Matt McCarten on politics

Matt McCarten is a Herald on Sunday political columnist

Matt McCarten: Big tick for new TV debate show

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Michelle Boag. Photo / NZ Herald
Michelle Boag. Photo / NZ Herald

I was a ring-in for a full dress rehearsal last week for TV3's new debate show The Vote. It goes live this Wednesday.

The original concept was devised over a beer between Duncan Garner and Guyon Espiner. Its format is two teams of debaters going head-to-head in front of a live audience. The practice debate was over whether partial asset sales should go ahead.

The audience was polled on the subject at the start and end of the show. They decide the winning team.

Labour finance man David Parker and I were naturally on the anti team captained by Espiner. Garner's team was former National Party president Michelle Boag and irrepressible right-winger Matthew Hooton. The referee was former TVNZ political editor Linda Clark.

At the show's start the audience poll had a fairly even three-way split between support, opposition and undecided.

I was always confident that we would win the debate by exposing the reality that the sale of our power companies is all about transferring half of a cash cow, which we all currently own, to the wealthier 10 per cent of the population. It's effectively a scheme in which a minority of this generation steals the heritage of our grandchildren that was paid for by our grandparents.

The best the opposing team could offer in its opening salvo was the Government's nonsensical official line that the sale would bring in the money they need to invest in schools and hospitals.

Anyone who knows even basic maths knows that's a stretch. Our power companies returned $360 million in dividends to the taxpayer last year. Over the past five years the average return has been 18.5 per cent. And the Government can borrow money at less than 4 per cent interest.

In my response, I raised the well-used analogy that if you wanted to build a garage on your house, would you sell your rental property that returned you 18.5 per cent to pay for it? Or would you take out a 4 per cent loan? No-brainer, really.

Our opponents followed up by spouting silliness that the asset sales would create jobs, prices would come down and John Key had a mandate anyway.

Espiner and Parker took them apart. Could the other team name a single asset sale that created a job that we may have missed? Apparently not.

Parker explained patiently that private electricity retailers already charged on average 5 per cent higher than their state-owned competitors - about $200 annually per household. Did the other team have an example of prices that have come down after privatisation? Silence.

We then pointed out that if the Prime Minister believed he had a mandate, why didn't he hold up the sales until the opposition's referendum was held? Splutter.

Our opponents retreated to their final refuge. Boag beamed that patriotic mum and dad investors got an opportunity to make a little passive income while keeping ownership in Kiwi hands.

Hmmm. That's what her party said about Contact Energy, when they sold it in 1999. Today, 80 per cent of Contact is owned by 1 per cent of shareholders. Five of the seven directors are not New Zealanders. Truth hurts.

The final poll vote was 88 per cent to 12 - to our team. Audience members told me they learned more at the debate than anywhere else.

I hope senior politicians front these panels. Imagine Key, Banks and Dunne v Shearer, Peters and Norman.

TV3 should patent the format. It's a winner.

- Herald on Sunday

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