Analysis: The irony of Sunday’s verbal abuse wasn’t lost on Labour’s deputy leader Kelvin Davis when he muttered, “they’re calling people names and we’re the assholes?”
Labour leader Chris Hipkins, Davis, and an entourage of Auckland MPs and party volunteers descended on West Auckland’s Avondale Markets – they hadn’t even moved 10 metres when a woman supporting Liz Gunn’s ‘New Zealand Loyal’ party hollered “assholes” at the top of her lungs.
Shortly after, a man yelled repeatedly “what are you going to do for the people, Chris?” and then there were the many mutterings of “this is so inconsiderate, why are you here?”.
There were only two scenes that brought a more uncomfortable edge.
A father, who with his young son got caught up in the rolling maul, took umbrage at a police officer asking him to move to the side, and then a Trump T-shirt wearing man aggressively marched towards Hipkins saying the Government had cost him his job and home.
“You’re a piece of shit” he hurled at Hipkins.
It was tense and police immediately leapt into high alert mode.
For some at the markets their frustration wasn’t about Labour as such, it was the fact their presence was making it impossible for people to freely move around and do their shopping.
With a leader on the campaign trail comes a lot of supporters, placards, and a big media contingent of backward walking cameraman and photographers.
It’s chaotic, and then throw in half a dozen police and diplomatic protection staff and it’s a big, massive disruption to what for many was intended to be a quick dash to the market for some cheaper fruit and vegetables.
But that wasn’t the overwhelming theme of day one on the campaign trail – it was mostly men, women and children trying to break through the crowd to speak to Hipkins or get a photo.
Some stallholders abandoned their market offerings and any potential sales to meet Hipkins and shake his hand.
Speaking to media afterwards, Hipkins said the feedback was “really positive” and lots of people just wanted a photo and offered “a lot of goodwill and warm wishes”.
At no point did Hipkins look rattled or bothered by it and his sum-up of the negative side of the experience was, “it’s democracy in action, you’ll find that in any campaign”.
Freedom NZ supporters had crashed his campaign launch the day before, both outside as people arrived and at least half a dozen managed to get in to interrupt the speeches from both former Prime Minister Helen Clark and then Hipkins.
But in some respects, Hipkins seemed to draw energy from it and picked up his game in a direct response to the challenges being thrown at him on his big day.
They didn’t save their disruptions just for Labour either.
On Sunday they hiked out to South Auckland to hold their placards and shout their messages at National Party supporters, MPs, and candidates arriving at their own campaign launch.
Leader Christopher Luxon didn’t care they’d turned up, saying they were respectful, and he’s come to expect people will protest.
He hasn’t felt unsafe at all while out doing public meetings across the country for the past few months.
National opted against making a big policy announcement on Sunday after Labour went big a day earlier with a free dental care policy for under-30s by 2026.
Despite needing as many as 200 dentists to meet the increased demand of an extra 800,000 young people having access to free check-up, cleans, X-rays and basic fillings, Hipkins maintained on Sunday the policy could be delivered.
Luxon had doubts about that but wasn’t committing on Sunday to bringing in dentists at the capacity that would be required to provide universal dental care.
Labour is relying, for the first six years at least, on getting dentists from abroad to move to New Zealand to meet most of the extra demand.
National on the other hand is concentrating on investing in a homegrown workforce, but only loosely mentioned “looking at what we can do with growing dentists too”.
Luxon told Newsroom the basics in the healthcare system, and getting in more doctors and nurses, was the priority. Anything extra would have to come after that.
“We would love to expand dental care across healthcare in New Zealand – we think that would be great – but the reality is we can’t do the basics right in healthcare at the moment,” he said.
With the campaign launches done, it’s out into towns and cities across the country for both Luxon and Hipkins for the next six weeks.
It won’t be long before both leaders know whether their respective policies have resonated with Kiwis or not.