A debate hosted last night by the New Zealand Taxpayers’ Union was a rambunctious affair as six politicians competed with the crowd in trying to get their policy out the most loudly.

Labour’s Willie Jackson, National’s Paul Goldsmith, Act’s David Seymour, Te Pāti Māori’s John Tamihere, New Zealand First’s Jenny Marcroft and Ricardo Menéndez March from the Greens were pulled and prodded from both sides of the political chasm by firebrand moderators Martyn ‘Bomber’ Bradbury and Damien Grant.

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At times it was a battle of personality as much as policy, as the loudest voices prevailed over a crowd in which it seemed most had already picked their horse in the race and downed a few glasses of Chardonnay.

“Right, let’s get into the fuckers,” Bradbury said as he launched into his first question, more or less setting the tone for a debate both robust and wide-spanning in scope.

At times the candidates felt more like stand-up comedy hopefuls at a raucous open mic night, as policy promises were met with jeers and peals of laughter.

Many on the floor were obviously there to catch a glimpse of Seymour – not surprising at a Taxpayer’s Union event, where the banners behind the politicians call for lower taxes.

Several people in the crowd said they had recently decided to switch allegiance from National to Act. It’s a claim seemingly supported by yesterday’s Roy Morgan poll, which saw Act soar to 18 percent, with both Labour (24) and National (31) down.

But while many spectators were giving Seymour positive reinforcement, he had some heavy criticisms levelled at him on stage.

Several politicians including Jackson and Tamihere accused him of stoking hatred with race-baiting comments and having plans to dismantle much-needed public services.

Seymour’s response was his usual – unaffected, nonplussed, a bemused smirk. He keeps quips in his back pocket for when things get serious, and the crowd who filled out the central Auckland bar were mostly already won over.

His bump in the polls has seen Seymour’s prominence rise in these political debates – (“I should get more time as they are all talking about me so much,” he said at one point) – particularly as issues like co-governance continue to be lightning rods for fiery supporters.

In his closing remarks, he said the country needed hope, and his is the party that can deliver it. 

But when it comes to comparisons with American presidents, Seymour’s opponents were what some would call less charitable, with Willie Jackson calling him the “Donald Trump of New Zealand politics”, claiming Seymour thinks he knows more than a number of judges and politicians who formed current Treaty policy.

“I met Nelson Mandela,” Jackson said. “I reckon he’d say lock David Seymour up.”

“I wish I was as powerful in reality as I am in Willie Jackson’s mind,” Seymour said.

Dry humour has become a commonly reached-for weapon in Seymour’s utility belt. A comment last month around a Guy Fawkes figure destroying the Ministry of Pacific Affairs was defended in later media appearances by the age-old Kiwi defence of “it was just a joke”.

The candidates at Everybody’s, a bar in Auckland’s city centre that was once an old cinema. Photo: Matthew Scott

The Treaty was a strong point of contention with the event’s double act of political firebrands – Jackson and Tamihere, who harnessed their own political personae to win points over the clinking of glasses in the audience.

Both came out strongly on co-governance being supported by the rule of law.

“This nation was settled by consent, not by discovery,” Tamihere said. 

“Pākehā people are here by consent, and that’s great – but they promised when they arrived that we would be treated equally, that’s article three … they promised in article two we’d have rights over our own domains, simple as that.”

It was a point met with a lot of muttering from the people who’d been cheering Seymour, but Tamihere had his own supporters – a contingent decked out in Te Pāti Māori gear watching from the mezzanine, who erupted into waiata in the final moments of the evening.

Other candidates seemed less keen on the timbre of the debate. Menéndez March from the Greens kept to party talking points around tax reform and universal free dental care, only being drawn to outburst at one point to call “misinformation” on Goldsmith’s characterisation of the Green policy on arrest warrants and beneficiaries.

Goldsmith said Green policy was “if you are on the run, you should still get your benefit”, but Menéndez March countered by saying data over the past 10-plus years showed only two beneficiaries with warrants had proven to be a threat to public safety.

Overall Menéndez March seemed unwilling to match the laddish vibe of proceedings, largely catalysed by the bombastic presence of Bradbury and Grant.

New Zealand First’s Jenny Marcroft was in a similar position down the end of the line of candidates, waiting to have the chance to pitch her party’s position between the hollers.

But it seems it’s difficult for anyone to stand up and represent New Zealand First without the presence of Winston Peters. 

Peters casts a long shadow.

Marcroft didn’t have an easy time defending New Zealand First’s recent forays into toilet policies, and it wasn’t helped by the fact that she described her party as the middle-ground antidote to extremism.

Trans rights are indisputably a hugely polarised argument, and New Zealand First’s policies land cleanly on one side of the debate. The crowd could sense the contrivance of Marcroft’s argument that they are actually the voice of moderation, and it was reflected in the jeers.

Marcroft said New Zealand First was the party that would “turbocharge” good ideas while being a “handbrake” on bad ones.

“We have a proven track record of bringing balance and responsibility to government,” she said.

But for a party that’s now courting votes on the right of centre, New Zealand First will be trying hard to shake off the smell of the years they spent in coalition with a Labour government they are now focused on rubbishing.

National’s Paul Goldsmith was also ready to join in on the ‘lads on tour’ air, taking shots at his political opponents like in the aforementioned jab at the Greens.

However, his talking points were in many cases verbatim to National leader Christopher Luxon’s speeches at the latter’s ‘Get New Zealand Back on Track’ roadshow. 

Seemingly off-the-cuff references like the wonders of genetically engineered rye grass are actually political hay that’s been thoroughly chewed by Luxon, and have not stymied the slow drip of support on the right towards Act.

With the recent announcement the National-Act election deal in Epsom was no more, it appears Goldsmith will be taking a proper swing at the bat for the first time in years.

But to have any chance of taking Epsom back for the blue team, he’ll have to find a way to stem that flow or turn it back entirely – at least in his part of the city.

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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