Wellington’s famous Aro Street debate took place last night somewhat trimmed by Covid-19 restrictions.
That meant numbers in the hall were restricted and the overflow crows had to stay outside and watch through the windows.
One enterprising heckler stationed himself on a ladder bellowing comments through an open window.
The debate audience struggled to find the relevance of some, such as “I love Shakespeare”.
But maybe that reflected the fundamental tone of this election campaign so far; National is finding it hard to challenge Labour on the central issue — its health and economic response to Covid-19.
However even so, the event, which includes all the Wellington Central candidates and takes place in the ultra-woke Aro Street community hall draws some of the highest-flying MPs in Parliament.
The MP for Wellington Central MP is Finance Minister Grant Robertson; National’s candidate is the highly-rated Nicola Willis; the Greens candidate is its co-leader, James Shaw and ACT’s candidate is its deputy leader, Brooke van Velden.
Also there was independent candidate, Jessie Richardson and the Opportunities Party candidate, Abe Gray.
Gray is a former lecturer in botany from the University of Otago who also established the country’s first cannabis museum there.
He resonated with the audience, particularly when he was asked what New Zealand should do to decarbonise.
He said his contribution was to use a magnifying glass to light his morning cannabis smoke.
What is unique about the Aro St debate – apart from the water pistols that are brought into play if a speaker exceeds their time limit — is that the debate on the economy, in the brief moments that it appears, is on a different level to most other political meetings.
And last night it was focussed on Covid and debt.
And that turned the spotlight on Robertson, and he rehearsed what sounds like Labour’s economic defence this campaign.
Undoubtedly we will hear of that this morning when he unveils the party’s tax policy.
“This election ultimately is still going to be about what kind of place we are as we go through Covid-19,” he said.
“If there is one thing I am proud of over these last three years, it is that we have never wavered from our belief that the best economic response to Covid-19 was a strong public health response.
“We’ve stuck to that.
“We protected New Zealanders, and we’ve taken on more debt because we saved for a rainy day.
“It came, and the umbrellas have gone up to make sure we get through this together.
“We will pay down that debt in time.
“But what’s much more important to me is that families have warm, dry homes to live in, that they’ve got parents who are still in jobs and income to make sure they get through this.”
In what was probably meant as a taunt to Nicola Willis, he suggested the opposite to Labour’s policies was austerity.
“We stand against that,” he said.
But Willis didn’t quite jump to the bait. Instead, she gave the firmest indication so far that National believes the border will be closed for some considerable time.
“ We also need to step back and think about the world as it’s going to be over the next three years,” she said.
“And you will know it’s going to be tough.
“We are going to have to manage that border incredibly carefully for so long as Covid-19 is in our world without a vaccine.
“And yes, we have come together effectively as a country in doing that.
“But there have been failures at the border; there have been failures to deliver on the mandatory quarantine and isolation facilities.”
But if Aro Valley is anything, it’s Green. James Shaw, who grew up only metres from the hall where the debate took place, won 58% of the vote cast at the hall at the last election.
But last night he was clearly nervous about what the reaction to his private school blunder might be.
He elected to deal with it with humour.
“I want to say this only once (long pause) — sorry,” he said.
“Sorry about that.”
He needn’t have worried. He understands Aro Valley concerns intuitively.
So when candidates were asked by one of the overflow crowd outside the hall whether they would ensure that those who could afford to pay would repay the debt, he had a ready answer.
“One of my greatest frustrations is that in this country, we tax people who earn and we don’t tax people who own,” he said.
“And if you really want to look at the source of inequality, that is the source of that right there.”
ACT’s Brooke van Velden was never going to agree to any increase in taxes or a capital gains tax.
“I think it’s an absolute disgrace what this government is doing borrowing one hundred and forty billion dollars and not also considering we are we should be tightening a little bit,” she said.
“Where are the policies that can make sure that our next generation is not saddled with debt for years to come, but also how people at the moment aren’t losing their jobs.
“We need to have a growth led recovery.”
Robertson and Willis had to somehow fit themselves into the middle between these two extremes.
Robertson ignored Shaw’s comments about the capital gains tax proposals which Labour abandoned.
Instead, he invited everyone to his tax policy launch today.
“It does have to be about that making sure that we pay back in a way that makes sure future generations are looked after, both here and now in the future,” he said.
“I just don’t buy Brooks line.
“We have to borrow.
“We have to do this to support our people.”
Nicola Willis was similarly equivocal though she too appeared to question van Velden.
“National still stands for no new taxes, no increases in tax,” she said.
“This is definitely a time we need to borrow and invest in assets for the future while we are creating jobs.”
Perhaps more typically of Aro Valley, there was a question about whether the voting age should be lowered to 16. Willis and van Velden were opposed; everybody else was in favour.
But what the debate showed was that Covid is overpowering this election campaign and that on the fundamental issue; whether the government have borrowed as much as it did to keep the economy going, there is little debate and what there is being debated is around the edges rather than on the core question itself.