James Dann goes to a candidates meeting in a tightly fought seat. And the event’s biggest star, Gerry Brownlee, isn’t even standing there.
Meet the candidate sessions are a wonderful opportunity for us to come together for two hours, ask our representatives and potential representatives important and meaningful questions, listen patiently to their responses, then leave two hours later, even more sure of the opinions we held when we came in.
While it might not have the history and hilarity of the Aro debate, the ARA Christchurch Central Q&A Session was a reflection of the messy and sometimes unnecessary elements of democracy outside of the beltway. The debate was held in the atrium of the ARA Institute of Technology – formerly CPIT, or the Christchurch Polytech to most people. It is a busy, noisy thoroughfare on the Madras St campus, with plenty of perplexed students dropping by on the lunch break, wondering who all these people are and why they brought so many goddamn signs. This is truly a bumper year for the corflute industry.
The surprise guest is Gerry Brownlee – who has stepped in to cover for the sitting Christchurch Central MP, Minister Nicky Wagner. It’s a strange situation: at the last election, the Labour candidate for Ilam (checks notes) James Dann complained that Brownlee wasn’t showing up to meet the candidate events in the electorate. One of the questions from the floor asks him just that – why is he here, in another electorate, when just last week he declined to appear at an event in the seat he’s running for? There are two possible explanations. The first is that Wagner – who is a minister, so theoretically quite busy – was at another engagement and simply couldn’t make it. The second, more cynical interpretation, is that National were worried about how she would perform in such a debate, and so they hooked her.
Given the updates to her Facebook, it looks like she was “busy” with her associate Conservation portfolio, going for a tramp on Banks Peninsula. Maybe the National Party got the invite, quickly arranged this important meeting with some trees, and then found a replacement. Who knows. What we do know is that by putting Brownlee into the mix, they successfully avoided any potential “rather be out on the harbour” stuff-ups, and starved Labour’s Duncan Webb of oxygen he might have got if he and Wagner had been in the same room going head-to-head. Sitting between Brownlee and Webb are the Green Party candidate Peter Richardson, and The Opportunities Party’s Douglas Hill.
The event starts off with each getting a couple of minutes for their stump speech. Brownlee touches on the core National messages – we need to reduce tax, we have a strong economy, freedom of choice is the most important thing (I assume he is talking about the libertarian touchstone, not the DEVO song.)
Richardson is up next and immediately talks about the Greens raising the top tax rate, to cheers from the crowd. Douglas Hill is TOP’s youngest candidate, and at 7 on their list, has a more realistic chance of making it to parliament than, say, someone ranked at 56 on the Labour list. He’s got a Master’s in biological sciences from Canterbury University, and helpfully tells us that “all our bad statistics have been rising”, which I’m sure is backed up with a series of peer reviewed studies on bad statistics.
Next up is Labour’s Webb, who was previously a partner at fancy law firm Lane Neave. During his speech, I go deaf in my right ear, due to the misfortune of being next to his campaign manager, former Christchurch Mayor Garry Moore, who shouts ferociously each and every time Webb finishes a sentence.
Webb is in a tough fight, one that a month ago I would have said he was going to lose. Wagner won with a 2,500 vote majority in 2014, and has been elevated to a ministerial role. The boundaries of Christchurch Central have changed extensively since the quakes, and it makes little geographical sense any more. But with Labour’s change of leadership, Webb is probably now odds-on win. Change, or something that smells suspiciously like it, is in the air. He’s a charismatic speaker, and has been an outspoken critic of the government’s handling of EQC and insurance issues, which feature prominently in the questions from the floor.
For the first hour or so the questions get rotated around the candidates. Asked if they would vote in support of David Seymour’s End of Life bill if they were in parliament, the Green candidate responds by saying “well, I’m not going to be in parliament, so I’m not going to make the call”, which is refreshingly honest.
Someone asks Brownlee to define “crisis”, with respect to the housing situation. He dismisses the premise of the question, before segueing into an anecdote about some state houses on Blenheim Rd that they had to do meth testing on, which proves that state houses grow meth, or something, I don’t know.
The TOP candidate asks how he will ever buy a house in this economy, to which some smart-arse from the floor suggests he “borrow from Gareth”. As the event drifts on, the questions get angrier and more pointed, the crowd thins, and it largely becomes a case of Gerry versus disgruntled people in the crowd. Brownlee repeatedly goes over the bell – possibly justified, considering that most of the questions are personal attacks on him. Webb quips, “Gerry doesn’t seem to know about time”, to which some asshole in the crowd yells “he knows about lunch time!”
Though we all pay lip service to the idea that meetings like this are the lifeblood of democracy, they are largely pointless. Even at a well-attended meeting, you’ve got a tiny proportion of the people who can vote in the electorate – and 99% of those in the crowd are already very sure of whom they’re going to vote for. The only reason any of these sessions is going to make the national media – and thus have any impact on the election – is if one of the candidates says something very stupid or very offensive.
While in the past Brownlee’s offhand remarks have almost caused international incidents, he’s actually a pretty safe pair of hands for this sort of thing. Even though the questions are meant to be pitched at all candidates, most of them relate to EQC and are directed at him. He deals with them remarkably well, and he doesn’t lose his temper at any of the questioners. With some who appear to have very difficult situations, he offers to meet them after the debate to talk to them further.
The three candidates (Richardson has left already) are asked who will be the next prime minister. TOP guy says that he thinks it will be Jacinda, but TOP can work with anyone. Webb tells the crowd that it’s a choice between an old white guy and an exciting young woman – before Brownlee interjects to say that Bill English is actually younger than Webb.
Despite the hostility, the minister seems to be in his element. At the end of one long riff he finishes up and turns to the MC, catching himself before he addresses her as “Mr Speaker”. For the Leader of the House, who has spent more than 20 years being doused by the waterfall of shit that passes for our parliamentary debating chamber, spending his lunch time taking lame insults from people who are never going to vote for him must be a breath of fresh air.
The candidates wrap up and I wander back across the road, pondering on this largely unedifying spectacle. The only real winner is Brownlee – and he isn’t even running in the electorate. Here in Christchurch, we try not to mention the “r” word – resilience – after it was beaten to death in the wake of the quakes. But that’s exactly what Brownlee has shown. Irrespective of his politics, which I personally still find repellent, it must be an incredibly dehumanising experience to front to a hostile crowd for two hours, to be pelted with abuse, with fat jokes, with cuss words – and then to stay afterwards to talk to these same punters with a smile on his face. None of the other candidates have done themselves much harm either, not even Wagner, whose absence is barely remembered by the end.
James Dann, the breakfast host on RDU, was Labour candidate for Ilam in 2014
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