by the end had been folded into a vast fleet of paper aircraft.
Gower opened the debate with a stirring monologue, exhorting the crowd to believe in themselves and sending them into rapture by reprising his “This is the fucking news” slogan. There was a lot of swearing all night, some of it touch-paper-lit, and some of it because those students really love a bit of naughty cursing, don’t you know.
Quizzed on the boringness or otherwise of the new prime minister, Chris Bishop said “you just need to get to know him”. And in any case, cometh the hour, cometh the dull guy. “At a time of Trump and global uncertainty I reckon New Zealanders are going to back a bit of certainty.”
Marama Fox defended the National leader, too – Wiremu Pākehā, she said, had a good track record with Māori. And he’s not boring: “He’s got a dry sense of humour that my husband understands.” Her husband and the PM like chatting about sheep shearing, she confided. They watch shearing videos together.
Chris Hipkins was asked about the impact of Labour’s new deputy leader, Jacinda Ardern – why not make her leader immediately? “In a proper democracy, the person with the most votes gets to be leader,” he explained to Gower, having minutes ago questioned the US electoral system, which saw Trump’s election despite a loss in the popular vote. And OK, but pretty sure that in the last Labour leader election, Grant Robertson got the most votes overall and the most votes in caucus.
ACT’s entire caucus, aka David Seymour, attracted some of the biggest roars of the night: in approval for his denunciation of the new superannuation policy (more of that later) and his stance on euthanasia; and in reproach for declaring that interest charges should be reintroduced for student loans. He also managed a half-decent Winston Peters impression and quoted Ben Harper.
In other unexpected sights, the man from NZ First castigated his rivals on housing for “making it a race issue” and, accidentally I suspect, contradicted his leader’s stance on the European Students’ Association.
Everyone except Tabuteau admitted to having smoked cannabis. “Of course I fucking have,” said Harawira. There was a good discussion on drug laws, with Seymour making a strong case for legalisation and Fox putting a powerful argument against. Though she wasn’t unwilling to enter a discussion about decriminalisation, the impact of pot and, especially, P in Māori communities was beyond awful, she explained.
Notwithstanding the boilover moment, Harawira was in vintage form from the get-go, when he said he was disinclined to work with the new US president because we should “never allow ourselves to be seen working with Nazi bastards”. His return to the election fray, this time swapping out the Internet Party crutch for a Māori Party nod and wink, will at the very least liven things up. He was strong, particularly, on the extent to which Māori get the short end of the stick on national super, owing to the fact that they die younger.
When Gower announced the topic of superannuation, there was another sharp intake of breath. “You guys do not get screwed,” Bishop assured this hotbed of millennials in defence of Bill English’s announcement this week that the age of eligibility is to rise to 67 by 2040. “You do not get screwed!” The audience responded with a caterwaul of primal screwedness.
“No one who looks at this issue seriously could think it could stay the same,” added Bishop, inadvertently thereby accusing John Key of failing to look at the issue seriously.
In an odd case of policy-swapsy, Hipkins went on to passionately argue that the age must be kept at 65. Three years ago, the Blue and Red Chrisses would have been making precisely each other’s arguments. Welcome to election year.
Post script: Two students were violently coughing directly behind me through much of the event so if there’s anything missing above it’s their fault and also I may be dead by the time you read this.
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