Two electorates, seven candidates (including two recent National leaders) and 100 spaced-out audience members. Josie Adams reports from Tauranga.
There were two debates for the price of one last night in Tauranga: the battle for the Tauranga electorate and the battle for Bay of Plenty were fought on the same Baycourt Theatre stage before a well-spaced level-two capacity crowd of 100.
Matt Cowley, chief executive of the Tauranga Chamber of Commerce and MC for the evening, said he’d learned during last year’s mayoral elections that “10 candidates is about the most I want on stage”, so the criteria for inclusion were strict: candidates were limited to those from parties currently in parliament.
That meant there were only seven candidates facing the questions last night. And two of them became in recent months former leader of the National Party. The incumbent Tauranga MP, Simon Bridges, sat in the middle, leaning back into the red curtain. Three seats to Bridge’s right was the man who ruthlessly rolled him as leader, only to chuck it in 53 days later, the MP for Bay Plenty, Todd Muller.
Anyone hoping for another episode in the National leadership psychodrama would have left disappointed, however. There was no Jerry Springer Show style reckoning over that messy episode in the life of the party. Muller earnestly agreed with a couple of points made by Bridges. For his part, Bridges essentially ignored his caucus colleague. But you’d hardly call it a snub: Bridges at times looked so relaxed you worried he might fall out of his seat.
Challenging Muller for Bay of Plenty was Labour’s Angie Warren-Clark, a sitting list MP.
The Tauranga contingent was five-strong: Bridges, Labour’s Jan Tinetti, New Zealand First’s Erika Harvey, Josh Cole of the Green Party, and Cameron Luxton of Act.
Not to be forgotten, TOP Bay of Plenty candidate Chris Jenkins greeted entrants to the debate at the door with flyers and a smile. He made up for his absence from the stage by getting amongst the comment section on the event’s Facebook live stream, where he explained TOP’s take on preventative healthcare and local government, as well as Labour’s new tax policy. It’s all on his page.
It was a long debate, but we’ve got the big issues wrapped for you.
First, let’s get it out of the way …
Yes, Muller and Bridges both talked about roads. Muller vowed National’s promise to invest $31 billion in roads nationwide would be honoured, and that the Bay of Plenty would get a decent chunk of it. Bridges’ opening statement included an anecdote about a traffic jam.
Cannabis is getting a “yes” from Warren-Clark, Cole, and Luxton. Euthanasia is getting a “yes” from Warren-Clark, Tinetti, Luxton, and Harvey. Cole abstained from the vote on euthanasia.
A mainstay of the debate. Small businesses that support tourism and agriculture, big businesses that develop swathes of land, and the business of local government, which Bridges thinks will soon require the intervention of a commissioner.
Warren-Clark, a “mad keen fisherwoman”, said businesses were the “lifeblood” of the Bay of Plenty, and although the wage subsidy had cushioned the blow, hard times are coming. “We’re not prepared to do what happened in the 80s and 90s,” she said. “We’re not prepared for austerity.” She pointed to Labour’s latest tax policy – which would add $550 million to the revenue pool – as a part of the solution.
Tinetti acknowledged the loss of international visitors as particularly devastating to Tauranga’s small tourism-based businesses; it was a growing industry pre-Covid-19, and received funding from the provincial growth fund. “There’s a window of opportunity here for the Western Bay,” she said, but offered a warning: “Cruise ships aren’t likely any time soon.”
Bridges said he’d recently been to the McLaren Falls glow worms for the first time in 20 years, and loved it. He reckons tourism could really take off, once the borders are sorted out. “For the next little while, it’s going to be incredibly tough,” he said.
Muller delivered his points with a modicum of gusto, then sat down to quietly wait his next turn. Bridges, by contrast, alternated between super-relaxed and hyper-energetic, imbued with a charisma one can only attain via career destruction and reincarnation. Rapid-fire lists of grievances and consolations poured out. He had policies, he had secret cheeky giggles with Tinetti and, most importantly, he had power poses.
Luxton is a self-employed farmer and builder, and was all for removing the “ever-increasing regulatory burden” that stands between a small business and success. However, if you’re not successful that’s on you. “I’m sorry, but we won’t be bailing you out,” he said. “If you can do it I’m very proud of you.”
Supporting small businesses was Harvey’s big issue, and she’s keen to do it by increasing the number of employees a business can have on a 90-day trial. Harvey thinks there needs to be a “balance between employers and employees”, and she feels the current balance of power is with employees.
Another problem with making business easy, she said, was that health and safety compliance costs too much.
“I’m gonna go off on another rant,” warned Luxton, who hadn’t yet ranted at all. “Housing! It’s too expensive!” It’s true. Tauranga is by one measure the fifth-least affordable city in the world, and the most expensive city to buy a house in (measured against income) in New Zealand.
Warren-Clark said at least 4.8% social housing was needed. The most recent numbers have the national average at 4.1%. Tauranga has 2.5% social housing. “Our infrastructure hasn’t kept pace,” she said.
Muller would like to take a cue from Christchurch which, he said, doesn’t have a housing crisis because the National government came in and overruled the RMA; the same needs to be done in the Bay of Plenty.
Bridges also hammered home the RMA reform, keen for big developers in Tauranga to get back in business by having a hoon on some land.
It was at this point that Cole changed how he approached the microphone. As the tallest candidate, he had to adjust it each time he spoke. Something about his body chemistry reacted poorly with the mic, and so every speech began with a loud electric bang, a jerk from Cole’s arm, and an apology. Now, though, it was all in the legs. He spread ’em. A full metre apart, by my reckoning. No mic touching required. The Green Party: constantly innovating.
He suggested reducing urban sprawl and cost by building up, not out. “Apartments are cheaper than houses,” he pointed out. “And [have] lower carbon emissions because people are closer to everything.”
A question from the audience stated two kilograms of methamphetamine is consumed in Tauranga per week, a statistic The Spinoff was unable to verify. Whether it’s true or not, the Bay of Plenty is known to have a high level of use of the drug. Muller’s rightfully pissed about it. He would deal with both the demand and the supply of the drug, first using technology to stop it getting across the border; then issuing harsher consequences for “those who peddle in this misery”. This includes arming the police.
Warren-Clark agreed that, in the Bay of Plenty region, organised crime was a problem that demanded a relatively harsh solution. She’s in favour of increased police presence, as well as spending $100 million on a justice precinct that would allow drug and domestic violence courts to take action, “building resources for workers on the ground”.
Luxton recognised the dangers posed by organised crime, but was reluctant to suggest anything that might imply gun control. He said Act intended to create a law that meant a gang committing illegal acts involving a firearm would be punished: “They will lose everything, asset-wise.”
“If someone’s breaking the law in a gang way, we need to put a stop to that.”
It won’t come as a surprise to those of us who watched the Epidemic Response Committee Zoom meetings, but Bridges knows his hot health topics. His first priority remains Covid-19, but he knows mental health facilities are dire, hospital waitlists are too long, and the growing homelessness problem in Tauranga is adding to both those issues. “We’re a city of growing haves and have-nots,” he said.
Muller said accident and emergency access was the most pressing issue in his home suburb of Pāpāmoa. Warren-Clark agreed it was a massive problem, saying it was “the fastest-growing suburb in the country”, and yet it still takes an hour and a half on the bus to get to a hospital.
Luxton agreed with the general consensus that mental health in the area wasn’t so hot. “Being a dairy farmer, yeah, holy crap, it’s not good.” He’d like to see a commissioning agency to allocate people with mental illness or issues to providers.
Cole, who is diagnosed with autism, believes a Green Party approach to health that removes discriminatory barriers to work and education and enables public transport use is the best chance for a holistic approach to mental health. He’s a self-employed landscape gardener and growing up, he said, “the serenity of nature was lifesaving”.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.