It was an eclectic and unexpected mix of current and former politicians who fronted the Business North Harbour finance debate on Thursday.
Initially billed to have Grant Robertson and Nicola Willis, they were both replaced last minute with Andrew Little (third choice after David Parker was unavailable) and Paul Goldsmith, to debate Act leader David Seymour and Green’s Auckland Central MP Chlöe Swarbrick.
New Zealand First candidate in the Upper Harbour electorate, David Wilson, was also on the original list, but it was Winston Peters who appeared out of nowhere on the day.
It was a chance perhaps after some extensive complaining from him earlier in the week that he’d been snubbed from taking part in the Queenstown finance debate.
All five politicians were given seven minutes at the start to convince the audience of North Shore businesspeople that they were best equipped to turn the economy around.
Goldsmith momentarily forgot where he was, and after a quick look behind his back at the signage he thanked Business North Harbour for hosting him.
“This is my fifth election and politicians will always tell you this election is the most important one, but I genuinely think this is it, because we’re heading in the wrong direction in so many ways,” Goldsmith declared.
He called for some discipline around spending and pointed to an 80 percent increase in spending by the current Government since 2017.
“I defy anyone to find an 80 percent increase in the quality of the output we have from that.”
Peters wants to “re-establish a spending cap with the focus being on the basic essential services, which is now all that we can afford”.
“New Zealand First promises to work with like-minded figures to introduce a mini-Budget before Christmas – straight after the election – we can’t wait now, we can’t keep spending like this,” he told the crowd.
His comments come as Newsroom’s polling average has New Zealand First on 5 percent and returning to Parliament.
It also follows comments from National leader Christopher Luxon that he will “make it work” and form a coalition with the parties voters deliver, and Seymour and Peters both confirm they can work with each other in government.
Peters went on to throw shade on Treasury and its projections, saying Metservice would do a better job of them these days and explained the aim of a mini-Budget would be to get the country back to surplus.
“And when we get back to surplus, we can ease the tax burden on hard-working Kiwis. That’s being honest and fiscally responsible.”
All other parties thus far were being “unreal” with their promises, Peters said.
And at a time when the IMF is predicting storm clouds ahead, he says the evening news has “one leader eating a sausage roll and the other eating a pie, and that passes for campaigning in this country”.
It was about this point he asked the moderator, Newstalk ZB’s Tim Beveridge, how much time he had left, to which he was told “that’s about it”.
“I’ve got at least two more terms in me, mate,” Peters threw back to howls of laughter from the audience.
It had all the usual trademark Peters lines, including a plea for those listening to “buy some insurance, and vote New Zealand First”.
That led Little to start his remarks with, “Winston, I haven’t heard a speech like that since before we were Cabinet ministers together” in a not-so-subtle dig at the fact Peters had chosen Labour in 2017.
Little has never held the finance portfolio and was far more dependent on notes than his sparring partners but pushed ahead rattling through a list of how many social houses had been built, police officers added to the frontline, trade agreements signed and more.
It was when he got to health infrastructure that the former minister in charge of that portfolio came into his own.
“My experience as Health Minister really was an eye-opener for me.
“So, in the previous nine years before our Government took office roughly $1b had been spent on health infrastructure, it was woefully short.
“Excuse my language, but literally at Whāngarei Hospital and Middlemore Hospital, we had shit running down the walls because those buildings were not being looked after.”
That caught and brought back the attention of a few in the room who had immediately picked up their phones and started scrolling and replying to emails when Little had got to the podium.
Swarbrick spoke of the loss of equipment and skills in areas unique to New Zealand, such as the wool industry, and that if investment isn’t returned to these sectors, it would have wide-reaching consequences for the country.
“We’re now going to see a future that unless we get the investment back, any wool marked as made in New Zealand has had to go offshore to be finished and then brought back into this country.
“That’s not only a massive loss for the talent and opportunities here but it also imposes massive issues for carbon leeching and the carbon profile of those products,” she said.
Seymour criticised the Labour Government for its approach to the business community.
“We need people in Parliament who think business is a good thing, that business is a force for good because we don’t hear that.
“We hear so often the undertone from government that in fact business is a little bit sinister and needs to be whacked with another regulation or review or tax before it can be made to behave correctly.”
The Q&A that followed began with a question about what they each saw as one critical portfolio for the future.
Little pointed to infrastructure while Seymour homed in on the “burden of red tape”.
Goldsmith went with “more disciplined spending in the finance area” before Peters completely changed it up and warned about the “threat to our democracy”.
Swarbrick rounded that quickfire out with the risks that come from “policy being made with a dearth of evidence behind it”.
On the question of whether the country’s immigration settings were right, Swarbrick found herself uncomfortably agreeing with Seymour “but for very different reasons”.
It prompted Seymour to ask her if she was okay, and Peters to then jump in to tell Swarbrick she should have borrowed a line from Winston Churchill that, “the trouble with being on the side of right is you keep some dubious company”.
It was the final question though, this one from an audience member, about what each of their parties would do to deal with climate change, which almost broke Swarbrick.
Everyone vaguely stuck to areas of reducing carbon emissions through agriculture, and their policies around climate mitigation and adaptation, until it was Peters’ turn with the microphone.
“Carbon dioxide is 0.04 percent of the earth’s atmosphere and the contribution of humanity to that is 3 percent of the 0.04 percent,” Peters began.
At this point Swarbrick, who was sat immediately beside him, struggled to keep her face straight as scepticism about where Peters was heading set in.
“It means we have countries like India, like Russia, like China, like the United States, where we’re required to take action, but they’re not taking action at all,” Peters continued.
“Last thing we’re going to do is send this economy broke because some people haven’t got their facts right.”
Swarbrick fought against putting her face in her hands while the audience offered a hearty applause – the first and last of the day.
And there ended a debate from five people, none of whom count themselves having a chance of being the next Finance Minister, with the exception perhaps of Peters.