MP Erica Stanford got the first laugh. She represented National at yesterday's candidates forum for the Auckland Central electorate, although she holds the East Coast Bays seat. She was there because, due to procedural irregularities, the party has not yet chosen its Auckland Central candidate.
"We have an extraordinary pool of talent to choose from," she said. That's when they laughed.
"I can't imagine why that's funny," she said. They laughed some more.
It was "the largest crowd I've ever seen at a candidates forum", said the chair, John Elliott, a veteran who's done a lot of these things. Packed into the hall at Freeman's Bay Primary School, row after row sitting on children's plastic chairs.
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When National's long-serving MP Nikki Kaye announced her surprise resignation, Auckland Central was suddenly thrown wide open – and it's being fiercely contested. National wants to hold the seat, but Greens candidate Chloe Swarbrick, a list MP, really wants to take it off them and so does Labour's Helen White, an employment lawyer.
Swarbrick is reported to have raised an army of 700 mainly young people who are on the phones and out door-knocking; White is getting help from the Labour volunteers in at least one neighbouring electorate.
NZ First's Jenny Marcroft, who is also standing, told the meeting that one of those two will triumph. "You mark my words," she said, before going on to ask for everyone's party vote.
Stanford had different ideas. In her summing up she said all of National's shortlisted candidates were "exceptional" and "equal in quality to Nikki Kaye".
The audience laughed again, but this time Stanford didn't join in. She warned of "an economic decline bigger than anything we've seen for over 100 years. That's why we need our strong team."
It hardly mattered: the crowd was there for Swarbrick and White. Many partisans on both sides, the Greens cheering more loudly, but not by much.
Swarbrick said the Greens had been given "the opportunity to walk alongside Labour and to hold them to account". She quoted Labour's Education Minister Chris Hipkins with approval: "The Greens are the conscience of the Labour Party."
White said she wanted to help make homes cheaper and wages higher, to uphold people's dignity and to advocate for better mental health.
Swarbrick talked about how the country had done so well during the pandemic "because we recognised the value of science and evidence". She suggested we could take it further. "Imagine if we committed to that approach with climate change."
She pointed out that rough sleepers had been housed and core benefits raised, even though problems like that used to be thought unfixable. "We did it because of willpower. We can do that again."
She mentioned her party's Poverty Action Plan, with its Guaranteed Minimum Income of $325 a week for everyone not in work, with top-ups for those with children.
Neither attacked the other, but Stanford was happy enough to attack them both. She accused the Greens "and probably Labour too" of "constantly fluffing the pillow of misery". Far better to get people off benefits and into work.
White responded that people living in cars aren't always on benefits. Often they're working, but they're the working poor and they can't afford a home." She said, "We need to stop punishing people."
Tuariki Delamere from The Opportunities Party (TOP) was there. He said fix housing and you're well on the way to fixing other problems. He also promoted TOP's proposals of a Universal Basic Income and a simple 33 per cent flat tax.
Vernon Tava, from the Sustainable New Zealand Party, said it was possible "to protect the environment without focusing on tax and regulations", and that's what his party stood for.
They were asked about tree protection, the Auckland port, the rainbow community, the Treaty of Waitangi and more. But, apart from tax and Stanford, rarely did anyone say something the others disagreed with.
Towards the end they were asked to name the single biggest issue facing the electorate and explain what they would do about it. Swarbrick said the most visible issue was probably homelessness. Her party's Homes for All housing policy, she said, released that morning, promised to eliminate the 18,500-strong waiting list for social housing within five years.
White said most things boiled down to affordability. Everything costs too much. "We need a really strong voice advocating for that stuff for us now."
In summary, she called for a school in the central city and suggested a voice in Government like hers could perhaps "make enough noise to get that across the line".
Swarbrick used her last speech to ramp up the energy. "People talk to me about the numbers in 2017," she said, referring to the election when the Greens candidate came a very distant third.
"Folks, this time it's an entirely different race! There are no incumbents. There is currently not even a National candidate."
She talked about "the value of an independent voice". She reminded them that Sandra Lee had won the seat for the Alliance. In 1993. She said, "I hope I can be that voice."
They're feeling their way. The trick is to be nice even while you go to war and it isn't that easy. National selects its candidate tonight.