Politics students get a chance to grill MPs

Taking questions from University of Otago politics students are (from left) Green MP for Auckland...
Taking questions from University of Otago politics students are (from left) Green MP for Auckland Central Chloe Swarbrick, Labour Party list MP Rachel Brooking and National Party list MP Michael Woodhouse. PHOTOS: GREGOR RICHARDSON
On a wet Wednesday in Dunedin, some red-hot politics sounded like just the thing to warm oneself up.

However, the University of Otago Politics Students Association re-orientation week political panel did not turn out to be an especially fiery affair, rather a sensible, thoughtful and reasoned debate — despite what some cynics might suggest, MPs really are capable of such a thing.

Not being an election year might have helped, as perhaps did the audience: this was not the usual knock-about, partisan, campus political clash, rather a well-moderated attempt to cast light rather than heat on some big questions.

And several big questions were considered, including each party’s youth policy, climate change, housing, the voting age and abortion.

In the Green corner was Auckland Central MP Chloe Swarbrick, a regular standard bearer for her party down here, and in town for re-orientation week and the Dunedin Greens’ local body election campaign launch that night.

She was clearly a woman in a hurry, delivering her comprehensive answers at 100kmh, pausing only to trade occasional barbs with Dunedin National Party list MP Michael Woodhouse, who was variously called patronising and ageist.

Mr Woodhouse, who would prefer honest and realistic, had to nimbly step through a minefield of questions, most notably the abortion one, but showed his veteran political skills in navigating the course safely.

Stuck in the middle, physically and metaphorically, was Dunedin Labour list MP Rachel Brooking, who having been practically brought up on campus and also having served time on the Otago University Students’ Association, was virtually on home soil.

Given that Ms Brooking had only been back in Dunedin for a few hours, having just got home from a trip to various European countries as part of a parliamentary exchange, she did remarkably well to keep awake, let alone engaged and focused.

Despite that, it took her literally seconds to get on to the topic of the Resource Management Act, a perennial favourite for an environmental lawyer.

It was in an interesting context though, that of youth policy.

At the risk of this columnist also falling foul of Ms Swarbrick, it seems likely that many of the largely teenage audience had planning law high up on their list of personal priorities.

However, Ms Brooking cogently made the point that the rules in place over planning today will be crucial to how these student’s futures, and their children’s futures for that matter, will play out.

For Mr Woodhouse, with the media watching on, the key mission for the day was not to misstep on the question of abortion.

This is a topic he has largely remained silent on in the House, although he did vote against the Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion (Safe Areas) Amendment Act (on freedom of speech grounds), and also voted against the Abortion Legislation Act (on conscience grounds).

However, it is an issue which Labour has been striving mightily to make topical, using the lens of the recent overturning of Roe v Wade in the United States to focus on the views of National leader Christopher Luxon, whose conscience on the matter is well-known.

University of Otago politics students assess the MPs’ views on the issues of the day.
University of Otago politics students assess the MPs’ views on the issues of the day.
Despite Mr Luxon’s repeated denials of any intention to change abortion law if elected, this is an assertion Labour continues to make and which Mr Woodhouse and other National MPs are going to have to wrestle with for months to come.

"I trust the collective wisdom of New Zealanders, as articulated by the voting patterns of our Parliament, and I think this is where democracy really works," he said, trying to carefully adhere to the party line.

"There was a strong mandate for that law change, it was never going to be lost despite some people in this country having very strong views, but I trust New Zealanders and I think Parliament reflected their views in that way.

"The country has settled that argument ... we will not do that [return abortion to the Crimes Act]."

Which sounds a categorical enough statement, but this will not be the last time Mr Woodhouse will face that particular question.

Although the next election campaign is a year away, this panel did provide hints as to where the battle lines will be drawn in 2023.

The economy, as always, was front and centre, but for these voters at least many of their concerns seemed to be more far future than immediate: will they be able to afford a house and what damage will climate change have wrought?

While immediate hip pocket issues may dominate the daily political debate, parties can ill-afford to glide over the long-term.

Missing politics?

The long winter parliamentary recess is still dragging on, but there is some genuine political action happening in Wellington next week, the Youth Parliament.

Held every three years, 120 youth MPs, selected by each sitting member, take part in a year-long series of events, most notably two days in the capital where they get to meet in the debating chamber, consider a Bill and — as Invercargill Labour list MP Dr Liz Craig’s youth MP Alice McIntosh is doing — ask a question of a minister.

The South’s other youth MPs are: Cam Fraser (Taieri); Ethan Reille (representing Rachel Brooking); Ihorangi Reweti-Peters (Te Tai Tonga); Izzy Law (Invercargill); Kareena Dunlop (representing Michael Woodhouse); Luke Thomson (Southland); Nicolas Alvarez Rey-Virag (Dunedin); and Olive Scurr (Waitaki).


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