On the Hustings: The Labour Party candidates visit Hamilton

“There will be a TPPA [Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement] protest in Garden Place” said Holly Snape, introduced by Tim Barnett as the ‘first loser’ at Hamilton’s local government elections (a little unflattering considering she could’ve also been sold as having been only 295 votes shy of unseating a veteran city councillor) to a Labour Party Candidate ‘Hustings’ meeting in Hamilton on Wednesday night. This was surely one of the more overt signs that we weren’t in Helen Clark’s Labour Party anymore.

As if to re-emphasise this fact somebody from the crowd shouted out that we should ‘take the Labour Party flag’ to the protest. Holly agreed and no doubt chided herself for not having thought of advertising the protest as ‘The Labour Party Flag’s anti-TPPA protest’. I struggle to remember any anti-Chinese Free Trade Agreement rallies having been held with Labour Party flags during the time of Helen Clark. Actually it’s hard to imagine Labour Party flags having been held at any protest back then really. Now they’re protesting the TPPA before it’s even been written, let alone signed. During the Clark years such protesting was the almost-exclusive domain of Brian Tamaki and Greeny types who seemed to have a collective anxiety attack every time Helen sneezed in a way that might indicate she was either a A) Lesbian or B) Chinese.

Then again, this isn’t even the same party as a year ago, when they held the same election in front of an unbelievably large horde of elderly people that filled that very same room at Te Rapa Racecourse almost to bursting. Either some of those people have died in the interim or they are all suffering a level of disillusionment more often seen amongst younger types tossing up whether to toss off for another 15 minutes or get changed into some appropriate churchgoing clothes for their 3-yearly trip to the ballot box.

The turnout statistics weren’t all bad though.

The brown quotient, for example, was heavily up. I found out their reasons for being there when I arrived late and, attempting politeness, put out some chairs for them as I was pulling out one for myself (they were standing at the back of the room). They politely declined and a few minutes later I found out why. When Nanaia took the stage their loud claps and yells carried to the front of the room. Thus, Nanaia’s supporters proved far wilier and smarter than the rest, at least when it comes to physics: stand up and yell over the top of people’s heads and the sound will carry to the front of the room.

Or perhaps they were the only ones who could be bothered supporting anybody. One attendee, who was asked if he had written any questions down for the Labour candidate or, indeed, had any questions at all, suggested: “what’s for tea?”. As far as I could see the answer was: ‘tap water’ (but I didn’t want to bust the guy’s hopes and dreams any more than they’d already been dashed).

Indeed, unlike last time, there was very little to distinguish the candidates. Ironically enough – given the divisive election – a major difference from last time is just how united they actually are this time. This was evidenced by the fact that hardly any of them even bothered to use the word ‘united’ until prompted to by a question mentioning the word ‘unity’ at the very end.

David Parker was the only one who seemed to attempt not to ‘crowd the left’ (as Nanaia would entreat people not to do later on in the evening) by instead making awkward jokes at the expense of them. My favourite being “Right now, the Capital Gains Tax is more popular than we are.”. As with most of the rest of Parker’s speech this comment was greeted by a deathly silence followed by nervous – and possibly reluctant – applause.

Andrew Little surprised me. He had the freshest look, and it was only his raspy voice that detracted from a speech that made some good points about NZ ‘not listening to [the Labour Party] anymore”, and that the Party itself was actually drifting further away from government rather than towards it. More importantly than that, he mentioned that the future of government would be about the future of work or, more specifically, about exactly who would actually have jobs in a future where ‘the jobs of today will be gone’. Then again, he was also the first candidate to mention ‘child poverty’, a cliche that has been so overused by Labour candidates for office that it is surely not long before it becomes part of a drinking game of some kind.

Grant Robertson also surprised me. Last time I saw him he was lethargic and fond of repeating the phrase ‘new generation’ so much that he sounded like he was making a low-key announcement about a new set of Star Trek spinoffs. This time he was bouncing all over the place, so top marks to him. He also mentioned rugby, A LOT. Apparently this is a reflection of his genuine interest in the game, I don’t know enough about rugby union to really judge either way. I would say though that both he and Andrew Little might have been somewhat puzzled by the less than enthusiastic applause they received every time they mentioned the ‘Chiefs’ or the ‘Hurricanes’ or indeed ‘Super Rugby’. Huntly and Nguarawahia – which would make up a not insignificant portion of the Labour Party membership in the Waikato – are hotbeds of League, and Super 15 is of little interest to them (something Nanaia honed in on as the only candidate to casually mention how she’d attended League games). Something to bear in mind in West Auckland perhaps, that ‘rugby’ will not mean ‘good hetero bloke’ in every corner of the country you visit.

There were some danger signs about Grant though, one in particular. In his opening speech he mentioned the need for Labour to get out there and campaign for things (causes, working people, and suchlike), but I rather think the problem is the exact opposite.

Take the issue of asset sales for example, every week at the Farmer’s Market in Hamilton there was a guy known as the ‘Asset sale guy’. He would walk around in an anti-asset sales T-shirt collecting signatures and asking people to oppose the government selling their assets while they were stocking up on organic blueberries. Most people, being rather short on assets back then, were quite horrified at the prospect, so signed his petition. Which was all well and good, you’d sign it and he’d be on his way. But then it became increasingly apparent that the guy had no short-term memory whatsoever, because an hour later he’d have circled back and would again be asking if you’d sign his petition against asset sales. When you would reply that you already had, he would cast an accusatory glance as if he suspected you were really some sort of National Party plant but – being incapable of making any sort of non-asset sale related conversation – he would have no choice but to move on. Not for long though, because he’d soon be back, yet again, asking you if you’d sign his petition, yet again. The game then became about signing the petition with increasingly ludicrous names just so he’d leave you alone without casting an accusatory glance your way.

The point is that the only impression you were left with by this guy was, firstly, that he was socially inept, and secondly, that he was a bit of an idiot, before finally realising that his real problem was that he was both socially inept AND an idiot. Each attempt of his to ‘protest’ was an opportunity lost in terms of engaging in cozy conversation with passersby, and right now I suspect the Labour Party – with its constant elections, crusades, leadership challenges, and social media angst – could probably do with a lot more of the latter.

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