26 Sep 2023

Sparks fly at youth debate as candidates forced to defend policies

5:21 am on 26 September 2023
TVNZ Young Voters' Debate participants.

TVNZ Young Voters' Debate participants. Photo: Andrew Dalton - TVNZ

Analysis - A fast-paced election debate focused on young voters got heated as it drilled into parties' answers to the cost of living, housing, climate change and rainbow issues.

Greens candidate Chloe Swarbrick was clearly an audience favourite, winning applause and cheers for several of her answers, while NZ First's Lee Donoghue was jeered and laughed at for his language around trans people and "globalist" groups.

The TVNZ/Re:News Young Voters debate on Monday night also featured Labour's Arena Williams, National's Erica Stanford, ACT's Brooke van Velden, and Te Pāti Māori's Hana-Rawhiti Maipi-Clarke.

Maipi-Clarke, at 21, was the youngest candidate there but was a strong performer, holding her own against more seasoned politicians. At fourth on the list she has a decent chance of entering Parliament - in future, if not this time around.

  • Watch the debate here, or read back through RNZ's live blog coverage
  • As political scientist Lara Greaves highlighted in the after-panel, the MMP-style approach featuring all six parties likely to be in government seemed guaranteed to bring a clash of perspectives. Host Anna Harcourt from Re: News did a good job keeping them all focused and in line, making good use of the buzzer and unafraid to step in when necessary.

    After the usual introductions and pledges direct to camera, the event proper began with a strong focus on the cost of living for young people - including short clips highlighting the large proportion of high schoolers working many hours a week to support their families.

    On housing and cost of living, all but Donoghue and Maipi-Clarke confirmed they owned a house or apartment; Williams owned more than one.

    Van Velden sought to defend her party's policy of handing fines to parents whose children did not attend school, but acknowledged some families would not be able to afford it. Swarbrick said she was "gobsmacked that we're looking to punish people for the crime of poverty," arguing the Greens' income guarantee was a better solution that would allow young people to participate.

    Williams appeared reluctant to defend the GST off fruit and vegetables policy, turning instead to Labour's free dental for under-30s, saying it would "mean people won't have to put off their essential healthcare until they can afford it".

    Participants in the TVNZ Young Voters' Debate.

    Chloe Swarbrick, Erica Stanford, and Arena Williams. Photo: TVNZ / Andrew Dalton

    Stanford also pivoted when asked about National's tax cuts, saying "these are all just bandages, the key thing we have to do is actually attack cost of living".

    "What we're doing is encouraging people into work ... it's better than a few cents off carrots, which is what Labour are offering you."

    Van Velden was also asked to defend her party's opposition to rent controls, and said landlords would be incentivised to leave the rental market. When Harcourt asked if she was on the side of landlords, rather than renters, Swarbrick snuck in a quick 'yep' to laughs from the audience.

    Donoghue said with immigrants all going to the main centres, housing was part of the cost of living problem - and NZ First was wanting to restrict the number of migrants coming in.

    He is 12th on NZ First's list and - with the party polling around 5 percent - seems very unlikely to enter Parliament. His intro skated over the party's priorities of wanting to stand up against "woke extremism", say no to co-governance, "put the K back into iwi", protect assets, and incentivise careers for those who stayed in New Zealand.

    During the rainbow issues segment, he was asked about the party's policy of removing "gender ideology" from curriculum, challenged over whether it really was an important issue. He justified it by saying parents are very concerned about "complex, sexual, inappropriate discussions happening at school", and referred to warnings from a right-leaning lobby group about primary school children being disciplined if they did not affirm other children's gender: "we can't shut people up because it hurts our feelings".

    Swarbrick interrupted, saying "I think you're talking about consequences, bro". She said the data showed trans people and children were more highly represented in mental ill health and suicide statistics, "and mate, it's driven by rhetoric from the likes of your party," to applause from the audience. Donoghue responded that "more people are transgendering, or transitioning, than ever before", blaming Swarbrick's rhetoric, to boos.

    Van Velden said we have to "agree to disagree".

    Maipi-Clarke said she was "so sorry to our takatāpui whānau that have to be used as a political football." Donoghue tried to talk over her, but she asked him to stop: "you do not interject into my kōrero".

    Participants in the TVNZ Young Voters' Debate.

    Brooke van Velden, Lee Donoghue and Hana-Rawhiti Maipi-Clarke Photo: TVNZ / Andrew Dalton

    Stanford said the bathrooms issue was not a problem, and no school she's been to around the country had a problem with it - a sentiment panellists later agreed with, India Logan-Riley saying the whole topic appeared to be a wedge issue targeted by NZ First to drive division and stoke votes.

    All parties agreed more needed to be done to support people's mental health, though each seemed to have different suggestions for how to do so.

    The next segment took a bizarre turn, with a question over whether each candidate feared being killed by extreme weather caused by climate change.

    Donoghue was the only one to not fully raise his hand, explaining he'd "been hit by lightning, but no I'm not afraid". He said this was after an Iron Maiden concert in Rome - though it was, as Harcourt noted, nothing to do with climate change.

    Each was asked to pick their top climate policy.

    • Swarbrick: climate resilient cities.
    • Stanford: Electrify NZ policy to ease consenting of renewables
    • Williams: Industrial decarobonisation projects
    • Van Velden: Looking at agricultural technologies
    • Donoghue: Using the ETS to modernise and adapt carbon-producing facilities to go green
    • Maipi-Clarke says all their policies are interconnected, but highlights their kai sovereignty policy

    The final surprise of the night came when the participants were asked to explain why they were in politics, audience members outright laughing at Donoghue for referring to a desire to protect the country from "globalist NGOs like the UN, world economic forum".

    Both organisations are the targets of multiple conspiracy theories, and while Donoghue may not subscribe to them, his comment certainly seems likely to court the vote of believers.

    All in all, a good debate that covered much ground - focusing in on the top four concerns of young voters as measured in IPSOS and Re: News polling.

    It showed the breadth of policy on those areas from the six top parties and forced defences of it, including from some of the lesser-known candidates.

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