The first real coming together of Tauranga and Bay of Plenty election candidates proved to be, all in all, a very nice affair.
Perhaps it was the Covid-19 alert level 2 restrictions that only allowed 100 people into Baycourt theatre's 500-seat arena, or maybe it was that the day had been especially sunny, but seven of our region's hopefuls offered a mostly tame forum. There weren't even any hecklers. Maybe they would've been too easy to spot while observing social distancing rules.
Candidates MP Simon Bridges (National, Tauranga) and MP Todd Muller (National, Bay of Plenty), list MP Jan Tinetti (Labour, Tauranga), list MP Angie Warren-Clark (Labour, Bay of Plenty), joined by Erika Harvey (NZ First, Tauranga), Josh Cole (Green Party) and Cameron Luxton (Act, Tauranga) lined the stage in the Chamber of Commerce and Forsyth Barr election forum ready to campaign.
Each began the night with introductions and Bridges, Tinetti, Muller and Warren-Clark spoke with heart and conviction, rather than notes, about their privilege to serve constituents and how they planned to continue to do so. Given they've each served a minimum of three years in the hot seat, you'd expect such a delivery.
By comparison, newcomers Harvey, Cole and Luxton held their speech notes tightly while addressing the crowd, nerves creeping into their voices and demeanour. It's understandable – this was the first major candidates' event this year - but let's hope that's the last of that. We need MPs with a clear and confident voice to represent ours.
Hope is not lost.
Luxton could well be the dark horse of this year's campaign for Tauranga.
The former farmer soon developed a relaxed delivery as he spoke with insight and intelligence about key issues that he and the Act Party are keen to work on. These included the "mistreatment of gun owners", crime and housing.
Harvey also did well, having done her homework on things such as making it easier for small business. She also spoke of her disillusionment in serving MPs when she needed help in recent years, prompting her venture into politics.
Unfortunately, she faltered towards the end when confronted with a question about NZ First's tax plans for the film industry. I can't blame her.
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Newcomer Cole reminded the audience of the need to be a voice for those without one and Tinetti and Warren-Clarke did Labour proud, referencing the party ethos of looking after all New Zealanders and working together with local councils and groups. But, overall, I feel the standout performance of the night went to Bridges.
In my view, his tenure as National Party leader – before being rolled by Muller earlier this year – gave Bridges an advantage over the others. Bridges displayed a deep understanding of key issues from both a local and national perspective and enlightened the audience with his views for keeping local DHBs separate and the failure of creating the Auckland Super City, which he was part of.
Bridges exuded the air of a seasoned and confident MP at the forefront of the city's biggest issues – Covid-19, gangs, transport infrastructure, and the city council's internal conflicts – and referenced solutions for each.
The fact Muller frequently referenced Bridges during the night was not lost on me either.
The Bay of Plenty MP usurped Bridges as leader in dramatic fashion, stepping down for health reasons in July. The candidates' evening was one of the first public appearances for both men together since the coup.
Cole, Harvey and Luxton have major competition on their hands but they should be proud of their efforts.
I only hope there will be more opportunity for our candidates to present themselves and their ideas again before election day. We need to see more of each of these candidates, and we need to see more metal from them too.
I'm not talking about mud-slinging and personal politics but how an MP handles themselves while challenged or thrust into awkward situations can be a true test of character.
Only time will tell whether this relaxed camaraderie will last.