Election 2020

When politicians run loose in the wild

Politicians took their raw campaigning to Auckland Grammar School, and the boys had a window into their worlds. Tim Murphy listened in.

You learn a little about a lot at candidates' debates during election campaigns.

In the raw, sitting and aspiring politicians tend to open up, possibly from nerves or possibly because they're out in the wild, free from party whips and someone from their campaign high commands looking over their shoulders.

At Auckland Grammar School on Wednesday, MPs Chloe Swarbrick (Greens), Dan Bidois (National) and David Seymour (ACT) plus former Labour minister now Māori Party leader John Tamihere and Labour's Auckland Central candidate Helen White fronted senior boys who traded Period 6 for Democracy 101.

What did we all learn?

1. David Seymour received the most rousing reception he's likely to experience this campaign. As he walked in, spoke, finished speaking, answered questions and signed off, he received an acclaim so fervent it might have been a pisstake, like the student memes in the past for Newshub reporter Patrick Gower. Certainly the love shown for Seymour was reward beyond the weight or wisdom of his words.

2. Schoolboys trying to get one across Chloe Swarbrick will need to get up earlier in the morning and swot harder. She's probably the best retail politician of her generation but she doesn't duck a challenge and when grilled about the Greens' wealth tax widening the inequality gap, she rattled off a corrective response, kindly invited her questioner to "maybe ask your question a different way", told the dumbstruck lad "Cool", and finished with "Glad to have you on board".

3. Dan Bidois's fiancee lost her job at Sky City as a result of the pandemic and economic downturn, as did Helen White's daughter, a recruitment worker now turned medical receptionist.

4. Bidois might have given the students a hint at National's coming policy on the Fees Free first year of tertiary education. "National has been toying with two options: 1. Scrap it and reallocate it to early childhood education or 2. Shift it to the last year of university to give you guys an incentive to finish your degrees, and that's better use of taxpayer money in my opinion."

5. John Tamihere doesn't soft-soap his message. "I come along here not to win your votes but to prick your consciences... Have a think about those others in a society that you are going to share, who woke up in a decile one area and do not have data and devices... a society you could be proud of and not one where you look down on others, through no fault of their own." And, later: "Go into that polling booth and you vote with your conscience and vote with some moral fibre, for a change."

6. The public's over-familiarity with the Prime Minister's favourite phrase "the team of five million" might have reached her own party, with White saying she would not stand in front of the boys and rely on that cliche. She urged them not to seek perfection in their leaders but ask: 'Who do I actually think will make the society I want to live in, whether I'm rich or poor?'."

Dan Bidois and Chloe Swarbrick at the Auckland Grammar School debate.

7. The Auckland Central rivalry between Swarbrick and White for the seat vacated by National's Nikki Kaye seems good-spirited, other than on the Greens' proposed 'wealth tax'.  Swarbrick explained the policy to tax those with wealth beyond $1m for an individual, or $2m for a couple, after accounting for loans and mortgages. White then took up the microphone to express her "concern about this wealth tax. Actually I don't think it is a wealth tax, I think it is a really misconceived version of a wealth tax". White claimed her own parents, who had a reverse mortgage, would be caught by it. "I'm not saying the whole idea is dumb, just saying this particular policy..."

8. Tamihere outlined a Māori Party policy of "affirmative procurement" as adopted in parts of "deeply racist Australia" and the south of the US. Indigenous people would be guaranteed a percentage of public contracts because otherwise they would be "whited out".

9. Seymour told the boys that, on the country's Covid-19 response: "We need to compare ourselves to the best. Winners compare themselves with winners. Losers compare themselves with losers." Instead of looking at the failings in Victoria, New Zealand needed to look to the successes of Taiwan.

10. One smart inquisitor then wanted to know if Seymour was such a big fan of Taiwan's response, how he reconciled that with that territory's state control, as against the individual freedoms of other, loser, approaches. Swarbrick was chuffed. Seymour said Taiwan was in fact a wild democracy where students had once stormed the legislature, and the private sector worked closely with the state. The questioner still looked quizzical.

11. White, an employment lawyer, said she learned in her work that whether or not you were well off did not just depend on how hard you worked. Wealth inequality was a 'bloody mess". That was what made her seek a seat in Parliament. "They are not all winners and losers. They are all people, who need opportunity and a decent living."

12. Swarbrick revealed she and Seymour had realised they'd both studied philosophy at university. She said Grammar students who take that subject might come across John Rawls  'Veil of Ignorance'. People were challenged to design a society from scratch, not knowing their own place within it. "So you would design a society where the person who is worst off would be okay and would not only survive but thrive."

13. The event was organised by Grammar's 'Social Awareness Committee'. Who knew such a thing had taken hold at the grand bastion against correctness?

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