They didn’t get the Prime Minister but the Auckland Chinese Community Centre had enough pulling power to attract the Deputy PM and leaders of National, the Greens and Act for an edgy election forum sparking off race, crime and climate change.

Labour leader Chris Hipkins was campaigning in Christchurch so it fell to his cabinet deputy Carmel Sepuloni to face what was a pretty buoyant double-act from Christopher Luxon and David Seymour, with ministerial colleague and Greens co-leader James Shaw providing her some support.

And while Sepuloni and Shaw kept a broad centre-left harmony throughout, what seemed like a warm rapport between Luxon and Seymour hit one stalactite when the Act leader made a point of urging voters to seek more than just the mantra that National is selling.

* Act leader labels Grant Robertson a gangster
Seymour floats confidence-only support for National

“At the end of it we will have a mandate not just to get this country back on track, because we know where that track led, but to turn this country around and make it work again for those people who want nothing more than the simple opportunity to make a difference in their own lives and the lives of those they care about.”

The shade he threw on the “back on track” slogan was almost palpable, coming as it did just a day after a story broke on RNZ in which Seymour floated giving National only conditional support, taking ‘supply’ or spending votes on a case-by-case basis, if the bigger party was not prepared to truly share power after the election. His thinking there was detailed and, to National’s ears, no doubt vaguely menacing.

That moment apart, the two men seemed relatively at ease, occasionally chatting between questions and conferring sotto voce for a minute or two at the end.

Party-coloured gifts in hand, the Act and National leaders had a murmured chat at the end of the event.

Seymour’s opening remarks included an offhand labelling of Finance Minister Grant Robertson as a “gangster” and the government as “Wellington criminals” which continued a campaign of at times dubious rhetoric.

Sepuloni had opened, probably as well as a party polling somewhere between 26 and 30 percent in the polls could, telling around 140 people at the association’s Mangere venue that Labour was “realistic and incredibly optimistic. 

“After a difficult start to the year, there are very good signs that the economy is growing again. We’ve reconnected to the world and exports are growing year-on-year… On inflation, while there’s still a way to go, inflation will fall over the coming year and those are the forecasts we’ve been given.”

She criticised National’s “cynical tax cuts” plan and claimed its “Coalition of Cuts” with Act would target superannuation through raising the age of eligibility.

Luxon tempered the optimism he had for what he again called the best country on the planet by saying “we are totally, entirely, completely going in the wrong direction.” 

He ran through his campaign lists – fix the cost of living crisis, stop “dumb” waste, help the squeezed middle through tax cuts, improve health and education services. 

“Long story short, we are a fantastic country. We have had a broken government but we do not have a broken country. We need some positivity, some aspiration, some can-do back. And that’s what we’re going to do.”

Shaw said this year’s storms were direct results of the changing climate and rising ocean temperatures. Climate change was an economic problem with social and environmental effects.

The Greens believed all the solutions to climate change were things that could make lives, and livelihoods better. “They can make our towns and cities more resilient to the effects of those floods and fires and droughts and storms, but also they can lower household costs and improve living standards at the same time.”

Shaw acknowledged one Green failing that he hoped would be remedied, with its only Chinese-speaking candidate Lawrence Xu-Nan, being in a potentially electable position at Number 16.

“As a smaller party it has taken some time for us to build up the level of diversity and make sure we have representation from all communities. At number 16, that puts him right on the verge, so if enough of you give your party vote to the Green Party that does mean that we will have Lawrence in Parliament.”

Climate and co-governance spark

The four MPs faced questions from the moderator, David Wong, on cost of living policies, law and order, health services, housing affordability, economic recession, education, climate change and co-governance – with clear differences on the last two subjects, in particular.

Seymour said New Zealand needed to do neither too much nor too little on climate change, to instead watch and measure itself against its five main trading partners and what they decided to do. “We cannot afford to do nothing about climate change. We will be a pariah. People will put up barriers to our exports. We must have a climate change policy.

“But also we cannot afford to put New Zealand farmers and New Zealand businesses out of business, so we can be poorer here in New Zealand and our customers go and get their milk or whatever else they are buying from our competitors offshore who actually emit even more. That will be a way to shoot ourselves in both feet. So we’ve got to keep between that floor and that ceiling.”

Sepuloni and Shaw 

Shaw was proud to be a minister in a government which over the past two terms had “seen more activity on climate change than the past 30 years of governments combined.”

“Finally in this country our emissions, the total amount of pollution we put into the atmosphere, is starting to come down, year-on-year and that’s taken an enormous amount of effort to start to build that momentum. We do need to ensure that not only do we bring down emissions but we do need to adapt to the effects of climate change such as Climate Gabrielle this year.”

Sepuloni told the crowd she was “very disappointed” to hear opposition parties want to get rid of “very successful schemes like the clean car discount.

“Those are the types of initiatives that actually make a difference to reducing our emissions. And it becomes very difficult to see political parties as credible when they stand up in public spaces and say they’ll be getting rid of those very successful schemes.”

On co-governance, Luxon said National believed “we deliver public services and make them available for all New Zealanders equally on the basis of their need, not their ethnicity. And that under the Treaty, Article 3, we have equal protection and equal citizenship.

“That’s why we do not support co-governance in public services.”  He won strong applause.

Sepuloni said co-governance was not new (having been used under the previous National government).

“It’s very disappointing that we are seeing this level of race-baiting where Māori are being put out there that is not unifying for New Zealand as a country.”

That triggered denials from her colleagues on the right, including interjections from some National members in the crowd, including MP Melissa Lee.

Sepuloni gave an example of regional skills leadership groups where a co-governance model had worked positively. “It works and nobody is hurt by it.”

Seymour said co-governance was complex – it was appropriate for the Auckland volcanic cones under the Tūpuna Maunga Authority – a “sensible solution” to ownership and governance of the cones, with many hapu interested in property previously owned by ancestors. “We agree with that.”  But not for Three Waters’ physical assets which were all developed after the Treaty of Waitangi. “They should be managed, one person, one vote with no special rights.

“Carmel said no one is hurt by discrimination. Everybody is hurt when you stop treating human beings with the same basic dignity and rights.”

Sepuloni interjected: “They are hurt by your discrimination, David Seymour.”

Seymour: “I can’t hear you.”

Shaw had the last word on the subject.  “The last National government did a huge amount of work on co-governance so I’m curious to know what’s changed their mind on that.

“There’s no where in local government or central government where you have more than one vote, unless you are a multiple property owner, at local government elections, for every house that you have.”

Māori either had a vote on the Māori roll or the general roll.

“So this idea of one person one vote, that holds true. It’s true. No one’s changed that anywhere and it’s a lie to actually say that the notion of one person, one vote has gone in this country. It has not.”

Debate verdict: No dud performances. Seymour grabbed the most attention, with lines that won the strongest applause and an energy that edged the generally restrained, if sound contributions from the other three. Luxon was smooth and clear but at times bland. Sepuloni, with a generally less effusive reception for her party’s government record, was best when calling out her opponents although they took offence when being accused of race-baiting. Shaw challenged National and Act on climate and was forceful on co-governance and equity issues, but his opening minutes seemed unfocused.

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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