It was scheduled to begin at 7:30 PM, but by 6:45 all the seats in the humble Aro Valley community hall were taken. By 7:00 the crowd spilled out the doors into the brisk Wellington night. At 7:15 Kim Hill and Linda Clark appeared and prowled the crowded aisles, glowering at people with seats until a group of scruffy, bearded hipsters relinquished their chairs to them. I’m no good at estimating numbers but in a hall designed to accommodate about fifty people I’d guess there were around three hundred. The candidates arrived and chatted amongst themselves, looking nervous. Rows of people stood on the benches outside peering through the open windows, occasionally slapping their hands against the frames like hordes of ravenous zombies. At 7:30 sharp it began.
Community co-convenor Roland Sapsforth opened the event, welcoming us to the ‘Supermoon edition of the Aro Meet the Candidates evening’ but reassuring us that none of the candidates would come into direct contact with moonlight ‘for your own protection.’ He attempted to discuss fire safety but was drowned out by laughter from the audience, as it was obvious to everyone present that every exit was blockaded and in the event of an actual fire, death was certain.
Then MC Bryan Crump took over. He explained the rules of the debate: each candidate could speak for four minutes: then a bell would ring; then they had thirty more seconds to talk before they were drenched with water pistols. These rules were not rigorously enforced and candidates were randomly sprayed with water throughout the evening.
Speaking order was selected randomly with names drawn out of a plastic, rainbow-colored hat. The first speaker was Huimaono Karena Puhi, also known as Geoffrey, although he declared that Geoffrey was his slave name. He was standing as an independent ‘meaning he was number one on his party list’. He wore an elegant black suit and tie, black-thick rimmed glasses over a full-facial moko, and short neatly cut hair.
Geoffrey launched into a brief korero, then explained that ‘we have many policies’, ‘We’ meaning the Hui Independence Movement of which he was part, although, slightly confusingly, he reminded us that he wanted our electorate vote because he ain’t got no party. ‘Give your party vote to these other colonials,’ he gestured at the rest of the candidates.
Second speaker was Hugh Barr, number eighteen on the New Zealand First list. ‘Our party is not about looking after the rich,’ he said. ‘Just Winston,’ replied a heckler. ‘We’re not about looking after unions or the poor either,’ he continued, to which the crowd jeered and laughed for most of his allotted speaking time. ‘We will look after ALL New Zealanders, he eventually promised before urging the crowd to ‘Tell your grand-parents about the super-gold card.’
Third speaker was Alistair Gregory for the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party. Gregory is a twenty-three year old chef with a bobbing tuft of straw-blonde hair who had possibly never worn a tie before tonight. Michael Appleby, the seemingly immortal goblin-like head of the ACLP is overseas, Crump explained, possibly arranging a deal or avoiding the police.
Gregory announced that cannabis is used for ‘medical, recreational, industrial and spiritual purposes’ and insisted that reform advocates are not wowsers because ‘they also like to drink’. ‘15% of New Zealanders smoke cannabis,’ he cried, ‘So at least fifty of you here tonight use cannabis.’ General laughter at this radical underestimation.
Next up was James Knuckey, a sorrowful bearded man standing for ‘Democrats for Social Credit’. ‘We are basically Social Credit,’ he explains, adding, ‘A lot of people in the party wonder about our own name.’ Social Credit wants a universal basic income. ‘Some countries use it. Well, this one state in Canada.’ He also advocated a financial transactions tax and welcomed his water-pistol drenching when he went one second over the time-limit talking about monetary policy.
Grant Robertson, Labour Party Machiavelli stands and dons a water-proof poncho. ‘That looks like an invitation to me,’ Bryan Crump told the water-pistol wielders. ‘The face is open!’ Called a heckler from the crowd.
National had released a rather vague tax policy earlier that day so Robertson told the crowd, ‘Tonight I’ll tell you about a speech I might give in three years time,’ adding that the only undecided voter in the hall was National candidate Paul Foster-Bell’s campaign manager. He mentioned dirty politics and the crowd hissed with fury. ‘I could go on a lot longer,’ he finished up, flourishing his poncho.
Greens candidate James Shaw was greeted with hall-shuddering applause, while a sea of Green Party placards fluttered above the audience. Wearing a tailored, shiny grey suit and perfectly cut black hair, standing before the crowd with his arms raised, drinking in their adulation, he looked more like a television evangelist than a politician. Shaw’s speech was stern. ‘The Green Party only won 44% of the vote here in Aro Valley last election,’ he rebuked the room. ‘The Onekaka town hall in Golden Bay gave us 51.2%. It’s time to beat the Onekaka town hall!’
Next Crump introduced Internet/Mana candidate Callum Valentine. ‘He’s number eighteen on the party list, so if his party gets about thirty percent he’ll be in.’ ‘At least I’ve got a seat tonight,’ Valentine replied, standing to take the microphone and gesturing back at his chair just as Grant Robertson stole it.
The crowd greeted Valentine with jeers of ‘Lil Kim!’ Lil Kim explained that Internet/Mana stood for unions, the poor and people who liked Game of Thrones. ‘Log off!’ Yelled a heckler. Valentine’s speech was interrupted by cries of ‘Tell us about Kim.’ When he finally sat down Crump observed, ‘He didn’t say ‘Fuck John Key’ once!’
When National candidate Paul Foster-Bells’ name was drawn a loud musical wail of pure sorrow came from a woman at the back of the room. Foster-Bell – a larger, cuddlier version of Labour’s Grant Robertson, who is already rather cuddly – stood and took the microphone to a rising chorus of boos and jeers.
When Foster-Bell spoke at this event last election he was totally drowned out by the crowd, and he’d crafted a clever plan to prevent this, opening his speech in fluent te reo. The crowd fell silent again, confused, torn between its hatred of National and instinctive respect for the Maori language. Foster-Bell continued to speak for about thirty-seconds, grinning, until he uttered the words ‘Ko John Key te rangatira,’ and the crowd gasped with sudden comprehension. He was using te reo to say secret right-wing National stuff! The rest of the speech was drowned out by heckling and hissing and boos, although the tide of hatred ebbed every minute or so admitting fragments of Foster-Bell’s speech. ‘Healthcare targets . . . roads . . . hard-working kiwis.’ Eventually he finished and sat down, having endured what must be the most hostile audience of any candidate in the country .
Bryan Crump took a pause to acknowledge the hard-working party activists running around the electorate knocking down all the billboards and the other hard-working activists putting them all back up again. He questioned Grant Robertson on the mysterious lack of vandalised Labour Party billboards when everyone else’s was knocked down every night. ‘It’s a conundrum,’ Robertson replied.
The next speaker was the most mysterious. Peter Franklin Robinson was an independent candidate. A soft-voiced, gaunt, hunched man in a tan anorak, Robertson announced he was standing to fix the economy of New Zealand which was ‘dictated to by earthquake fault-lines.’ ‘All government departments as of the 31st of March 1975 will be reinstated,’ he mumbled. ‘And there will be an inquiry into substandard medical apparatus. And the Local Bodies Act 31st of March 1984 will be revisited. Also, the current New Zealand flag will remain the ensign of New Zealand because there’s nothing wrong with it.’ The crowd applauded.
The final speaker, Conservative Party candidate Dr Brian Hooper was a tiny, friendly man with a child-like face beneath a shock of white hair. He was eighty years old, he announced, with twenty-seven grandchildren. ‘I dreaded coming here tonight,’ he confessed, ‘And my wife offered to come as my substitute.’
‘At least we’d have had one woman candidate,’ called a heckler from the crowd, and Hooper rounded on her, beaming with delight. ‘You’ve stolen my joke,’ he marveled. Hooper then flicked through a Conservative Party pamphlet while the crowd called out questions and insults, which Hooper parried and threw back at them. Then he tucked the pamphlet under his arm and announced, ‘I’m not going to talk about the Conservatives. I’ll tell you about myself.’ He was trying to say something about water when he was soaked with the water-pistols.
That bought the candidate statements section of the evening to an end. The remaining half hour of the event consisted of questions from the audience.
Would you support a Prime Minister who doesn’t know what’s going on in his own office? Hypothetically? Everyone said ‘No,’ except the Conservative candidate who replied, ‘Absolutely.’
Would you support a price on water and would power prices rise as a result? Yes, replied the Green candidate, but water costs were not a significant component of power prices. The independent candidate who thought that our economy was an earthquake faultline gave a long, complicated answer, interrupted by an audience member calling out ‘For fucks sake!’ The hall was so crowded it was impossible to identify individual hecklers by voice, unless they were, say, a famous, award-winning Saturday morning radio host. The Conservative Party announced they had ‘no plans’. The New Zealand First candidate was laughing too hard to answer the question because someone had made a joke about ”squirting’. Legalise Cannabis replied that we should legalise cannabis.
What is the role of NGOs and non-profits in the economy? ‘WhaleOil doesn’t count as a non-profit,’ shouted a heckler. Legalise Cannabis wanted to build a convention centre.
Why aren’t there any female candidates standing? ‘Why don’t you stand?’ Asked a heckler. ‘I’d bloody love to,’ replied the questioner. Second part to that question: ‘What will your party do about domestic violence?’ Grant Robertson urged an end to violence and was spontaneously sprayed with the water-pistol. Paul Foster-Bell explained that we needed to work together to end violence and he too was sprayed. ‘Keep shooting him,’ chanted the crowd. Legalise Cannabis said that he wanted a woman to stand up because that would look ‘Soooo good.’ Admited his party does not have a domestic violence policy.
What about the rights of young people in New Zealand? Green candidate James Shaw asked ‘Did you have any particular rights in mind?’ The questioner replied, ‘We have a lot of interests.’ Shaw looks suspicious. ‘Who is ‘we’?’
Asked by a red-faced man in a suit with a Yorkshire accent: ‘On the west coast does your party support workers or slugs and snails? ‘The Greens support ALL the residents of the west coast.’
Wellington’s swimming places are too polluted. Whaddya all gonna do about it? The Greens will clean them up. The Social Democrat candidate alleged that the Greens stole their environmental policies back in the 1970s. Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis loves Oriental Bay beach!
The final question is an Aro Valley tradition. If you couldn’t vote for yourself who would you vote for? Most of the candidates endorse Grant Robertson or James Shaw. Grant Robertson supports Alistair, the ACLP candidate. The Social Credit candidate pleads for our party vote. ‘We want to get 1%,’ he explains. ‘That would lift us up out of that ‘other’ category.’ The crowd cheered and called out comments endorsing their support of otherness.
And on that note it was over, the crowd applauded the candidates, water-pistol shooters and themselves and milled out into the valley.