election debate at Auckland University last night in a semi drunken state because I was expecting a relatively sedate back and forth as the first major meet of this election between parties did not sound like it was going to be a big thing, so a few quiet beers would help ease the process along.
Seems I was wrong.
As election debates go it was not bad, we had some high drama, a few laughs and dashes of pathos and for nearly two hours I was increasingly drawn in by the thrill I always get from watching politicians interact in front of a an audience (seems I remain a political junkie through and through).
But it was also soon clear that sticking a range of MPs, from across the political spectrum, into a room full of youthful university students, and with Patrick Gower as MC had all the danger of watching those same politicians attempt to perform a complicated and dangerous circus trapeze act together (in some political version of Circus of the Stars); flying through the air without the benefit of a net, hoping to link hands at the crucial moment to avoid screaming earthward and going SPLAT!
First up Patrick Gower, who despite some blatant plays for the young university crowd (by calling them "special"), made the point that people needed to get out and vote but should have stopped there because when he started to reveal that he was stalking them on Facebook and Snapchat and summed it up that "NZ did not need to be made great" as it was great already it got sort of creepy. In fact he was so direct in tone and delivery that it sounded like he was running for office (drawing the comment from the crowd of "start a party!").
The cast of characters for the evening was as such:
Chris Bishop - National
Chris Hipkins - Labour
David Seymour - ACT
Marama Fox - Maori
Hone Harawira - Mana
James Shaw - Greens
Fletcher Tabuteau - NZ First
Absent - Peter Dunne from United Future (apparently too busy doing "paperwork") and outside protesting at not being invited - TOP supporters.
Next were the one minute intros and all seemed cordial and relaxed, a few jokes here and there (following on from Gower's humorous lead) and I noted that David Seymour seemed to have been working out as he positively bulged out of his suit looking like he may be on steroids or suffering from bad tailoring.
None of the opening statements were any indication of what was to come but I was soon reminded that MPs are seasoned debaters and speak at (or at least attend) debates in the House all the time so it was interesting to see them quickly fall into established patterns and behaviors as they got up to speak.
Then came the first topical question: Do you and your party support Donald trump and would you work with them if you got into government?
Tabuteau was paradigmatic by indicating that any government had to work with the president of the US, Shaw said no because he "could not support misogyny, racism and nationalism" (the first two I get but the third?) which drew lots of cheers but was always going to go down well with the young university crowd.
Harawira compared Trump to Hitler (although his actual phrase was "Nazi bastards"); Fox supported Hone but managed to get a dig in at National and Key in the process but "agreed to disagree" as a way of acknowledging the inevitability of the situation. Seymour disagreed on mostly economic grounds but again had to succumb to the political realities. Hipkins on the other hand went of the rails almost immediately by showing his ignorance of how the US electoral college works and just ranted.
Bishop said National would and drew the first real barb from Hipkins (knocking National of the time for not standing up to the US over nuclear visits) only to draw a counter barb from Seymour (who noted that many of the original founders of ACT were from the 84 Labour govt).
So far so good but like any good play by Shakespeare the seeds of tragedy were being sown as we watched.
Thus we came to the hard questions for each individual party. Gower seemed to be in his element as talk show host but it was at this point that I started to get a funny feeling in my stomach as Gower relentlessly kept on at the kind of questions he would never be able to ask elsewhere but was clearly keen to ask here, in front of the university crowd and was playing hardball (so to speak) by not taking evasive remarks for an answer.
The questions were the kind of thing everyone talks about but no one actually says to MPs because when asking a MP why their party or leader is so useless, deadbeat or doom-struck the response will often offend (or even hurt- but more on that later).
First question for National: Why is Bill English so boring?
Short answer: Bishop seemed sure that Kiwis would back a "bit of boring" in the coming election.
Gowers next question to Hipkins drew a few shocked gasps from the audience and smiles from both Bishop and Seymore: Why is Andrew Little the leader of Labour and not Jacinda?
And this is where it started to go off the rails, Hipkins could not answer the question and simply waffled away about democracy to no avail. I could almost see his brain running from left to right like an animal trapped in a cage while his eyes were those of something frozen in the glare of oncoming headlights.
Gower then went on to hit David Seymour with the comment that he was the leader of ACT "and that's it", Ouch!
It was a comment that Seymour could also not answer and the snide interjections from various MPs showed that the friendly mood of the speakers was slowly changing (as Gower's remarks started to draw out their natural political hostilities and rivalries) and his rambling non-answer did not help things.
He was eventually shut down by Gower who went on to ask Fox why Maori kept on "propping up National". Fox's answer was blather about the treaty, "compromise", shearing, Bill English and a plug for Hone Harawira. In short no real answer and specially when she highlighted the desperate plight of most Maori but seemed oblivious t the fact that her party may have had a hand in such a state developing by "compromising" with National in past governments.
So Gower went to ask Harawira what he was going to do to get back into Parliament? Harawira talked about mana (not Mana) not being in parliament and that he was the man to bring it back but again it was a question that could not be given any satisfaction and Gower, almost skipping around in excitement now, moved on to his next victim (James Shaw).
Gower asked Shaw about working with NZ First, and to his credit Shaw was able to be both sincere to Fletcher Tabeteau, to plug for any future ZN First/Greens cooperation in the future and throw in a bit of shade on Tabeteau in one short succinct answer. Well done James.
Then it was Fletcher's turn to "imagine a world without Winston" and could not do it so he laid it on thick and fast which drew hysterical chuckles from the audience and more ad libbing from Fletcher and a backhand comment from Fox about Winston being the "ultimate politician".
About this time (on my second beer) I reached for a pen and paper and started making notes sensing that the ride was really getting started.
So as I was scribbling away came the penultimate question, from Gower, you can ever ask a politician (the ultimate is "did you have sex with that person?") as Gower turned to cannabis use and started asking the assorted MPS if they had ever partook of the sweet leaf.
I wont say who said what and leave you to figure it out for yourself (or just watch the video) but the answers were revealing and showed that maybe cannabis use is not such an issue anymore (or then again maybe it is: watch and find out).
What was slightly harder to answer was what to actually do about it (legalize it, decriminalize or stay the same) and its here that most MPs could not actually say one of those three words without Gower hounding them to actually say it and it also revealed a wide range of party (and supporter) positions on the issue and how deep the issue can be with references to P, alcohol and past personal circumstances.
Gower then switched to game show host by having a quick fire question round on "did the MPs personally support euthanasia"?
And like Neo dodging bullets none of them could give a simple answer, all of them dodged that bullet. Top points for Harawira doing it Maori but to be fair it was a tough question and giving answers in context showed, like the previous cannabis question, that it probably needed it.
Best part was Seymour getting a big round of applause for his answer which was probably the most succinct of the lot. Amazingly all of them were basically the same on this issue and that shows that on matters which rise above politics (like the environment) its not hard to get a strong degree of consensus form all parties.
But the feel good friendliness ended immediately with the next question (superannuation) and I can only believe that Gower had structured his questions and their order so to derive the most drama from the proceedings.
Bishop, in attempting to convince the crowd that they would not "get screwed" by National, drew a crowd of boos and the debate immediately shifted back to the kind of in-the-house antics parliament is known for with the MPs lobbing stats, past histories and catcalls like trench bombs at one another.
The tones of voice went up and the fingers started to get pointed and Gower was clearly egging the behavior on by quickly switching between MPs to allow for grandstanding worthy of any business day in the House (and showing why political houses usually have speakers to moderate debate and keep things from getting too fired up too fast).
Worst offender who was Marama Fox who brought in the anecdotes and decided to ignore the stats from Statistics NZ while saying that the Maori Party will still support National if they made the next government. It was simple head in the sand behavior and cut to the core of why the Maori Party polls so badly even among Maori.
I was by now onto my third beer (happily drunk) and thoroughly enjoying the proceedings with the camera rapidly switching back and forth, in tight shots which gave the effect of watching the ball at a tennis game ping between players, only that this was not singles or doubles but a sextet of players all flailing away madly at the ball.
This was NZ politics at its best/worst with the party positions and policy getting mixed up in a cavalcade of accusations and vitriol and Gower pouring fuel on the fire by clearly letting his own bias infect comments by trying to use the argument that an individual should be penalized for their wealth come retirement despite any taxes they will have paid over their lives.
And he was clearly not finished, yanking the chains of the debaters further by shifting quickly into giving each MP one minute to come up with a solution to the Housing Hernia.
Bishop said there would be no "magic wand" solutions for lowering rents but only in the medium to long term and "could not promise" anything concrete. Chris Hipkins brought out Labours 10,000 houses a year and foreign speculators positions but also could not guarantee any drop in rents.
So then David Seymour stepped up to bat, said no, ignored the issue and then plugged his Facebook page and said nothing concrete. Marama Fox blamed Auckland city council as well as past Labour and National governments and seemed to be going somewhere with her argument for a moment but instead wandered off into the too hard basket for any real solution to the problem, started waffling and again had to be shut down by Gower.
Then Hone Harawira stood up and said that the housing crisis was "simple to solve" but that "these bastards" (indicating Bishop, Hipkins and Seymour) "did not have the guts to do anything about it". His solution was to make any new immigrants to the city buy a new home, which to my mind seemed like a good idea. He then fired off on speculation (like Fox had done) while talking over various interjections from those "bastards".
It was pure Hone and I agreed with him but the interjections from the bastards continued and Chris Bishop then fired off the shot which then set the angry off in Hone like a red rag to a bull (by noting law passed in Parliament to ensure MPs attended a certain number of days in the House due to Harawira's ongoing absences when he was last a MP) and I was suddenly watching smack talk on Friday night wrestling with swear words, personal insults and Chris Bishop and Hone rapidly heading towards blows given the tone and body language being displayed.
It was ugly, it was personal and it was clear that Gower had let things get well out of hand (something he later admitted) and while Bishop had fired the final shot it was also Hone's fault with his "those bastards" comment earlier which had helped preempt the spat.
James Shaw in trying to help keep things on a even keel made the comment that he knew it was a crisis when "rich white kids" could not get a house and inadvertently identified the demographic he comes from and is playing to. In the end his comments added little to dealing with the issue.
Fletcher on the other hand said what is probably the clearest statement of the night by saying that Chris Bishops knock on Hone for making it a race issue was insulting and that the actual race of the speculators was irrelevant, as that did not affect the actual speculation going on gaining cheers for shutting Bishop down and pointing out Nationals hypocrisy on the issue (showing that National has an immigration policy which needs open and high levels of immigration).
Gower, sensing that he had to keep things tight or he would have a real fistfight on his hands quickly tried to warp things up by asking the question: what would party X have to make life easier for students?
Bishop and Hipkins gave predictable replies, Seymour drew plenty of boos by saying he would put interest back on to student loans and then attacked university students as "privileged"; Marama Fox had some good suggestions but whats the point because she will likely never be in a position to enact them so they sounded good but added little.
Hone then got up an apologized for his previous outburst (perhaps realizing that he had killed any chance of 99% of the audience ever voting for him or Mana) but had little further to add at this point so made Obama hands and echoed Foxes comment about free education for all. James Shaw could not stop the feel goods from happening by making more empty promises and taking up time but adding nothing else.
Finally Fletcher got up and, clearly frustrated as often being the last person to be given a chance to speak and then pressured by Gower to hurry up when others got to waffle said what he said and sat back down, like the others it meant nothing.
Gower then ended by asking a question about Nazis, did it matter what kind of Nazis, no it did not and nor did the answers.
And that was it, one hour and 50 minutes long, although it seemed longer and probably would have been if Gower had not cut it short. I was five beers in by that point, drunk and my handwriting had descended to illegible scrawls on the paper followed by way to many punctuation marks.
On performance I felt that each MP tended to reflect their party and parties positions no matter how hard they tried to be themselves and it says a lot when a room of semi random MPs echo both the party line and often consciously seem to be modeling their behavior on that of their leader (the exception here being Seymour as he is the leader).
Chris Bishop was trying to be all Key when it came to facts and broad appeals to the populace but clearly did not have the personal appeal to carry it off, he tried but when under fire from Hone he could no longer channel John Key (as Key would have smiled and dealt the riposte without breaking a beat) and went feral fast.
Chris Hipkins seemed, like the Labour party, unable to fire emotionally or intellectually beyond a certain level and never really impacted with the crowd, it was all pre-planned slogans and phrases and nothing about him seemed to be actually him and in the end was a cautious echo of an echo of Andrew Little.
David Seymour, for all his faults did well, he could speak and make an argument and did not shy away from making point or stating his position but ACT has such a legacy and baggage that it will repel all but the true faithful once they know what the party really stands for.
Marama Fox said a lot and often had to be corralled to stop talking but for all of that she said little and its clear that she might mean well but she is out of her depth when placed on the spot and reverted to political blather like all the rest. Worse is that she clearly could not defend the Maori Party working with National and that really hurt her.
Hone Harawira says it like it is and for that I respect him but his inability to keep his temper in check I cant condone. He is explosive and his temper and tone might go down in some nation where fist fights are part of parliament and politics but undercuts all that he actually says here because his solutions for the Housing hernia were immediate and practical solutions which makes its a double shame that he cant just not act like an angry douche.
James Shaw remains a political lightweight, he can says some nice sounding things but like the Greens he is untested and his moral stance sounds like he will knee jerk when faced with a political reality, or worse, fold and compromise in the most gratuitous manner. He seemed to be the face of the new Greens and I do not like what I see.
Fletcher Tabuteau was clearly channeling Winston Peters but he was also the best speaker on the night, he spoke well, took positions and made no apologies (like Winston) but he was also able to be enough of his own man to say what he thought and could keep an argument short and on topic.
Partick Gower started the debate with a few jokes and played to the crowd but clearly had no idea where it was going and his lax moderation was primarily why things got so nasty towards the end, and this is a guy who has been around politics and political debates in the House, what did he think the speaker is there for?
Had it been a fistfight it would have been Gowers fault for having contentious questions, worded to be as divisive and sensational as possible and then not keeping the participants from teeing off on each other. Also he let his own bias creep in at times and that weakened his position as moderator and by the time Chris Bishop and Hone Harawira were one insult away from a bout of biffo he was powerless to stop it.
In short the MPs and Gower reverted to type we all know and loath and gave the debate all the drama of any normal day in the House when the speaker has gone to sleep and the kids start squabbling over the crayons.
By the time it was over I was drunk, hungry and disappointed. The main issues of the day were so divisive that it showed that no cross party solution is going to happen, and that like US politics and elsewhere, political parties will work to serve their own personal interests first and voters and the general populace be damned.
What this means for the coming election is clear though.
If you thought that the kind of political experiences that have rocked the US and UK were not going to go down here in NZ in September then you have another thing coming. Issues like housing, and now superannuation, are flags to rally around but also barometers of how disaffected the electorate are.
Sure the current crop of barometers on the night were mostly students but it was the MPs which showed that not even really pressing issues can bring them together and instead they regurgitate the party line.
And yes they can all form a general consensus on issues like drugs and euthanasia but the bigger and more pressing problems showed that politics and political blather will cripple them before they even start getting the seating arranged around the meeting table.
Finally I was surprised at the lack of media coverage of the event or reportage on how this lot behaved with the only one article I could find from the NZ Herald and that did not even mention the angry incident (maybe they were trying to be discreet) or the failure of Gower to keep it clean (so WTF Stuff?).
Just goes to show that you cant separate the politics from the politician.