There is no more reliably rowdy candidate meeting than the one held just off Aro Street in Wellington. Danyl Mclauchlan puts on his waterproofs and heads to the hall.
“Like Back Benches on mescaline,” is how MC Bryan Crump billed the 2017 Meet the Candidates evening at Aro Valley Community Centre. The meeting is famous for drawing a very large and unruly crowd which compresses itself inside a very small hall and then spills out into the park and courtyard outside; famous for the wide variety of its candidates, who range from across the political spectrum and way, way outside the mainstream in which most New Zealand politics operates.
Previous years have featured the head of the Worker’s Party, who treated audiences to a communist version of “All Things Bright and Beautiful” (“The workers made them all”), the Libertarianz, the New Economics Party whose candidate screamed at the crowd “The invisible hand ate all its fingers and is now the invisible stump,” and Michael Appleby, the leader of the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party, whose solution to every conceivable problem in New Zealand politics was the legalisation of cannabis (“What’s your policy on reducing carbon emissions?” “If we legalise cannabis and use hemp for biofuels …”)
And the event is famous for its rules: every candidate is allowed to speak for three and a half minutes, and then a cowbell rings, and then thirty seconds later, if they’re still speaking they’re soaked with a powerful water pistol, although, as usual this turned out to be less of a hard-and-fast rule and more of a weak justification to drench the politicians at random, or whenever the crowd demands it, which is often.
The crowd is just as large, if not larger than previous years but the speakers are not as diverse. Crump, who takes the night off from Radio New Zealand to host the event, begins by celebrating the unique nature of Aro Valley and its contribution to the wider economy. “The valley is as deep as it is wide, as the kaka flies, and has long been a hotbed of political ferment. The goats in the valley are not feral although the owners probably are. Also, we have supplied Wellington’s drug needs for more than half a century. But,” Crump warns. “I fear creeping gentrification.” The crowd mutters darkly. “Even damp hovels on Devon Street are worth multi-million dollars.”
And proof of the gentrification is right up there on the stage. “There are seven candidates,” Crump explains. “With seven points of view. Possibly more.” But there are no radical libertarians or cannabis activists or people who scream about invisible stumps. Instead there are mostly serious professionals: Grant Robertson, Labour Party Machiavelli; James Shaw, currently the Green Party’s sole co-leader; Nicola Willis, the National candidate, a former Fonterra executive and advisor to John Key, who, upon arriving gravitates towards a crowd of adorable children with the instincts of a natural politician and only recoils slightly when she sees that most of them have dreadlocks; Geoff Simmons from TOP, Gareth Morgan’s second-in-command, who arrives in a bicycle helmet and poncho and then changes in front of the crowd, whipping off his singlet while the room chants “No top! No top!; Andy Foster, a Wellington City Councilor standing for New Zealand First.
The only non-professionals are Independent candidate Gayaal Iddamalgoda, a legal organiser for FIRST Union, whose solution to every problem is the destruction of capitalism, which is met with the same deafening roar of approval that the now mainstream and thus banal legalisation of cannabis once was; and Michael Warren from the ACT Party who shouts defiantly at the crowd “I don’t even want to win this fucking seat,” as hecklers call on him to dance for them and a dreadlocked child soaks him with a water-gun.
Once Crump has explained the rules, pleaded with the crowd not to live-stream the event because the violation of fire safety rules are so flagrant and been soaked with the water gun to demonstrate its efficacy, the debate is under way. The first speaker is Gayaal, who is campaigning to end the exploitation of migrant workers. He only wants two things: the end of that migrant exploitation and also the end of capitalism: it’s a simple manifesto so he’s finished before the bell sounds, ending with an encouragement to the crowd to spoil their ballots when they vote.
Next up is Andy Foster who talks movingly about his passion for the environment. The crowd murmurs in disbelief. Where does New Zealand First get off telling us about the environment. When Foster warns that “Carbon emissions are going the wrong way,” someone yells “Tell that to your party.” He replies, “I’m talking about me,” and he continues to do as the crowd urges New Zealand First to follow other parties lead in recent times and change their leader, until he is drenched with water, while Robertson and Shaw, seated behind him, cower behind their jackets.
Next up: ACT’s Michael Warren, who has accurately read the mood of the room. “How would you like it if I spoke for more than four minutes so I get squirted in the face,” he jeers. “Would you like to see that? Huh?” He urged the three centre-right voters in the room to vote for ACT, “And we’ll leave it there.”
‘Of course we’re not going to leave it there,” Crump purred, gently but firmly blocking Warren’s exit from the stage. “Any questions for the ACT candidate?” There are! “Do you agree with the ACT Party position that poor people should not have children?” “What’s your actual policies?” “Why is ACT polling lower than one percent?” “There’s always shitting on a minor party when they’re in government,” Warren explains, and the crowd shrieks “Spray him!” and he is sprayed.
National Party up-and-comer Nicola Willis takes the stage. “Go you guys!” she calls at the crowd, who are mostly booing her. “I want to give a shout-out to the Young Nats.” The Young Nats are all arrayed along one wall, in bright-blue T-shirts, with their red-tee-shirted counterparts in Young Labour lined up on the opposite side of the room. “Party of virgins,” yells a heckler. Willis also gives shout-outs to Norway Street, where she once flatted, the Garage Project, an Aro Valley brewery and bar, because it is an exporter, and to all the young people in the room, before going on to explain that people should vote National because Wellington is going well and New Zealand is going well, and Labour will ruin everything.
This message is not well received, but Willis is diligent and remains on message all night, although often while wiping her face dry through a brilliant, clenched hateful smile. All politicians have to make compromises along the way. “Swallow dead rats,” they call it, although it is hard to believe any other candidates in the country have to swallow quite as big a rat tonight as Willis, spending two hours being soaked and jeered at while trying to convince the people of Aro Valley to vote National.
Next up is James Shaw, who is introduced by Crump as “The man who would be prime minister if Aro Valley decided the election. Although,” Crump reminds us, “It would be Legalise Cannabis who would hold the balance of power.”
“Man it is good to be home,” Shaw greets us, before promising to restore and replenish forests, make New Zealand carbon neutral and end poverty. A child in the audience raises their hand. “A question from her,” and the child replies to Crump, “I’m a him!” and then to Shaw, “If you could do one thing and only one thing what would it be?” “Spend more time with my wife and make New Zealand carbon neutral,” Shaw replies.
The next-to-last speaker is Geoff Simmons. He is introduced as “Gareth Morgan’s media minder,” a reminder that there are worse fates in life than being a National candidate in Aro Valley. “TOP will kill capital gain,” Simmons swears. “We will put a stake in the heart of the vampire that is capital gain and send it back to the underworld.” TOP will do this, he explains, not by going into government but by sitting on the cross-benches and screwing the government as hard as they can. Simmons is asked what a femo-fascist is and replies, “I have no idea.” TOP’s drugs policy is to “legalise and tax sweet, sweet cannabis.” Simmons continued to talk about taxing equity while being soaked with the water gun and declared, “I’m enjoying this.”
The final speaker is Grant Robertson, who takes the stage with a red umbrella, but then decides not to open it indoors “Because we’ve already had nine years of bad luck under National.
“I was going to be relentlessly positive,” Robertson continues. “Because that’s what we’re doing now, but I’m not going to be lectured by Nicola on policy.” He then denounces his National Party rival before pivoting to his stump speech. A consummate electorate MP, Robertson names all the local community workers and promises that on the 23rd of September when the Labour government is elected, the Aro Valley creche will have a sandpit, the health centre will have proper support and the school proper funding, before vowing, in a righteous and thundering climax, “And of course there will be milk and brioche in all the cafes.”
After Robertson’s speech it is time for the General Debate. The water gun is refilled by a member of the audience, from a flask which they assure Crump contains “mostly water.” It is then passed to the children sitting at the front of the crowd so that all of the candidates can be soaked and miserable on an equal basis. Crump cautions the children that he is trusting them to be responsible with the weapon, a trust that is very quickly shown to be misplaced. The candidates attempt to answer questions about the failing mental health system, the Resource Management Act and immigration policy while randomly timed jets of water aimed at their faces reduce them to spluttering silence and the cowbell chimes erratically.
Some highlights of the General Debate questions: “How will your parties link the North Island with the South Island?” Robertson: “Sounds like this might be one of National’s ‘Roads of National Significance’.” “Can you introduce yourself in Te Reo?” Everyone could except the ACT candidate, who explained apologetically that he went to school at Onslow College; Andy Foster: “I’m told Winston Peters helped make Te Reo an official language.” Robertson: “He did if he was part of the fourth Labour government.” “Question from the lady in the Republic of Aro Valley T-shirt.” “How will you improve the diversity of representation in parliament.” Willis: “I like to think I’m more than lipstick on a pig.” “How will you improve the value of art in our society?” “Capitalism ruins art so let’s get rid of capitalism.”
The final question at the Aro Meet the Candidates event is always the same. “If you couldn’t vote for yourself, what person on the stage would you vote for?” The ACT candidate does not live in the electorate so can’t vote. Nicola Willis would vote for James Shaw “Because he’s had a rough couple of weeks and I feel sorry for him.” Geoff Simmons would vote for “the guy who looks good in a wet shirt”, gesturing at Shaw, whose shirt is so drenched it is transparent. Independent candidate Gayaal will vote for himself because no one else will, and Andy Foster would vote for Grant. James Shaw would also vote for Grant because “he’s done a superb job as electorate MP”. Robertson reciprocates. “Because there’s an MOU,” and the Labour and Green candidates clench hands and hold them up high and the crowd roars its approval as they stand, dripping and grinning together.”
And with that the event is over. I fight my way out of the ancient two-seater couch I’m wedged into with three other people, and shuffle with the crowd to the fire door at the back of the hall. Outside it is dark and cold. Sheets of drizzle sweep between the halos of lamp-light in the park, like giant ghosts. “It wasn’t quite the same as last time,” a friend I bump into suggests, and I agree. The glowing homes on the ridgeline atop the valley look down on us: gleaming gentrified villas, each now worth many millions of dollars; the lower streets in the valley are dark, lined with cars, some of them with families living in them.
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The world is encroaching on Aro Valley. A horde of children run past us in a blur of hemp T-shirts, bouncing blonde dreads and bright, gleaming eyes. They’re free, for now, to grow up as non-gender binary citizens of the Republic of Aro Valley; free to roam its goat-haunted streets and brioche-haunted cafes, running wild beneath its kaka-haunted skies. But for how long?
Danyl Mclauchlan is a novelist, writes the Dim Post blog, and volunteers for the Green Party.
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