Tuesday 22 August 2017
New Zealand's general election is in a month. Tonight I went along to a town-hall meeting with the candidates standing in the Epsom electorate where I live. I thought all the candidates were good, except perhaps New Zealand First's candidate who seemed a bit green (but he was only in his twenties). The candidates were eloquent, witty, mostly respectful, mostly made reasonable proposals to fix problems, all showed a grasp of facts and figures, and all seemed fit to serve as a Member of Parliament.
Epsom has complex electoral dynamics. Being reputedly one of the most right-wing electorates in New Zealand, the two small parties to the right of National (the big centre-right party) focus most of their energy on winning the Epsom electoral vote; under NZ's MMP system, this entitles their parties to receive seats proportional to their party vote even if that party vote is less than 5%, in which case they would normally receive no seats. National traditionally games the system a little bit by encouraging their voters to give their party vote to National but their electoral vote to the ACT candidate, on the expectation that this helps National because the otherwise "wasted" ACT party votes will put ACT MPs in Parliament who will align with National. Therefore tonight we had candidates from National (Paul Goldsmith), Labour (David Parker), the Greens (Barry Coates), and New Zealand First (Julian Paul), and also the ACT and Conservative party leaders (David Seymour and Leighton Baker) standing as candidates. National polling has the left-wing and right-wing coalitions reasonably close at this stage, with the Greens only just short of the 5% threshold and New Zealand First over it, so all but the Conservative party has a realistic chance of being part of a governing coalition.
It's sad there are no women candidates in Epsom this time around. David Parker claimed half of Labour's candidates are women.
On the issues, the candidates mostly said what you'd expect. People seemed to agree about problems — wealth inequality, housing, transport, education, environment (especially water quality), youth suicide — except that Paul Goldsmith obviously had to paint a more optimistic picture than the others. They often (not always) disagreed about the best way to solve them. I was surprised to learn that ACT supports a carbon tax.
In several cases candidates obviously did quick research on their phones to gather data before their turn to respond to a question, or to follow up on a previous answer. That was cool.
I wanted to ask why New Zealand should sign the "TPP as is, minus USA" deal as National is proposing, given the intellectual property concessions that are mainly there for the benefit of US companies, which could only make sense for us if we got something in return from the USA ... but I didn't get a chance to ask it :-(.
Given Epsom's reputation as a haven for right-wing parties, it was interesting that when David Seymour described Labour as more left-wing than it has been for years, a lot of people cheered.
Overall I'd say the Green and Conservative candidates impressed me the most, partly because I had lower expectations for them. Leighton Baker has some interesting ideas I hadn't heard before, like offering trade-oriented high school streams, which I think sounds great except it won't fly because people overvalue university degrees. Barry Coates came across as informed and capable, so I wonder why the Greens are wasting him in Epsom. David Parker came across as a bit over-snarky but I think he made what was for me the most compelling argument of the night: that New Zealand's tax structure favours property investment over business investment and Labour will do a better job than National of fixing this.
I think New Zealanders should be pretty proud of the quality of our political system and politicians.