Opinion: Mayoral debate falls flat

By Ged Cann

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Jack Gielen serenades mayoral candidates Paula Southgate, James Casson, Chris Simpson, Arshad Chatha, Rob Pascoe and Andrew King at the PRINZ Great Mayoral Race Debate.
Jack Gielen serenades mayoral candidates Paula Southgate, James Casson, Chris Simpson, Arshad Chatha, Rob Pascoe and Andrew King at the PRINZ Great Mayoral Race Debate.

What was set to be Hamilton's most significant mayoral debate fell flat last Wednesday as any semblance of a true debate failed to materialise.

Without the ability to challenge or respond to each other's answers it seemed candidates were allowed to simply re-voice their pre-prepared policies and sound bites without the threat of interrogation from either the moderator or rivals.

Add to this the inclusion of two mayoral candidates whose campaigns were quickly becoming a joke and too many light-hearted questions and the debate was diluted down to being meaningless.

Candidate Andrew King, who has started every debate by declaring his platform of truth, revealed just how honest he intends to be.

On revitalising the CBD he took aim again at the council's district plan.

"I'm not going to be very PC. The first thing I have to say is the city is drowning in bureaucracy. When anyone in business goes to do anything it's a battlefield with council."

He said the rule book had to be looked at and parking had to be addressed, with the reintroduction of angle parking a possible solution.

Mr King highlighted another of his key messages -- albeit in response to an unrelated question.

A video question from Waikato University communications advisor Megan Burton-Brown asked how each candidate would ensure jobs for the graduates of Hamilton's three major tertiary institutes.

Mr King was allowed to stray off message, talking about housing instead of jobs, and voicing his usual criticism of council for failing to have sufficient infrastructure in place to allow developers to keep up with demand.

This seemed to confuse candidate James Casson, who also started talking about his plans to create a masterplan for housing.

Chris Simpson, who can usually be counted upon to voice fresh ideas and lock horns with other candidates -- or at least voice some interesting statistics, was uncharacteristically reserved on the night.

When candidate Rob Pascoe took aim at Mr Simpson's plans to bring back an infrastructure committee to council he did not rise, despite appearing as if he desperately wanted to.

Mr Simpson was responsible, however, for one of the few memorable answers of the evening, which came after a question from Waikato Institute of Directors chair Margaret Devlin, who asked what experience each candidate had to prepare them to chair a council with often opposing views.

Mr Simpson held up his work in government, which he began at age 22 reporting to the deputy Prime Minister.

"What I learned from that experience was you genuinely look at the issues and investigate them in-depth, then you take your time working around what those solutions are.

"As I got older, I was 30 or 31, I was head of the property council. That represented 30 per cent of New Zealand's rich list, and my board was made of the chief executives of the listed property companies. I was chief exec and they were pretty tough on me, and I learned governance through them."

In response to the same question Paula Southgate held up her 15 years with Waikato Regional Council as evidence of her ability.

"I think I have been doing that very successfully. That's why you don't read in the paper very often about division or contentious issues with the regional council. Yes we can be divided as we were two weeks ago over the Health Rivers Wai Ora decision, where I voted to keep the Waikato River Plan going out to the public."

Rob Pascoe highlighted his status as a fellow of Governance New Zealand, his experience as chair of council's finance committee, and his work with different schools and education boards.

"If you focus on issues and not on the individuals I think you're off to a good start," he said.

One question from the public asked candidates to highlight things they had learnt from their door-knocking.

Ms Southgate said she had realised the need for a new, safe park for older residents to enjoy, while Mr Casson said it had highlighted just how few people knew who the councillors were.

Mr Simpson said the biggest eye opener was "humanity" and recounted meeting a woman in Glenview whose husband was inside the house dying.

"I just gave her a hug, and it's doing that in the community I want to bring to the community," he said.

While there were no obvious winners in the debate there was one obvious loser - Arshad Chatha.

Mr Chatha had talked during a previous debate about his prophetic dream in which Paula Southgate became mayor and offered him a job, and apparently not learning from that experience he chose to voice it again.

"According to my dream I am not basically going to be mayor, so the mayor is going to be someone else. If the interpretation of my dream is correct I am either going to be councillor or an employee of the mayor."

Audiences were left feeling as awkward as Ms Southgate looked, as Mr Chatha followed later by openly begging for votes.

"I am not a parrot - I am my own personality and a very strong personality. If I stand somewhere I stand like a hard rock. If I stand for you, you will get everything," he promised.

His only suggestion for revitalising the CBD was building a new "big city mall" with ample parking - apparently Centre Place didn't count - which the private sector would pay for.

He didn't say how or why.

The final question from a member of the public asked Ms Southgate specifically to list her accomplishments over the past few years. Appearing as a planted question, Ms Southgate was allowed to answer.

Jack Gielen's biggest contribution was a rousing chorus of Kora's song Politician, and he rounded off the slightly disappointing night by playing Power to the People while moderator Chris Williams made a valiant, but futile, attempt to shut him down.

Outcome of the straw poll vote for best performer on the night:
Chris Simpson: 112
Paula Southgate: 97
Rob Pascoe: 17
Andrew King: 14
Jack Gielen: 6
Arshad Chatha: 6
James Casson: 4

- Hamilton News

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