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a man with a national party rosette standing next to someone with a cat in the hat hat
National’s Michael Woodhouse speaking at the Opoho Church election forum in Dunedin, with host Philip Somerville in the background during the 2020 election campaign (Alex Braae)

PoliticsSeptember 28, 2020

How a Dunedin election debate became the hottest ticket in town

a man with a national party rosette standing next to someone with a cat in the hat hat
National’s Michael Woodhouse speaking at the Opoho Church election forum in Dunedin, with host Philip Somerville in the background during the 2020 election campaign (Alex Braae)

Some election debates transcend simply putting candidates in front of potential voters, and become must-attend events in and of themselves. Alex Braae went along to the Opoho Presbyterian Church in Dunedin to see how one group does it.

Most political junkies have probably heard of the Aro Valley Meet the Candidates debates in Wellington. Politicians get sprayed with water pistols if they talk for too long, and everyone has a raucous old time. Some in the capital even think of it as the best election event in the whole three year cycle.

But to the south, there’s a rival for that title. For decades, the Opoho Presbyterian Church in Dunedin has been hosting an election forum that hits a perfect balance between entertaining and informing. And the community has responded – at last night’s event, every pew was packed and people were jammed into every spare corner of the hall. Election after election, it has grown.

In fact, the Opoho meeting is so popular that it changes the habits of the suburb around it. As attendee Abby Smith told me, normally people in Opoho just turn up to things a couple of minutes before they start, but she got there half an hour before and it was already looking busy. It was either her fourth or fifth time attending, she said, and after a while you learn the ropes.

Having the right host matters a lot. The moderator and organiser – legendary local journalist and retired former ODT news editor Philip Somerville – has been doing it for more than 20 years. He’s very sharp and easily commanded the respect of the room without being overbearing or taking himself too seriously. The reader who first told me about this forum included an intriguing detail in their pitch: that Somerville would “again” be wearing a Dr Seuss hat for the night. Somerville didn’t disappoint.

So why does the Opoho election forum work so well, and what are the lessons other meeting organisers could learn from it? Here are the elements to get right.

If you want entertainment, put the candidates on notice early.

Somerville’s opening monologue was a thing of beauty, combining an acute awareness of the news with sharp satire. Every candidate got a bit of a blast, particularly the sitting MPs who included former health minister David Clark and former National health spokesperson Michael Woodhouse. Speaking about the packed house, Somerville said “I see someone has slipped in the back – I suspect it’s a homeless man,” referencing Woodhouse’s recent misfire on a story about managed isolation facilities. Then he turned to Clark and said “the other late arrivals came by mountain bike.” The crowd loved it, and the MPs took it in good humour, setting the tone for the rest of the night.

Packed pews at the Opoho Church election meeting (Alex Braae)

Be ruthless about who gets to be on stage – but don’t shut down the right to have a say.

The criteria for inclusion was strict: a candidate had to come from a party that had gained 1% in a recent poll, and also be standing in the Dunedin electorate. That meant five candidates were on the stage, with the others coming from NZ First, the Greens and The Opportunities Party. Act and the New Conservatives were invited as well, but couldn’t attend because of work commitments and illness respectively.

Social Credit didn’t meet the criteria, and so weren’t invited. But the party’s Invercargill candidate Winsome Aroha turned up anyway, and asked for a chance to speak. She was given a minute alongside every other candidate introduction, but wasn’t able to get that far into her party’s complex monetary reform ideas before her time was up.

Be equally ruthless about speaking time, and keep it moving.

The longest a candidate got on any question was 60 seconds, and they were cut off with a stag caller (a hunting device that makes a ridiculous squawking noise) if they got too long-winded. It made them focus on the key points, and avoid rambling through a dissertation on the subject – a great risk in a university town like Dunedin. At times, it also allowed something of an escape clause for questions they didn’t necessarily want to answer, because it apparently wasn’t enough time to really cover all the ground.

Ask pointed and closed questions that give the opportunity for more open answers. 

“Should our present hate speech laws be extended? Is free speech sufficiently protected?” That was how one particular question was asked – it was direct and didn’t dwell on any unnecessary elaboration. It assumed those in the audience were starting with a reasonable grasp of the issue, and left space for the politicians to then outline how they thought the two aspects of the question intersected with each other.

Give the people and the politicians a chance to mingle. 

Halfway through there was a seven minute break (and it really was exactly seven minutes, timekeeping was very strict) along with a chance to talk afterwards. That matters a lot, because part of the point of an election forum is to give the people a real chance to address those seeking to represent them directly.

David Clark speaking to voters at the Opoho Church election meeting (Alex Braae)

Hold the event at alert level one.

This one is unfortunately outside the control of most forum organisers, but it makes a huge difference. Somerville noted after the event that a socially distanced version wouldn’t have worked. The energy of the meeting partly comes from people being packed close together, generating the energy that politicians then have to respond to. There was of course a QR code and hand sanitiser at the door.

Don’t let questions from the floor become statements.

We’ve all seen this happen, and it’s always annoying. Somerville approaches this as would a teacher with a slightly unruly class: lay down a ruling early on how much preamble to a question is allowed, and then stick to it. He admitted that in the past he’s even had to cut off personal friends who were getting too long-winded.

Don’t just do general elections – be a place for local elections too.

Last year the Opoho church held a forum for the local elections, spread over two nights because of how many candidates were standing. People were still talking about it this year, and by all accounts the crowd was even bigger for the second night.

Be a part of the community.

An underrated aspect of why some election forums work much better than others is around what the group organising it does for the rest of the electoral cycle. The Opoho Presbyterian Church is active in the community in a whole lot of ways – they’ve just come off a week of events around sustainability aimed at congregation and general public alike, for example. People come from other parts of town for this and other Opoho Church events too. Locals estimated that most of the crowd at the election forum wouldn’t have been part of the church itself, but may have come into contact with members through other community activities.

Keep showing up, year after year.

After a while, the most successful events become part of the fabric of democratic life, but to get there, they need to be consistently excellent. Last night was the seventh time Somerville has hosted it – he’s worn different outfits for different eras, and changes the format and quirks a little bit each time. Dunedin can only hope that Somerville’s retirement from journalism won’t also mean a retirement from hosting duties.

Alex Braae’s travel to Dunedin was made possible thanks to the support of Jucy, who have given him a Cabana van to use for the election campaign, and Z Energy, who gifted him a full tank of gas via Sharetank.

Keep going!