Chris Hipkins on a walkabout at the Ōtara markets, August 2023.
Chris Hipkins on a walkabout at the Ōtara markets, August 2023.

PoliticsAugust 21, 2023

Chris Hipkins’ frantic Ōtara visit is a worrying sign of things to come

Chris Hipkins on a walkabout at the Ōtara markets, August 2023.
Chris Hipkins on a walkabout at the Ōtara markets, August 2023.

I have seen large crowds attend Labour campaign visits around South Auckland, but never like this, writes Sela Jane Hopgood.

The upcoming general election will be my third time covering the event as a journalist. After being assigned to cover the prime minister’s campaign visit to Ōtara markets over the weekend, I expected to see and hear a large number of cheerful Pasifika supporters at the Labour tent awaiting Chris Hipkins’ arrival, just as they did for Jacinda Ardern in previous campaigns. I can still hear the loud, vibrant cheers for Ardern in 2017 when she visited Māngere and packed out the town centre.

Panmure-Ōtāhuhu MP Jenny Salesa, along with her family, other Labour MPs and supporters were dancing to Angela Afeaki’s ‘Happy Happy Tonga’ song when I arrived at 9am. Attendees to the market queued up in front of the hot mini cinnamon donuts cart, which was parked next to Labour’s tent, and watched on as the youth supporters broke out into an impromptu tau’olunga dance.

I was intentionally early for the visit, but only because I know how busy the Ōtara markets get and I wanted to make sure I had time to find a carpark. I heard the Labour tent before I saw it, but I decided to walk around the markets first before checking in. It was quietly bustling, not as busy or as vibrant as I remember. A few food stalls had manageable queues, but otherwise I was able to move around the market freely.

At 9:20am, my walk through the markets was stalled, as Vision NZ’s Panmure-Ōtāhuhu candidate Karl Mokaraka and around 20 supporters were heading in my direction. I stopped to observe and was briefly greeted by Mokaraka, to which I thought, “I didn’t know they were also having their campaign visit today.”

After zig-zagging through the various stalls, I headed towards the Labour tent, where there was chant of “Let’s go Labour” and signs being waved. I didn’t see a tent for Vision NZ. 

Labour party visit to Ōtara markets
Vision NZ joining in on Labour party’s parade through Ōtara. (Photo: Sela Jane Hopgood)

Minutes later, Mokaraka and his group arrived next to the Labour supporters, relaying their concerns they had with the current government. “Labour will drive your business to the ground,” Mokaraka exclaimed, trying to get the attention of vendors nearby. Labour supporters would loudly respond with “Labour! Labour! Labour!” I watched as Mokaraka’s group slowly edged the party in red away from their tent. A Labour supporter took her sign and waved it proudly behind the Vision NZ supporters before they noticed and started using their signs to block her efforts. 

A man using a wheelchair and wearing a Vision NZ badge managed to manoeuvre around towards the Labour gathering holding a large party box speaker, so that Labour wouldn’t miss a word Mokaraka said. The Labour supporters started to get agitated, but Salesa quickly asked her group to not react and take caution, right as more media started to arrive at the scene.

Hipkins was scheduled to arrive at 9:55am and as he did, the police presence increased from four officers to 10. Salesa and her group immediately migrated over to Hipkins, greeted him and started walking towards the first aisle closest to his drop-off point. What I wasn’t expecting was Vision NZ to follow along and continue to chant their political messaging at Hipkins. Mokaraka says he was trying to ask the prime minister questions and raise his concerns, but all he really did was create chaos.

Hipkins still managed to stop, say hello and chat with some food vendors, but it was hard to not get distracted by Vision NZ forming a pincer movement and coming at Hipkins from all directions, some peeping from the side of the vendors’ tents to yell “he’s a liar”. Hipkins ignored the remarks as he was ushered on. Salesa’s teenage daughter, who was standing nearby, told me she was scared of the commotion and that their messaging made no sense. There was a couple waiting at Mama Otai’s stall, annoyed about getting bumped by a Vision NZ supporter.

Chris Hipkins talking with Ōtara markets' vendor
Chris Hipkins chatting with Ōtara market vendor. (Photo: Sela Jane Hopgood)

A lot of vendors stood shocked at how a peaceful Saturday morning had taken such a turn, before taking out their phones to record the action. The media ducked in between stalls to get a better view of the two parties awkwardly merging and I decided to head to the next aisle of stalls to wait for Hipkins round the corner, only to learn that he was heading the opposite direction, making a beeline for his vehicle parked outside Te Puke community centre. It was only 10.08am.

The Ōtara markets have been running for over 40 years, and I wonder if it’s ever seen a prime minister’s visit this frantic. Ardern’s visits were busy, but never tense. I thought it was interesting that Mokaraka would publicly mention his Māori and Sāmoan heritage while talking to Māori and Pasifika marketgoers, yet his approach of talanoa or talk was through confrontation and disturbance – I’m not sure I buy his explanation that he simply wanted to “ask the prime minister questions”. Thankfully, the heckling didn’t lead to anything violent on Saturday morning, but it does make you wonder if this sets the scene for many encounters Hipkins and others will have throughout this campaign.

This is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.

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