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An election night odyssey through Wellington

Sunday 24th September 2017

Our reporter wanders between election parties in the capital as the results come in.

 

Our reporter soaks up the election results.
Our reporter soaks up the election results.

Photo: The Wireless.

It’s nearly 10pm. Gareth Morgan is dancing to rap music. He clutches a beer in his left hand.

It’s time to leave.

Three hours earlier I’d set off to one of Wellington’s weekend party spots, Courtenay Place, in search of election coverage and alcohol. I’d settled on a bar aptly named, as it would turn out, The Establishment, which was hosting an election-themed event.

ACT Party leader David Seymour had been at “E-Stab” earlier in the week and I’d heard a rumour some young ACT members would be congregating there.

I wanted to ask what motivated them to become young ACT members, aside from being over-taxed teens, but come 7pm there is not a splash of yellow.

The televisions are muted, replaced by ABBA and Elton John.

I meet 20-year-old Edward. Ed voted Labour. He is endlessly polite. “My parents have always been National supporters, but I think it’s time to give someone else a chance.”

The first results are trickling in. Five percent counted. Edward grimaces. “It’s not looking good.”

‘Dancing Queen’ may not be the election’s theme song.

We head across town to Meow, a craft beer bar hosting the equally boutique Opportunities Party. On the way I eat a mince and cheese pie that I finish off in front of the bouncer, who, rather than asking for our names, asks if I need a napkin and lets us in.

The first results are trickling in. Five percent counted. Edward grimaces. “It’s not looking good.”

Supporters cheer whenever the party or a candidate’s name flashes across the screen, no matter the result. I find a friend in the crowd. She sighs and says: “This isn’t the place to be. It’s looking like two percent.”

She tells me Sam Morgan, the founder of Trade Me, is here. “I wouldn’t recognise him if I saw him,” I say.

The party has got its own beer on tap. I ask the bartender if it’s a light beer - about two percent - but he doesn’t get the joke. I go for something different. He waves away my eftpos card. “You can thank Gareth for that,” he says forcefully.

The Opportunities Party, the election’s upstart that targeted young voters, campaigning for a fairer tax system with fresh-thinking policy, looks well short of the five percent needed to make it into Parliament.

But I want to thank the party’s leader and Sam Morgan’s dad, Gareth, for an expensive tab.

He’s having the quietest drink in the bar, at a table near a big screen that fewer and fewer people are paying attention to.

I interrupt. Morgan’s happy to chat. He says he’s got to give a speech in a few minutes.

I’ve prepared my first question: “My best mate voted for you. His girlfriend voted for you. My girlfriend voted TOP. Her friends voted TOP. What do you tell them tonight? Is this a success?”

“According to the numbers, only two percent voted TOP, so are any of your friends fibbers?” Morgan says.

He unhappily laughs and rants about “property casinos” and “PAYE guys” and says “old guys are threatened by our existence”.

He says he won’t lead the party again in three years but believes others will continue his work. “I’m buggered if I’m going to spend another $3 million.”

“Not that I care about the money,” he adds.

I ask him who he would have voted for if his party didn’t exist. He says he wouldn’t have voted.

As Morgan prepares to give his conciliatory speech, I find a young, TOP badge-sporting fan in the corner.

Jess came to Meow because she says the party addresses the issues she believes are most important - protecting the environment, gender inequality, affordable housing and, of course, the tax system.

“The public doesn’t understand. Wealth distribution in New Zealand is absolutely fucked.”

Gareth Morgan speaks to the TOP faithful on Election Night.
Gareth Morgan speaks to the TOP faithful on Election Night.

Photo: Max Towle

After giving his speech, which is a lot more positive than our earlier kōrero, Gareth heads to the dancefloor with his wife. Ed and I head to a Labour Party event on the waterfront.

We peer into bars on the way and watch the percentage points solidify. More than 50 percent counted. I ask if he’s disappointed. He’s ready to throw in Labour’s towel.

At Labour’s campaign launch in Auckland I felt something. The support for new leader Jacinda Ardern seemed different. The Town Hall overflowed.

“Yeah, but I don’t know. I’m just not surprised. I thought there was a chance there would be a new Government, but this is just …” he trails off as he checks the latest numbers on his phone. “It’s just not surprising.”

Labour partygoers at the Wharewaka Function Centre are doing their best to see the positives. Greg O’Connor is ahead in Ōhāriu, Paul Eagle and Grant Robertson have Rongotai and Wellington Central wrapped up, while Mayor Justin Lester is soaking up attention and surely considering his own political future.

But it’s difficult to be positive about finishing so far behind.

At Labour’s campaign launch in Auckland I felt something. The support for new leader Jacinda Ardern seemed different. The Town Hall overflowed. There was chanting that wouldn’t sound out of place at a football match. Some cried.

The polls were close. Some had Labour ahead. The National Party appeared to lose its confident sheen.

Hannah, a young Labour volunteer, sits at the back with friends. “After the Trump debacle, I thought I should help and get out there and do something. It’s not looking great right now.”

She’s trying to put things in perspective. “If Andrew Little were still leader, it could have been worse. Tonight could have been amazing, but it could have been worse.”

Hannah, the Labour party volunteer.
Hannah, the Labour Party volunteer.

Photo: The Wireless

The biggest positive, for her, is knowing far more young people are engaged with politics. No matter what the numbers say, she believes there has been a “Jacinda Effect”.

There are more speeches.

“We’ve picked ourselves up and dusted ourselves off from some bad times, but this election is a good result compared to some we’ve had to deal with in the past,” MP Chris Hipkins tells the crowd.

“I think change is coming,” he says.

I seek out Andrew Little, who, until a month ago, was languishing as Labour’s figurehead.

“Are you wondering, ‘What if it were me, not Jacinda Ardern?’” I ask, brave from the beer.

He is diplomatic. “Oh yeah, you can’t avoid that … but me stepping down was the right thing to do and Jacinda has managed to find a level of support I couldn’t find.”

Ed and I decide to have one more drink and follow the last hour of coverage at a neutral setting.

We had passed a buzzing Hotel Bristol on Cuba Street earlier in the night. But by 11pm every screen is showing rugby league in Australia.

Soon after we leave, National’s Wellington Central candidate, Nicola Willis, unexpectedly turns up and congratulates Robertson.

I tell Ed I’ve liked Nicola Willis since I heard her imitating a drawling southern American accent to her young child. She’s relatively high on National’s list. “Let’s see how she does in Parliament.”

We had passed a buzzing Hotel Bristol on Cuba Street earlier in the night. But by 11pm every screen is showing rugby league in Australia.

The pool tables are full and politics appears furthest from people’s minds.

Somewhere in the country, Māori Party leader Te Ururoa Flavell is crying. We read on our phones he lost his electorate battle and the party has been wiped from Parliament. The news is stunning.

I ask Ed one more time whether he’s disappointed. He says he just wants to sleep.

Wellington city, known to some as being full of out-of-touch liberals, is as alive tonight as any other Saturday. The bars are full and every loud drunk conversation forms a beautiful hum.

Walking home, I pass a blonde, clean-cut 20-something wearing a sharp black suit adorned with an oversized New Zealand First badge. It would be disingenuous to say he looks chuffed, perhaps content.

I veer in his direction. I want to ask him what motivates a young person to support New Zealand First, but his determined strut is too fast.

I text Ed, asking which party he thinks Winston Peters will side with. Labour or National? He doesn’t respond. He’s probably fallen asleep, I think to myself.

Some questions aren’t answered straight away.



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Max is a journalist who has worked for The Star, Bleacher Report and RNZ News.
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