Image: Alice Webb-Liddall

The debate proving the Youth Wings kids are Auckland Uni’s least cooked students

On Monday night four of our six beloved Youth Wingers went head-to-head once again, this time at a Baby Back Benches event at the University of Auckland. Josie Adams was there.

Why does someone join a youth wing? This was the central thesis of the Spinoff’s Youth Wings series. We never got a universal answer. Some said family, some said values, and one said Winston Peters. We thought they were aberrations in their generation, and maybe weirdos for dedicating the best years of their lives to a political party. On Monday night, scenes at Shadows bar showed us these young people aren’t weird at all. They’re probably the most reasonable people on campus.

Each year the University of Auckland’s Public Policy Club hosts debates for young politicians called “Baby Back Benches”. On Monday, it was moderated by ex-Craccum lifestyle editor, trained clown, and current Spinoff intern Sherry Zhang. She came in worried about the questions she’d be asking, and left infuriated by the answers the crowd had given her; the debaters were the least irritating people in the room.

Our Youth Wings players were National’s Aryana Nafissi, Act’s Felix Poole (who is now a candidate in the race for Auckland Central), Labour’s Adam Brand, and NZ First’s Jay McLaren-Harris.

They were joined by the Greens’ Natalie Dolan and TOP’s Artie Kouts.

Shadows is the University of Auckland student bar. Zhang described it as “pretty laddy” and it was, in fact, packed out with lads.

The yelling began less than a minute in. Artie Kouts, the representative from TOP, raised universal basic income (UBI) for the first time, in response to a question on student welfare. The crowd became incensed. “COMMUNIST,” they spat.

TOP’s UBI is not communism, but Kouts did not get a chance to explain this because whenever he spoke, the room chanted “UBI! UBI! UBI!” at him. Even the microphone joined in at one point, interrupting every sentence with a low whale-ish moan like a sonic Moby Dick.

NZ First’s Jay McLaren-Harris took the microphone to declare the crowd members yelling at Kouts “a bunch of nutters”.

McLaren-Harris is a 20-year-old entrepreneur and motivational speaker, and has never been a tertiary student. He was booed for this. Reading the room, he gave a short answer to the question of financial support for students: “If university students don’t think it’s enough, then it’s not enough.”

During our Youth Wings series, he was reluctant to express a clear position on much except that referendums are good. “We need to take educated approaches to these things,” he said at the time about cannabis and the end of life bill. Last night, he’d clearly done some learning.

“I’ve voted,” he said. “And I voted yes on both.”

NZ First is unlikely to get back into government this election but McLaren-Harris, like his leader, doesn’t reckon you should count your polls before they hatch.

young politicians face off at a baby back benches event - focus is on Jay McLaren-Harris, who is sipping from a glass of white wine

From left: debaters Artie Kouts, Natalie Dolan, Jay McLaren-Harris, and moderator Sherry Zhang.

Keeping things succinct is a skill Young Labour’s Adam Brand has, too. Unlike most politicians-in-training, he doesn’t see a debate as a chance to get the full party spiel out. He sees it as being asked questions and responding to them. He finished his first jug of beer 16 minutes in, and Zhang punctuated the chug with a question: should prisoners be allowed to vote? “Yes,” he said, and put the microphone down.

Brand probably got the fewest boos of anyone, an achievement for a Labour stalwart in a right-wing crowd. It’s hard to say whether this is because he’s a debate strategy genius or because he didn’t go on long enough to be interrupted. Perhaps that’s a strategy in itself.

Brand and Poole, both well over six feet tall, were comfortable at their standing desk. National’s Aryana Nafissi, much smaller, was on her tiptoes the entire night. This is a great example of equity versus equality. Equality is what we saw last night: three people standing on the same surface. They were given the same starting line. Equity would be Shadows providing Nafissi with a stool so she didn’t give herself calf-cramp and could be seen by the crowd.

The wealth gap was raised. Unfortunately, capital gains could not be discussed because at the first mention half the room descended into apoplexy and howls of “COMMUNISM”.

The Greens’ Natalie Dolan wouldn’t be deterred, and said a wealth tax might be a good idea, actually. She got some cheers from those in the room who weren’t frothing in a pile in the corner.

Poole hates a wealth tax. “You cannot tax wealth from prosperity,” he said. “You have to build it from the bottom up.” At least regarding the first half of that, he’s not wrong.

From left: Adam Brand, Felix Poole, Aryana Nafissi. Someone give Nafissi a stool please.

Nafissi, who during our Youth Wings series was open to working with whoever she needed to in order to attain her blue-green vision, was quick to distance herself from fringe elements when discussing the Covid-19 response.

“We are not the Jami-Lee Ross Advance Party, we’re not those 5G, anti-lockdown people.” She thought the lockdowns worked pretty well. “We did a good job, but not good enough,” she said. “We are not the world leader. The world leader is Taiwan.”

Poole chimed in here. “The reason we did so well is because we are two island nations at the bottom of the world.” McLaren-Harris was furious: “What about Stewart Island?!” he demanded. Oh, how the tables have turned since they last faced off, when Poole called him “ridiculous”.

During the intermission, chat from some of the crowd was tense. “Let’s just remind ourselves that we’re at Auckland University,” said one young woman. “You can’t expect much from a racist university,” agreed her friend. Earlier in the evening, when the disproportionately high Māori incarceration rates were brought up, a crowd member had laughed “just lock them all up!”

When sexual harassment was raised, the crowd was reluctant to take the issue seriously. A brief content warning from Zhang spurred one man to yell “wrap yourself in bubble wrap”. He laughed throughout the segment.

Obviously, the question was meant for Poole; Young Act had an investigation into its culture after allegations of sexual harassment and even assault by members of the group were raised. Poole responded with the gravity the subject required, even if the crowd didn’t. “Young Act are doing a lot and I’m happy to see we’re making progress on this issue,” he said.

The Act Party has taken no further action regarding the completed investigation, and Young Act is operating as normal.

When an older member of the crowd heckled, he was interrupted with something pretty cooked: “You’ve got dementia, you shouldn’t be commenting on politics.” He didn’t speak for the rest of the debate, shamed for his age when racism was allowed to flow unchecked.

Zhang had to manage the pit of wrath mostly on her own, with a little help from the debaters. “It wasn’t moderating, it was trying to control a room full of teenage boys,” she told me later.

During the last leg, Poole suggested the government could support surf lifesavers a little. “COMMUNISM,” screamed the crowd. Brand finished another jug.



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