Who was involved?
The VUW Politics Society (PolSoc) last Wednesday hosted the first Wellington Central Electorate debate of the election season in the Hub. The participants included current Welly Central MP Grant Robertson, Green Co-Leader James Shaw, National Party Candidate Nicola Willis, TOP Deputy Leader Geoff Simmons, and Independent Candidate Gayaal Iddamalgoda, who is running for Wellington Central on a migrant/refugee rights campaign. The master of Ceremonies for the night was Jack Donovan of the PolSoc Executive.
This was quite a line up, and as one commentator put it, the event somehow managed to be "funny, engaging, boring, cringe worthy, fascinating and enlightening all in equal measure!"
Why this debate proved the 'apathetic students' stereotype wrong
The debate flew in the face of all conventional logic for attracting students to debates. It all suggests that students give a sh*t who wins this election year.
Instead of being hosted in the middle of the day, the debate was hosted at 6pm. Students didn't bumble out of classes and simply happen upon this debate, people from Vic (and Massey too) genuinely went out of their way to stick around to see these politicians or walk up that darn Kelburn Hill.
Usually debates are restricted to an hour or hour and a half at most. This electorate debate went for almost two hours, allowing it to give significant time to topics of interest to many students, issues such as tertiary education, the treatment of international students, mental health, cannabis and housing.
Finally there was not a single pizza to be seen. Apart from a small offering of fruit bursts prior to the debate, and an impromptu lolly scramble by Grant and James at the end, there was remarkably little food bribery. Which admittedly did leave my stomach grumbling, even if my thirst for knowledge about party policy was quenched.
This all shows the truth of the matter. It's an election year and students actually do want the chance to see what the various parties are offering. People were standing all around the hub once the sitting room was full to capacity. Grant Robertson in his opening address said "I'm so pleased to see you all here, I thought it was just going to be party political hacks" and James Shaw later described the crowd as "Yuuuuuge"
The PolSoc Facebook page summed it all up like this:
"Don't believe the stereotypes. Students want to know where our politicians stand on the issues. Students care. Students vote."
How did the candidates handle themselves?
Grant Robertson was the candidate to beat tonight. He's been the Labour MP for Wellington Central since 2008, and that experience showed on the night. Grant also had a strong ally in James Shaw, and they're joint shenanigans made the debate all the better.
Geoff Simmons had the tricky task of showing that TOP was more than the Gareth Morgan Party, and he went some way to showing that he could hold his own. Nicola Willis as the new National candidate for Wellington Central had a lot to prove. She spoke with passion and conviction, often drawing on her experience as a working mother with four kids, but the audience did not seem won over to the governments side by the end at all.
Gayaal Iddamalgoda the independent was the true under dog of the debate however. It was clear that on many topics, he was at a disadvantage as they fell outside of his primarily migrant rights focused platform. Yet his performance came across as very genuine, really endearing him to the crowd (he got a particularly large applause when he declared down with capitalism in his opening).
Key Points of the Debate
I do my best to summarize, but for the full details your best bet is checking out the livestreams Part 1 (Low def) and Part 2 (slightly higher def), which do suffer from technical difficulties in parts, but are certainly more comprehensive than my ramblings.
The Candidates on Tertiary Education
Geoff focused on how we at uni represented the privileged part of New Zealand, and if we want more people to share in that, we shouldn't make university free, but instead provide full time, free, early childhood education. TOP instead supported giving everyone between 18-23 a basic income of $200 "ten thousand dollars a year, no strings attached".
Grant agreed about early childhood care but also reemphasized his parties commitment to three years free tertiary education and that "178.81 a week is not enough to live on" so Labour was putting funding education ahead of tax cuts.
Nicola emphasized how good things are currently, and how National would continue to ensure that %82 of the cost of going to University would be funded by the tax payer. They would also increase the accommodation benefit and how she personally would ensure that "your regional council will ensure you have subsidized fares" but that ultimately it wasn't about "spraying the money gun around".
Gayaal said that University education should be free, and that this was all the more difficult because "student unionism has been destroyed in this country".
James Shaw said that the Green approach was to focus on improving the accommodation supplement, give free off peak travel to students on buses, and fixing the broken housing market.
The Candidates on Immigration and International Students.
This was where Gayaal was strongest. That migrants want the same things anyone wants, like job opportunities and a roof over their head. Yet working international students are particularly isolated from the workers movements and often end up exploited by their employers. His campaign therefore strongly endorses the "living wage for all workers".
Geoff talked about how some international students were seemingly taking dodgy courses in order to get a path to citizenship and getting exploited.
Grant also talked about the exploitation of international students, where they're encouraged to take courses "set up as money spinning arrangements" and how the type of New Zealand Labour wants, is not just one which tolerates diversity, but one that accepts and embraces it wholeheartedly.
James talked about how we need to talk much more about values and principles rather than numbers, and that there's been a tendency to treat immigrants as either a threat or a population to be exploited.
The Candidates on Health (particularly mental health)
Nicola was adamant that National was serious about tacking the mental health issue. That it had been increasing it's funding consistently, and has given it particular emphasis now, including new services. She specifically addressed student health as well, and about some of the experiences we'd had. She if there are problems we need to make the complaints through their official complaint system. Apparently there had only been twelve complaints (that seems like 12 too many to me but whatevs) this year, so action was yet to be taken.
Grant got a huge cheer when he called all this bullsh!t and Labour was going to put Mental health at the top of the priority list. He pointed to how one of the first things National did on entering government was removing improving mental health outcomes from the list of government targets. Nicola also later tried to claim that in the recently proposed budget by Grant, that Labour planned to cut funding to health, and both engaged in calling one another liars until the latter got up with a copy of the budget and explained how it was planning to inject 8 billion dollars more than what was the case under National.
James and Geoff both emphasized about how you need an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff and a fence at the top. James particularly talked about wait times and the stress on the health system, while Geoff focused more on the TOP basic income policies and how they want to legalize cannabis and use the tax on it to fund drug and alcohol treatment.
Gayaal admitted the topic was not his strong suit and mainly talked about how he'd noticed this argument that throwing money at the problem didn't make it go away. He couldn't think of a time when giving more money didn't help? So maybe they should try it? Applause ensues.
The Candidates on Drug Legalization
James Shaw began informing people about the tinnie house on Marama Cresent. He then talked about how the Green policy was to not just decriminalize, but legalize marijuana. He used the example of how Tobacco use had dropped, because there is a regulated point of sale where the price point, point of sale, and public health campaign. The war on drugs is not working. He said decriminalization was the worst option of all, "because the trade... remains in the hands of the gangs... who also sell... and other drugs".
In regards to cannabis, medicinal marijuana was now treated by Labour as a health issue. Grant spoke about his experience of sending quite a bit of time with Helen Kelly in her last days, and how there was nothing else that alleviated her pain in quite the same way.
Geoff reiterated his earlier points, but added that opening it only up to medicinal marijuana will lead to people faking chronic pain. Best to just Legalize.
Gayaal didn't have a specific policy on this but, thought it should be decriminalized to prevent more minorities being put in prison through drug laws.
Nicola Willis went against the grain on this issue, pointing to how if we want improvements to how mental health is dealt with, marijuana is a drug which does harm to people's brains. That the evidence points to young children and teenagers being particularly affected and therefore there are "reasons why as a mother, I don't want my kids smoking pot while they're teenagers" and went on to say that "marijuana isn't having a wonderful impact on any teenagers life" which the audience, found a tad incredulous to say the least. She did say however that National was making some "cautious" reforms in relation to accessibility of drugs for medicinal purposes.
The Candidates on Housing and Renting.
Grant spoke about various elements around housing, but also in particular addressed how we were absolutely rubbish in how rentals were addressed in New Zealand and how a lot more needs to be done around renters rights.
Nicola emphasized how under National, the rise in house prices had been less under National than the previous Labour government. She also emphasized the need to build warm, dry housing. She talked about how the government got 300,000 homes insulated for example. Furthermore they would work on ensuring it's easier for the council releases more land to be built on.
James talked about how the insulation scheme, that Greens helped negotiate, had now been cut, and that the 145 houses they are building in Wellington replace the 138 they knocked down. So 7 more homes National has given us. He then talked about how the Greens would bring in a rental warrant of fitness.
Geoff said you can't fix the crisis with building alone, the problem is the tax system. "They want to close the loop holes on housing" by taxing houses like other assets, but give it back to people through decreased income taxes. He declared that "An economy based entirely off buying houses off each other was f!cking crazy"
Gayaal talked about how he'd come across "a few landlords who have no shortage of houses" and that calling for housing as a human right, is not what causes the housing crisis, and finished by saying he was all for taxing the rich.
Nathan Holmes is a Law and Arts student Majoring in Political Science and Criminology. You can follow him on twitter @WhatIMeaning