Seven major party candidates and a room full of young voters: so what did the first ever Youth Voters Debate tell us?
There are no voters as important as young voters. A bold and biased opinion yes - but with so much time left on this ever crumbling earth, the issue of low youth engagement has never been more urgent making it all the more worrying that, as of August 31, nearly 250, 000 Kiwis 18-29 had yet to enrol.
So last night the University of Auckland held the very first Young Voters Debate, which saw host Jack Tame, National’s Chris Bishop, Labour’s Kris Faafoi, the Green Party’s Chlöe Swarbrick, the Māori Party’s Carrie Stoddart-Smith, ACT’s David Seymour, NZ First’s Darroch Ball and United Future’s Damian Light, engage in some robust kōrero on the issues that matter to (that's right) the youths.
From the get-go, it was a lively affair. Before a pre-selected audience of secondary and tertiary students (or “amazing-looking youth” as Tame’s co-host Billie Jo Ropiha called them), the seven candidates battled it out over the five key issues this rosy-cheeked demographic are thought to be most concerned with: education, housing, mental health, climate change and water.
(Though after an awkwardly mingling David Seymour asked students whether there were any other issues that should be considered, I overheard a girl tell her friend that she wanted to tell him "state abuse". “But you can’t just say ‘state abuse’,” she sighed.)
Things began with a disclaimer - one that was issued first to the crowd and then again on camera when the live broadcast had begun - that the reason for the TOP party's absence - and United Future's presence - was due TVNZ’s rules (“not my rules” Tame assured us) that required either a 3 percent polling rate or an MP already in Parliament.
Yet, with enough drama to have Tame cracking the whip from time-to-time and a selection of five hot-topic #electionissues to be discussed, even Gareth Morgan’s mischievous ways were not at all missed.
First up was education, which began with a discussion of whether Labour have got things right with their policy to offer a year's worth of free tertiary education. All the candidates said that they paid for their educations themselves, and all - save Light - had done so with student loans.
Views on this were mixed: while Labour’s Faafoi, of course, spoke in favour of the policy, National’s Bishop argued that the free tertiary education enjoyed by previous generations came at a time when comparatively few people actually went to university.
The Green’s Swarbrick offered that, rather than having their tertiary fees covered, what students need is help with making living as a student easier. (When asked if she would be able to pay off her $40,000 loan, she said “well that depends if I get a job.”)
ACT’s Seymour had the most passionate response, declaring that only those “dumb enough to vote to be bribed with [their] own money” would be in favour of such a policy, one which would lead to the dumbing down of universities.
When asked of the issue of whether te reo Māori should be taught in schools the candidates were more on the same page, with everyone agreeing that yes it bloody well should - until the question of making it compulsory arose. Seymour, in particular, deemed this proposition unwise, warning that, were children “forced to pursue some political project”, they would come to resent it as they do with, say, maths (to which the Māori Party’s Stoddart-Smith succinctly replied, “it’s a national language”).
What was agreed upon is that there are currently not enough teachers or resources to have compulsory te reo Māori anytime soon.
Next up was housing. Of all seven candidates, only two - Faafoi and Bishop - own their own homes. In fact, Faafoi only just bought his that very day. He and Bishop shook hands and the entire audience applauded which, in a way, tells you everything you need to know.
There was widespread surprise that Seymour doesn’t own a home.
“David Seymour you earn a lot of money!” Tame asked, aghast. “Why don’t you own a home?” (the reason: a mysterious combination of the crazy housing market and the fact that he currently rents a place worth $2.2 million).
So if even rich, rich, rich (allegedly) David Seymour can’t afford a home, what can the politicians do? Everyone had a different answer.
Swarbrick argued that with 35,000 vacant properties in Auckland alone and unacceptably poor renting conditions the issue is speculation, to which she offered the solution of a capital gains tax. This proved controversial with Bishop arguing that speculators still pay tax, Faafoi expressing reservations and Seymour saying that such a tax would actually worsen the problem by disincentivising speculators from actually selling their properties.
Ropiha asked the crowd for renting horror stories - second-hand of course, should anyone fear being thrown out of their flat - and heard from a young woman who’s Ashburton based aunt spent the winter sleeping with the rest of her family in their living room for warmth.
But even the prospect of a renting warrant of fitness, which would require landlords to ensure their properties meet a certain standard, proved contentious with Bishop warning that the costs involved would just be passed on to tenants, raising rents further.
The discussion of mental health began with Ropiha asking the members of the audience whether it is harder to be a young person now than ever before. The answer, she heard, is "yes" and with increased pressures and inadequate and unaffordable mental health services available to young people, things need to change.
The problem, a member of the Young Nats says, is the culture of New Zealanders not being open about their feelings. A Young Labour member adds that there need to be qualified mental health professionals in all high schools.
Tame asked the candidates: is it the government's responsibility to reduce the number of young people dying?
While Stoddart-Smith echoed the sentiment that professional help should be available in all schools, National’s Bishop said that the changing nature of young people’s lives must be looked at and that “social media is to blame for some of it” as well as pressure from society, parents and schools. Ball decreed this “nonsense”, insisting that the mental health system is “broken”.
Swarbrick, who herself has spoken openly about her own experience with depression, articulated the issue as one both micro and macro. With inadequate resources available to those suffering, she said, it angered her to hear people say that the problem is not one you can throw money at. As well, she argued, the problem was broad: with less secure housing and employment, we’ve seen the individualisation of society whereby community has been eroded.
With stable housing and stable employment, she said, the sense of community - and the support it offers - will create a space in which these issues are less likely to occur in isolation.
When it came to the issue of climate change, Tame asked each candidate: “Is climate change the nuclear-free issue of this generation?”
While some were more hesitant than others to give the required "yes" or "no" answer to this question it also led to the best exchange of the debate when Swarbrick issued the following decree: “Saying you want action on climate change but still allowing new consent for oil drilling and coal mining is the same as saying that you’re going to be faithful in a relationship and keeping the Tinder app on your phone”.
Seymour told Swarbrick “you might just be looking”, who, pointing at Seymour, quipped to the crowd: “It’s the free market, eh?”
Of course, the target of Swarbrick’s barb was National’s Bishop, who at first brushed off the issue of climate change before admitting a vague concern for it. When pushed he argued that "you can’t pass a law to get rid of climate change" and declined to choose a specific date to look to for a carbon-free New Zealand (it won’t happen by Labour’s projected 2050 but “it might happen by 2100”).
When asked whether, in the event of the Green’s getting less than 5 percent in the election, Swarbrick trusted Labour to have the policy in place to tackle climate change, however, it was Swarbrick’s turn to be evasive: offering only that the Greens have the policy in place, she admitted that she hadn’t “been looking too closely at Labour’s, to be honest”.
Last but not least (and certainly the most New Zealand) was the issue of water. Who owns water? “Māori own the water according to the Waitangi tribunal”, Stoddart-Smith told Tame. Swarbrick backed her up. Ball shot back “nobody owns water”, a sentiment Bishop agreed with. “Everyone owns water”, said Faafoi, in keeping with Labour’s signature positivity, while Seymour declared it a “silly question” preferring instead “who owns the right to use certain amounts of water in specific places” which, weirdly, moved things along fairly efficiently.
Yet the issue of nobody vs everybody remained when the conversation turned to the problem of our infamously dirty rivers.
Faafoi described the response to Labour’s proposed water tax was one of “scaremongering”, saying that “those who are creating issues in our rivers and streams need to start taking some responsibility for that.”
Bishop, however, called Labour’s scheme “stupid”, saying that while Coca-Cola will not be required to pay the water tax, craft brewers will. What’s more, it will force dairy farmers to go into beef and lamb which he said will be worse for the environment.
Swarbrick argued that the current policy is actually at odds with the National Party’s overall ideology in the sense that it is privatising profit and socialising cost, “because who’s paying to clean up the rivers now? It’s taxpayers”. Farmers need to transition to sustainable agriculture - something she said the Green Party would be all too happy to help with.
So who won?
With his exuberant, undeniable and only slightly troll-esque energy, David Seymour was strangely likeable considering how unpopular his opinions appeared to be to a large portion of the audience. Standing beside Chlöe Swarbrick, their dynamic was perhaps the most entertaining - if frustrating - of the night, if only because she held her own to his cheerful and actually kind of funny banter.
Labour’s Kris Faafoi, possibly on that first-time homebuyers high, came across as warm and thoughtful. He even seemed to have a pleasant camaraderie with Chris Bishop, creating a kind of sparring buddies feeling which I enjoyed very much.
But with her unparalleled ability to rattle off otherwise boring information with flair, affinity with the crowd and good-natured intolerance of David Seymour, the crown has got to go the Green’s Chlöe Swarbrick. Seemingly more versed in the specifics of her party’s policy than any other candidate, Swarbrick was the perfect combination of confident, clear headed, and charismatic taking Seymour’s repeated attempts to undermine her in stride and owning him enjoyably more than once.
It was the first ever youth debate and it seems appropriate that the candidate with the closest claim to youth would come out on top - and a sign, perhaps, that rather than just speak at the young, today’s politicians would do well to speak with them.