The jibes started early at the general election candidates' forum hosted by Tauranga Chamber of Commerce and Forsyth Barr. Tauranga's Baycourt Theatre was at its alert level 2 capacity, with another crowd watching online, as local election candidates addressed the public Thursday night, 37 days out from the election.
Two former National Party leaders were on the stage, with electorate MPs Simon Bridges (National, Tauranga) and Todd Muller, (National, Bay of Plenty) joining locally-based list MPs Jan Tinetti (Labour, Tauranga) and Angie Warren-Clark (Labour, Bay of Plenty), as well as Erika Harvey (NZ First, Tauranga), Josh Cole (Green Party) and Cameron Luxton (Act, Tauranga).
Muller took an early dig at the Government, saying it did not understand small business and the need for a strong economy after the Covid crisis.
In a following address, Tinetti said she owned a small business with her husband "so I know about small business and how to establish ourselves globally".
Warren-Clark, of Pāpāmoa, said she was also a small business owner, having a construction company with her husband.
She also described herself as a "mad-keen, fisherwoman".
Muller and Bridges were seated separately, but Muller regularly acknowledged his former leader – whom he rolled in dramatic fashion before stepping down earlier this year - and the wider National Party in his answers.
Muller told the crowd the election would be "one of the most significant of our lifetimes".
"This is a crisis and this country … the National Party has policies this Parliament does not. They don't have lived experiences of putting their homes on the line."
Harvey, who has been active in local politics in recent years, said NZ First would work with small business owners to make business easier. She said New Zealand was living in a false economy with the wage subsidy and there were increasing compliance costs for small businesses such as health and safety.
"We feel there needs to be a balance between employees and employers. Right now it's a bit unbalanced."
Cole introduced himself as a man who grew up with undiagnosed autism as a child and was now a self-employed landscape gardener, married with two children also living with autism.
He spoke of his passion to stand up for social injustices. When asked what the biggest health issue in Tauranga right now, he replied "under-investment".
Cole said mental health services were "hugely underfunded".
Bridges said Covid was obviously the biggest health issue but also underfunding in some areas, to which Harvey agreed.
Luxton, who grew up in Pāpāmoa and spent time farming in Galatea and Murupara before returning to Tauranga, said mental health care was a "huge problem".
"Being a dairy farmer, holy crap it's not good. Rural people are not served at all well by our healthcare system. There have been lots of initiatives but … we need a comprehensive [policy] allocated patients to providers with innovative solutions."
Tinetti said, "surprisingly enough", her answer was much the same as Bridges' reference to Covid.
She also said mental health was an area the Government would be investing in significantly.
Candidates were also asked whether it was time to review local government policy to ensure councils were equipped with the right tools to manage growth.
This prompted a dire prediction from Bridges, referencing the tensions among some of Tauranga City Council's elected members that recently prompted questions from Central Government, which the council has responded to by hiring a team to monitor the members.
"Look, let's be straight about our council. I've been quite clear I think they need to work harder to work try to come together with the mayor and councillors and that's not happening and I think, regrettably, there is an air of inevitability about a commissioner coming in and doing something about that."
Bridges said in fairness to the council, that with matters such as building the Tauranga Northern Link or expressway to the Kaimais "it was central government that has the power and wherewithal to make that happen".
"And not a lot has happened in the past three years. Central government has to step up in this area."
Event organiser Anne Pankhurst said earlier the event would provide an opportunity for the Tauranga business community to hear first-hand from their local candidates before polling day, and would offer a forum for their questions.
"Given the political roller coaster that we have seen play out since Covid-19 hit our shores, we're excited to be co-hosting this event and expect a lively debate between the candidates.
"It's rare to get an opportunity to get them together in one place and this is the only event of its kind, so we encourage you to come along, hear from the candidates and have your say as well."
The general election will be held on October 17.
Pankhurst said to ensure effective and efficient debate, only candidates from the main parties currently in Parliament were invited.
"We want to ensure issues discussed are relevant to our business community, and that everyone has a chance to speak, to engage with the debate, and that attendees felt they got the information they needed."