Photo: TVNZ/Andrew Dalton
Photo: TVNZ/Andrew Dalton

PoliticsSeptember 26, 2023

Groans and giggles at the TVNZ Young Voters’ Debate

Photo: TVNZ/Andrew Dalton
Photo: TVNZ/Andrew Dalton

Six hopeful candidates from parties likely to make it into New Zealand’s next parliament debated the issues at front of mind for young voters. Charlotte Muru-Lanning reports from the studio.

“Feel free to laugh and to clap,” John Campbell told the audience jovially just before the debate kicked off. There would be six “human beings” on the stage, he reminded the crowd, but “feel free to be yourselves”. And the audience well and truly took the veteran broadcaster’s advice on board, offering up a full spectrum of reactions by way of cheers, sighs, cackles and applause throughout the evening.

After the Chris v Chris snoozefest of a debate last week, the TVNZ Young Voters’ Debate last night, featuring candidates from six political parties, was a much needed dose of pizzazz: on the pulse, probing, feisty and, at times, totally bizarre.

Setting the scene was a sharp opening monologue from the moderator, Re: News’s Anna Harcourt : “In the supermarket today, one cabbage was $7. With that and the cost of rent, plus of course, oh you know, the impending doom of climate change, it can feel like a pretty shit time to be a young person.” It was then off to the six party candidates to say, in 30 seconds, why young people should vote for their respective parties.

The Greens’ Chlöe Swarbrick was first off, lamenting the “boring bland proposals by the two Chrises” before imploring voters to take charge of their futures and recognise their “collective power” by voting two ticks Green. 

Photo: TVNZ/Andrew Dalton

Ex-Shortland street actor and 12th on NZ First’s list, Lee Donoghue was next up, garnering quiet giggles among the audience with party priorities like tackling “woke extremism”, saying “no to co-governance” and putting the “K back in iwi”, before eventually mentioning the cost of living (an issue we would later find out is, unsurprisingly, the number one issue among young voters). 

Labour’s Arena Williams highlighted what she described as her party’s commitment to climate change, along with their cost of living package, with specific mention of free dental for under 30s, free prescriptions, half-price public transport – but, intriguingly, no mention of the party’s tenuous policy for GST off fruit and vegetables.

Act deputy leader Brooke Van Velden’s spiel started off smoothly: “If you’re worried about climate change, the cost of living, the housing unaffordability,” she began, before hitting a bump in the road with an unfortunate verbal blunder: “and just the ability to get head in our society…” 

The youngest candidate of the debate, 21-year-old Hana-Rawhiti Maipi-Clarke of Te Pāti Māori, acknowledged the death of party co-leader Rawiri Waititi’s mother earlier in the day, before reiterating her job “to tell our story” and to “speak our truth”.

The oldest on the debating panel, 45-year-old National Party candidate Erica Stanford (selected ahead of colleague Simeon Brown, 32), highlighted the importance of local opportunities for young people and contrasted that with the country’s state of “serious financial shtook”, before finishing with a peace sign to the camera when she was cut off by the buzzer.

Throughout the next one-and-a-half hours, the debate jumped between the issues most pressing to young people, as determined by polling from Ipsos and Re: News. To the surprise of no one, cost of living was revealed to be the number one issue, which was then followed by climate change, rainbow rights and housing. 

If you had to pick a winner in the room, it would be Swarbrick, with many of her responses eliciting loud claps and cheers from the audience – she had a hold over the entire studio. Donoghue stole the show too – but for all the wrong reasons. With almost all of his responses peppered with forced-sounding buzzwords like “indoctrination”, “woke extremism”, “cancel culture” or “radical left”, he was the constant subject of groans and jeers from the crowd.

It was a question from moderator Harcourt to Donoghue about the party’s sole education policy, which is to remove “gender ideology” from the school curriculum, that really saw the debate set alight. His justification for the party’s policy was that they had been inundated by parents concerned by the “complex, sexual, inappropriate kind of discussions happening at school”. 

Swarbrick interrupted, saying that affirming people’s gender was simply about respect and that evidence showed trans people and children were more highly represented in poor mental health and suicide statistics. Donoghue said to the audience, “we can’t shut people up because it hurts their feelings,” to which Swarbrick quickly quipped, “I think you’re talking about consequences, bro”.

Photo: TVNZ/Andrew Dalton

The whole scene that ensued was fascinating in terms of party dynamics too – especially as according to polling numbers, each of these parties will be in parliament over the next term. Swarbrick and Maipi-Clarke might have been on opposite sides of the debating bench, but echoing the geniality between their respective leaders at the Newshub debate last week, there were frequent nods and claps in affirmation between the two. In contrast, Maipi-Clarke responded briskly to Donoghue’s attempts at interrupting her message to takatāpui, saying, “you do not interject into my korero”. And while it was only just caught on cameras, she continued to scold him as Harcourt began asking the next question.

As for the relationship between the potential coalition trio of National, Act and NZ First, Van Velden stepped in as an attempted mediator between Swarbrick and Donoghue to encourage the pair to “agree to disagree”. Swarbrick retorted, “I’m not gonna deny people’s existence, I’m sorry,” to applause from the audience. And at the end of it all, Stanford said firmly that transgender students’ use of bathrooms was a non-issue, and simply a distraction from actual problems.

Beyond all the fireworks, which are part and parcel of MMP debates like this, it was this centering of the human beings at the receiving end of policies, rather than politics as a game, that really gave this debate its shine. And that’s something that’s easier to do when the format revolves around a more focused set of issues – such as those for younger voters. There was powerful use of short clips during the debate, which, in one especially poignant section, highlighted the numerous high schoolers working upward of 40 hours a week on top of school to support their families. Not only did it provide a stark reality check for those promising, well, not very much at all for these communities, but also to underscore the potential cruelty of the policies of others.

The feelings of disenchantment among young people in New Zealand when it comes to parliamentary politics is evident in their voting papers, or perhaps, in their lack thereof. In 2020, around 77.4% of eligible voters cast a vote, but among those aged between 18-24, only around 60% voted. In response to this, the message of last night’s debate was clear. While policies might seem inconsequential in theory, for many young people – whether it comes to cost of living, climate change, rainbow rights, housing or beyond – their results are immediate: your vote counts.

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