Calum Henderson watches Face the Classroom, TVNZ’s two-night special that forced our politicians to confront their harshest critics yet – the children of NZ.
Move over Mike Hosking, Paddy Gower, Lisa Owen – it turns out the best political interviewers of this election campaign might just be a classroom of 8-12 year old kids from Ellerslie School.
TVNZ 1 special Face The Classroom sent the leaders of seven New Zealand political parties to be questioned by the kids in a two-part special on Monday and Tuesday nights. Based on Présidentielle: Candidats au Tableau! (‘Candidates on the Board’), which aired in the lead-up to the French presidential election in May, it was a pure, heartwarming ray of light piercing what has become an increasingly grim fight for political power.
For each leader, the class had prepared a short video of the kids discussing what they already knew about them. Greens leader James Shaw was there because former co-leader Metiria Turei had “resigned because she had done forgery” (“Er… not quite,” interjected kindly narrator Wallace Chapman). It was agreed that Opportunities Party leader Gareth Morgan had an awesome moustache, but “is it fake or real?” Bill English’s social media strategy was roundly derided: “Selfies [by] people over 30? Just… no.”
Jacinda Ardern was the first to front the class, eagerly answering questions on transport and housing. Shaw spoke enthusiastically about climate change and electric cars, before Morgan came in and made some of the kids cry with a harrowing story about refugee orphans in Lebanon: “You know what all those kids wanted to do? Hold you. All they wanted was love,” he said, the class hanging on his every word, “because those kiddies had seen their parents killed in front of them.”
Both the serious and not-so-serious questions were revealing in different ways. Some leaders translated their policies to a younger audience with ease – Ardern asked a lot of questions back to the class and created a dialogue with the kids, former teacher Marama Fox enjoyed an easy rapport – while others like ACT’s David Seymour looked like they were putting the class to sleep with their more drawn-out explanations.
Bill English appeared the most uneasy in front of the classroom, surprising for a politician who has made a point of reminding voters of the fact that he has children at every moment of his election campaign. The National party leader was rocked by a line of questioning from an ace interviewer called Estella, who asked “do you believe it’s slightly sexist” that he has never been asked about having children affecting his ability to lead. “Well you’ll make up your own mind about that,” he replied, tiptoeing around the dreaded s-word.
His responses to the fun questions showed him in a better light, joking with the class when they asked about comedian Tom Sainsbury’s Snapchat impersonations, which he claimed he hadn’t seen. All the leaders were good sports, even the cantankerous Winston Peters, who was asked why NZ First singles out Asian immigrants. “I don’t,” he replied. “If you go on my Facebook you’ll see thousands of Asian names that support our policies…” Later he revealed that he never checks his bank account – “and I’ll tell you why: ‘cos I’m flat out.”
Each class visit ended with the leader undertaking a one-minute challenge. Ardern and Peters were asked to paint self-portraits (the NZ First leader’s, completed with about 30 seconds to spare, was a Picasso-esque masterpiece), Shaw had to correctly sort rubbish into the right bin (wrongly putting a Pyrex jug in the recycling), while Seymour led the class in a singalong to The Exponents classic ‘Why Does Love Do This To Me?’
It probably won’t have changed many votes – at least no more or less than the televised leaders’ debates – but Face The Classroom was a timely reminder that no matter how loathsome you might find their politics, our political leaders are still ultimately all fundamentally decent people. And if their astute 8-12-year-old interviewers were anything to go by, it also served as a compelling case for lowering the voting age.
Watch Face the Classroom on TVNZ on Demand here
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.