Visually, it was the opposite of your average political debate or community meeting in New Zealand. Nary a grey hair in sight. The bulk of the 150-strong attendees in the lush Auckland Town Hall concert chamber were teenagers and those in their early 20s.

Activist group Make It 16 hosted the 2023 election cycle’s first debate focused on youth issues on Tuesday night.

A representative from every parliamentary party turned out to face young voters: sitting MPs Arena Williams from the Labour Party, Chlöe Swarbrick from the Greens, and Matt Doocey from the National Party; and hopefuls Arabela Boatwright from Te Pāti Māori and Felix Poole from the Act Party.

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Advertised on billboards and on social media with the tagline ‘disrupt democracy’, discussion focused on issues affecting youth, like housing, climate change, and mental health.

National’s Doocey was the last of the politicians to take the stage, and was greeted by some bemused murmurs when he did. He was the oldest speaker by far – 51, with the next oldest being Williams at 33 years old – but it’s a dynamic he must be used to by now, holding the party’s youth portfolio since 2021.

As for Swarbrick, the irony that she first made her name in politics as a boundary-breaking youth candidate and is now approaching 30 years old was not lost on her. The fact that she is still the youngest MP in Parliament is “an indictment on the so-called house of representatives”, she told the young crowd. The average age of the 120 parliamentarians elected in 2020 was 47.3 years old.

When the debate started flowing, the ideological slant in the room became obvious. Lines from Swarbrick and Boatwright received appreciative snaps and howls of approval from the young audience, with only polite smatters for Doocey and Poole.

The debate was moderated by comedian Robbie Nicol (White Man Behind A Desk), who, following an opening karakia, requested that the crowd please be respectful to the politicians on stage. When he asked who in the room will be voting for the first time this year, a huge cheer erupted. The Electoral Commission estimates that more than 60,000 young people across the country are newly eligible to cast their ballot.

But a good chunk of the eager crowd won’t be voting at all come October 14. Many sitting and listening attentively in the gallery were ineligible 15 and 16-year-olds, who came out either to show support for Make It 16, or in the hopes of hearing politicians be held to account on youth issues.

On the housing crisis, Doocey and Poole each gave their pitch to the audience that cutting red tape to make building easier was the best way to increase the supply of affordable homes.

“You guys talk about removing consenting processes … but have your parties looked at the effect that will have on Papatūānuku?” pipped Boatwright, to claps from the crowd.

Boatwright, a 20-year-old AUT law student and 12 on the list, was a last minute ring-in for the debate, covering for Te Pāti Māori’s originally-billed Tāmaki Makaurau candidate Takutai Kemp. She noted that iwi Māori were an overwhelmingly young people: more than 70 percent of Māori are aged 40 or under.

Williams, eyeballing a return to a second term in Parliament, moved energetically through a list of government achievements in her responses, spotlighting Labour’s record on improving renters’ rights, and primary school counselling programme Mana Ake. When asked about how the government is including young Māori and Pasifika voices in climate action, she ably pointed to a Jobs for Nature scheme in her Manurewa electorate employing 30 young people to restore the Puhinui Stream.

On health, Williams defended the Government’s move to centralise the health system, saying it enabled sector-wide planning for underserved populations like Māori and Pasifika.

“Purr, bitch,” an audience member called out approvingly.

Her individual performance was dampened by the Government’s comparably diminished clout in the room. When asked who opposed a wealth tax, Williams looked out of place sheepishly raising her hand alongside National and Act.

When the debate started flowing, the ideological slant in the room became obvious. Lines from Swarbrick and Boatwright received appreciative snaps and howls of approval from the young audience, with only polite smatters for Doocey and Poole.

But the audience’s real allegiance was owed to the special guests invited on to the stage to ask the evening’s questions, all young activists. Samoan-born, south Auckland-raised Unicef youth ambassador Nele Kalolo received the biggest round of applause of the night as she was welcomed up, opening her question to the candidates on climate change by referring to Māori and Pasifika communities watching the sea level rise around their ancestral homes.

Act’s Felix Poole has the bona fides for a youth debate, having recently graduated from the University of Auckland. He is contesting the Auckland Central electorate against reigning MP Swarbrick after Act’s previous candidate for the seat quietly slipped off the ballot after just three weeks. Poole is 25 on the list – a stretch, even at current strong polling.

“I think Act’s climate change policy is really good,” he said, to audible laughter. He continued that New Zealand should do its part globally, “but we don’t do so much that we make our country poorer”.

He said politicians needed to be honest about the economic impact that climate policies like adding agricultural emissions to the Emissions Trading Scheme and phasing out coal would have.

Any kudos Poole earned with the crowd by talking about Act’s plans to establish a mental health and addiction commissioning service to tailor consumers’ needs to community providers soured when Swarbrick swiftly swooped in and informed the audience of Act’s other policy to abolish the Māori Health Authority and hold a referendum on the Treaty of Waitangi.

The pair butted heads throughout the evening but the Act candidate nodded when Swarbrick called for improved oversight of carers of children in state care as part of a potential bipartisan accord on the system.

Swarbrick was a fast talker, at times too fast, laying out statistics on mental health and international housing standards in the allotted two-minute answers at break-neck speed. She always slowed to deliver a pitch-perfect zinger or two to the crowd – an impassioned call to pay and respect young climate activists for their work received a huge cheer.

Undeterred by the makeup of the room, Doocey didn’t sweet-talk, and kept his talking points to what he knew. The MP for Waimakariri referred his urban audience back to his electorate several times, in one instance saying the country should emulate the north Canterbury town’s record when it came to enabling housing, coming to the table with local councils to strip back building bylaws and regulations.

While he didn’t support lowering the voting age, nor believe government should “fund the whims” of young people with free tertiary education, he thought young people should party vote blue for fiscal responsibility. He fumbled early referring to the release of the Prefu that day (an esoteric part of the election process to mention in passing at the best of times), but warned that under Labour, government debt was projected to top $100 billion next year.

“That’s your generation that’s going to have to pay off that debt,” he said.

The winner, by feel of the room? Swarbrick by a Waimakariri country mile.

The popular Green MP dropping a “tax the rich” at a venue on home soil full of politically-aware teenagers is the political equivalent of Dave Dobbyn, guitar in hand on the Winery Tour, playing the classics. The crowd ate it up.

Poole’s response to the quip was the closest the otherwise supportive crowd came to booing, when he remarked that putting in higher taxes for the wealthy would mean those people would move elsewhere. (“Good! Leave!” offers one voice from the audience.)

You can watch the debate in full here.

TVNZ will host a Young Voters’ Debate online on September 25 at 7:30pm.

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