Waiariki candidates proved to be far more popular than their East Coast counterparts with easily three times as many people turning out to see them in Ōpotiki.
Close to 200 people packed into the Ōpotiki College discovery centre on Friday night, in breach of level 2 gathering rules, keen to hear from Labour candidate Tamati Coffey, Vision NZ's Hannah Tamaki and the Maori Party's Rawiri Waititi.
Most of those in attendance were either carrying signs supporting their preferred candidate or were wearing party regalia and loudly voiced their support throughout.
Both Tamaki and Waititi were entertaining, powerful speakers while Coffey displayed a quiet strength when pushing back on incorrect abortion law claims.
Abortion laws, the havoc methamphetamine is wreaking on Maori communities and racism were the main discussion points at the debate. A kuia from the East Cape raised the abortion issue with candidates and said she was worried that babies could be aborted right up until nine months.
"Just a simple answer, please. Is it true, was it rushed through under Covid?" she asked.
Coffey explained that the Abortion Legislation Bill moved abortion out of the Crimes Act and made it a health issue instead.
He said women could choose to have an abortion up to 20 weeks and after that could only obtain one if the pregnancy was detrimental to their health and two doctors had signed off on it.
"This is really harrowing stuff," Coffey said.
"It is not an easy korero … it is the most traumatic decision that mama will ever have to make. I have a problem with men deciding what happens to women's bodies. I believe in a woman's right to choose."
Tamaki then stood up and said she had prematurely given birth to babies at 22 and 23 weeks who were now grown with babies of their own.
"I'm pro-life, I'm against abortion full stop," she said.
"There are plenty of beautiful families who will take a baby. If anybody you know wants to give up a baby, ring me. I've got hundreds of families who will take a baby."
Tamaki said the legislation was "rushed through under Covid". However, this was refuted by Coffey who shook his head and repeatedly said "no, no it didn't".
However, he was spoken over by Tamaki who said mokopuna could be taken for abortions without families being told.
Debate organiser Tawhai Johnson said the abortion law reform took more than three years to pass and that the process began in 2017, resulting in jeers from the crowd who felt he was not being impartial.
Methamphetamine and the way it predominately affected poor, Maori communities was also discussed.
"Meth has absolutely wrangled our communities; these communities you fellas talk so deeply about, these mokopuna you have a passion for, this reo that you talk about," said a woman in the crowd.
"I want to know, how are we going to make an effective change in the lives of our tamariki and mokopuna?"
The woman said she was a kaiako at a kohanga reo and that methamphetamine was in the bloodline of her babies.
"All I want to do is teach them how to be Māori but before they even become part of the whenua they are swamped with methamphetamine."
Waititi said the Government shouldn't be guiding that conversation and that communities should be able to look after themselves. He said Māori couldn't work with a system that worked against them. Resources needed to be taken from the Government and given to the people.
"The intergenerational trauma that this Government and colonisation have caused our people is going to take a long time to fix," he said.
Tamaki said none of her children or grandchildren took drugs and that was because of the example that had been set for them. She said money needed to go to community groups with a proven track record rather than organisations that had mates in Parliament.
Coffey said the Government had already put the call out for Māori health providers to get in touch for funding and he was open to having a korero with anyone who might like to apply.
"Part of the problem is, our whānau like taking it," he said.
"They take it and then they share it around and that's something that happens. I believe right now we don't have the solution in front of us. We need to ensure we have facilities to look after those who have found themselves addicted."
Coffey said Whakatāne, Tauranga, Taupō and Rotorua had benefited from investment in their mental health services under Labour. The issue of racism was also raised by one of the only three Pakeha in the room. The man said he was sick of the covert racism rampant in New Zealand and wanted to know how the candidates planned to address it.
Coffey said he tried to educate with aroha whenever people shared their casual racism with him. He said the teaching of New Zealand history in schools could also help to prevent that.
"When we tell our own stories, warts and all, about the confiscations, about the bloodshed, about the battles, about the turmoil here on our own lands, that will create an awareness amongst all New Zealanders," Coffey said.
Waititi said racism had been in New Zealand for 250 years and it was a Pakeha problem that "they need to call themselves out on".
He said the effects of it could be seen in intergenerational trauma resulting in addiction and homelessness.
Waititi said Māori had been put in second place by successive racist governments and it was time for Maori to stand up and vote. Tamaki said she had felt racism and discrimination but said Māori needed to stop doing it to each other, which made Pakeha think it was all right to do, too.
She said Māori needed to support each other and not be too whakama to stand up and say when something was wrong. In his closing remarks, Waititi encouraged the audience to vote strategically and said voters could get all three candidates in.
He said Coffey was likely to make it back to Parliament on the list regardless of the candidate vote, so voters should give their party vote to Tamaki and their candidate vote to him to get all three and more Maori in Parliament.
"We need to start using this MMP system to our advantage, because the Pakeha do it and they do it well," he said.
Tamaki asked the audience to vote for her, a mother, a grandmother, with the experience, who can awhi all.
Coffey said voters should use MMP to their benefit just like Labour did in 2017. He said through the coalition, 13 Māori were given seats in the Labour-led Government.
"Do you want to vote strategically, or do you want to continue the work we've been doing," Coffey said.
"You either want a strong Jacinda Ardern-led Government with a large Māori caucus or you want something else."
The other Waiariki candidates, Riki Broughton for New Conservative, Rawiri Te Kowhai for Outdoors and Ema Williams for Advance NZ were either not invited or did not respond to invitations for the debate.
Labour made the promise to review abortion processes during its 2017 election campaign. However, the bill did not have its first reading until August 2019.
Submissions for the Abortion Legislation Act were held until September 2019. Of the 25,000 submissions received, more than 90 per cent were opposed to it passing.
The bill passed its third reading on March 18 of this year and came into force on March 24. It moves abortion out of the Crimes Act and makes it a public health issue.
Women can choose to have abortions up to 20 weeks and after that can have one if pregnancy poses a serious risk to their health and they get the sign-off from two doctors.