The road to the Treasury benches leads through the Aro Valley. This tiny bohemian community nestled in the foothills south of Wellington City is a vital battleground for winning the hearts and minds of New Zealand voters. So every three years, the Aro Community Centre forsakes its yoga classes and evening druid ceremonies, and hosts the notorious Te Aro Candidates Event.
7:00 PM. I arrive half an hour early. It is standing room only. The crowd could best be described as ‘a wretched hive of scum and villany.’ Disturbingly, there are many young people present. The event begins at 7:30, by which time the hall is packed beyond capacity, with dozens more people standing on a ledge outside the window peering in.
7:30 Jane O’Loughlin – the Aro Valley Community co-chair – introduces the candidates and pleads with the audience to ‘be kind’. She introduces the MC, Radio New Zealand host Brian Crump who is taking the evening off in the name of democracy. Crump is assisted by two dishevelled elderly men toting water pistols, with which they will soak candidates who talk for too long.
7:35 Introductory speeches.
First up is Gynn Rickerby from the Pirate Party, who has to speak first because he needs to go home and look after his daughter. He affects a pirate accent and explains that the Pirate Party has a terrible secret. ‘That secret is that we’re a serious party. Arrgggh.’ His policy is to reduce copyright to ten years. ‘Imagine,’ he implores us, ‘If every teacher had free access to ten year olds.’ He gets drowned out with laughter and then soaked with the water pistols.
James Shaw from the Green Party informs us he was born 175 meters from the Aro hall and that he wants to clean up New Zealands rivers. ‘Let the market decide,’ retorts a heckler. He also explains the Green Party plan to lift 100,000 children out of poverty. ‘What about the other 100,000?’
Reagan Cutting from the Libertarianz congratulates the audience for showing up ‘even though this isn’t the social event of the decade.’ ‘Pretty conforming suit, dude,’ sneers an audience member. Cutting warns about debt and explains, ‘You don’t get out of a hole by digging deeper.’ The audience demands to know if he’s a Flat Earther.
Crump announces that Alliance candidate Kelly Buchanan couldn’t make it tonight and sends her apologies. The crowd moans with sorrow and then someone cries, ‘Wait – who?’ They demand the Libertarianz candidate speak again.
Instead we get Laurence Boomert from the New Economics Party. We’re told he used to work for the ominous sounding ‘Bank of Real Solutions.’ Boomert yells out that ‘The old economics is done. It lead to the lights going out.’ So someone switches the lights in the hall out. Bommert is not deterred and continues, warning us about Wall Street. ‘If you turn society over to the wolves then you will get eaten, little lambs. The invisible hand ate all its fingers and is now the invisible stump!’
It is hard to tell exactly what Boomert stands for. He seems to oppose fiat currency, but is soaked with the water pistols before he can provide details.
Michael Appleby from the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party. If the role of Goblin King in The Hobbit is still uncast, Appleby would be a pretty good contender. He asks the crowd if they’ve ever smoked cannabis and a heckler assures him, ‘I’m high right now.’
Appleby is 72 years old and he’s been smoking cannabis for 64 years. (This seems incredible but my notes are very clear.)
Grant Robertson is the Labour candidate and the incumbent MP for Wellington Central. He explains that he’s one of the few candidates asking for our electoral vote. He opposes the fly-over and urges us to ‘vote for the real thing, not the imitation,’ while gesturing at National candidate Paul Foster-Bell, who does look an awful lot like Robertson.
Foster-Bell then speaks and insists he’s not an imitation – he’s the new and improved model. He asks for our party vote and the crowd shouts, ‘No!’ Then he launches into his election spiel: ‘The National government has invested in . . .’ But he’s downed out by cries of ‘Liar!’ ‘Sexy coal!’ ‘Where’s our bike track, bitch?’ Finally he sits down, defeated, while the crowd chants, ‘Double downgrade.’
Finally we get the ACT candidate, Stephen Whittington. He tries to warn us about some dire Labour policy, beginning, ‘Grant Robertson came out a couple of weeks ago . . .’ Robertson interrupts. ‘Can I just clarify that I came out twenty years ago.’ Whittington sets his teeth. ‘Grant Robertson recently said . . .’ The policy is to do with minimum prices for alcohol, which Whittington warns will lead to $70 bottles of gin.
8:00 Questions from the audience. An eight year old girl walks around the stage holding a New Zealand flag and receives the biggest cheer of the evening.
There’s a question about the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiation. The National candidate tries to reassure us his party would never do anything that wasn’t in the country’s interest, before he’s again drowned out by jeering. Someone outside the hall asks the candidates if Labour has any policies that weren’t stolen from the Greens, and the Green candidate leaps up to the microphone, grinning and ready to answer.
A teachers aide asks why only ESOL (international) students are exempt from national standards. ‘Doesn’t that disincentivise schools from taking on special needs children?’ The Legalise Cannabis candidate replies that if we legalise cannabis we’ll have more ESOL students.
The President of the Student Unions asks a question about student unionism (‘What will you do to save it?’). The ACT candidate replies with relish (‘Nothing!’).
A man in the back wants to know why Michael Appleby from Legalise Cannabis is the only candidate offering any sensible solutions. Michael Appleby is ‘happy to answer this question’, but the crowd suggests that ‘the man in the back is a plant.’ The man in the back has a follow-up question: ‘How will the other candidates grow the economy without developing the hemp industry?’
Question about same-sex marriage and adoptions. The Libertarianz candidate tries to make a point by asking ‘Did any gay people in this room eat gay lunch today?’, but his point is undermined when they all reply, ‘Yes!’ Grant Robertson burns the ACT on Campus hecklers by asking them about John Banks views on sexuality.
8:30. Short break in which ‘spicy punch’ is available for $2. There is some confusion about whether it would be exempt from GST under Labour. Then the discussion moves onto the electoral referendum. A pro-MMP campaigner called Oliver advocates for keeping MMP. James Shaw from the Greens supports him, warning us that ‘with FPP you get a bunch of white guys in suits running the country,’ which gets a bitter laugh from the audience.
The Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party supports Single Transferable Vote.
A question about party lists. Grant Robertson and Paul Foster-Bell will get in on the Labour and National lists, so why vote for them? Michael Appleby replies. He won’t be our electorate MP, so he wants us to vote for Grant, so he can replace Phil Goff as Labour leader, become Prime Minister and introduce cannabis reform. Grant Robertson is shaking his head and shouting something, but cannot be heard over the cheers and foot-stomping.
Question on climate change. The ACT candidate receives a huge cheer for admitting he believes in climate change. The candidate from the New Economics Party urges us to visit his web site which has resources to fight climate change that ‘the Greens cannot even imagine’. (The site is here.)
A question on how we can stop National from getting back into power and help Labour and the Greens win. Crump throws this question over to the National candidate, who is less than forthcoming on the subject. The New Economic Party derides the ‘evil corporate media’. The ACT candidate beseeches the ‘ten National supporters in the audience’ to vote for him. The Legalise Cannabis candidate stands up to speak but has forgotten the question.
Question: Should we feed the seven billionth person genetically modified food. The ACLP supports genetically engineered cannabis.
Final question. ‘Are Labour’s policies affordable?’
Answer: If we legalise cannabis . . .’
9:30. Final statements. The candidates are encouraged to ‘be creative.’
Legalise Cannabis candidate endorses Grant Robertson and anoints him Prime Minister.
Paul Foster-Bell recites a poem.
Libertarianz candidates begins, ‘You don’t like assets sales, do you?’ The ACT on Campus’ crowd all roar, ‘Yes!’ and he is thrown by the response, eventually telling the crowd to vote for him if they want cannabis legalised.
The New Economics Party candidate explains that he only had two hours sleep, and that he grew up on Boston Terrace and repeatedly ran away from home. He closes by thanking the crowd for invigorating him.
Grant Robertson reads out ‘Legend: a monologue,’ in which he warns that another term of John Key will lead to a country in which only Feelers songs play on the radio.
Stephen from ACT recites a poem attacking the other candidates. Sample verse. ‘What about Grant Robertson? About your social life he’s extremely worrisome.’
James Shaw from the Green party closes with a rap. Sample lyrics: ‘My name is James and I’m from Te Aro. I commute by bus and not by car yo.’
Alexandra (age eight) rewards all the candidates with pink medals, but snatches the Legalise Cannabis candidates’ back off him and runs away.