Church echoes to sounds of laughter, political points

It is the final week of the election campaign, but if the Opoho Candidates meeting is anything to go by people have not got tired of politics just yet.

More than 200 people were crammed into the church and another 30 or so turned away, as Dunedin’s best-known political gathering lived up to its reputation.

Most candidates kept to the strict time limits imposed by moderator Phil Somerville, although Labour candidate Rachel Brooking in particular fell foul of the "stag roarer" signal that their time was up.

NZ First’s Keegan Langevelt, the youngest candidate on stage, raised a laugh by saying he was pitching for people’s party vote so that there would be "an adult in the room".

He also got a round of applause when saying his favourite politician from another party was Ms Brooking, a line which prompted Mr Somerville to claim that some of NZ First leader Winston Peters’ legendary charm had seemingly rubbed off on the party’s former youth wing leader.

Labour candidate Rachel Brooking makes a point to the Opoho Dunedin election candidates meeting...
Labour candidate Rachel Brooking makes a point to the Opoho Dunedin election candidates meeting last night, watched by (from left) Marama Davidson (Greens), James Christmas (National), Ben Peters (TOP) and Keegan Langeveld (NZ First). Independent candidate Jim O’Malley is obscured behind Ms Brooking. Moderator Phil Somerville (red and white hat) looks on. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
Independent candidate Jim O’Malley, a city councillor, said he was standing because during his time in local government he had become convinced that Dunedin was not receiving a due level of attention from central government.

Tim Newman (Act New Zealand) was an apology due to being out of town; Green candidate Francisco Hernandez was ill but a more than capable substitute was found in the shape of party co-leader Marama Davidson.

Also missing was National candidate Michael Woodhouse, a conspicuous absentee from all debates so far this election. His regular substitute, list only candidate James Christmas, was called up again, although this time Mr Woodhouse had a compelling personal reason for not being at a meeting.

Pledges from Top’s Ben Peters (a University of Otago employee) and Ms Davidson to increase funding to tertiary education and in the Greens case to bring in a universal student allowance and free public transport for students got big rounds of applause unsurprisingly, as the campus is just down the road from debate venue the Opoho Church.

Most parties also stood staunchly for fully funding the new Dunedin hospital when given a hypothetical situation where the budget had blown out by a further half billion dollars.

Mr O’Malley — who as a long-serving councillor may have been dismayed at a questioner from the floor saying that she was unaware of him until tonight — said it was likely that the hospital budget would blow out again and that there needed to be more rigorous capital works management to ensure the facility was built as promised.

Ms Brooking said that Health Minister Ayesha Verrall had already promised that nothing would be taken away from the new Dunedin Hospital, only added, and that she would be keeping the minister to that promise.

Mr Christmas asked the audience to forgive a list candidate who was not from Dunedin for potentially sounding like a hypocrite, but said as a local MP he would expect to be representing the city’s views to finance spokeswoman Nicola Willis, although a big budget blow out would be a challenge in difficult economic times.

Ms Brooking was also astute enough to dodge the question she surely knew was coming, whether she supported a wealth tax, saying the measure only appeared in the Labour manifesto in the context of it being unconditionally ruled out.

Ms Davidson brought plenty of star power to the debate, although how much will rub off on Mr Hernandez is a moot point. Mr Christmas, another "carpetbagger", survived a very left-leaning crowd thanks to a nice self-deprecating sense of humour, a trait which also served Mr Langeveld well although he lost major points for not knowing where Tarras airport might be.

Dr Peters is an experienced candidate who did well in 2020 and is even more polished in 2023, although he has a mountain to climb as a representative of a party yet to elect an MP to Parliament.

Mr O’Malley had the right audience in front of him for his mantra of increasing taxes on the rich and redistributing wealth, but will have harder rows to hoe ahead of him if his planned new left-leaning political movement takes off.

But, as always with this debate, the Cat in the Hat was the winner. , Political editor