Free public transport and egging at the Auckland University mayoral debate
By Justin Hu (he/him)
Auckland’s mayoral contestants debated transport projects and dodged eggs last month at Auckland University - seemingly the only debate with an audience under 40 years old. Six mayoral hopefuls turned up to the candidate forum moderated by the uncompromising Jack Tame. This included all three frontrunners and three minor candidates. Candidates discussed their plans for the city centre, transport, water and council spending. The debate and topics were organised by the University of Auckland Debating Society. The sole left wing candidate, Efeso Collins, is currently representing Manukau ward. As the progressive candidate, he has previous endorsements from Labour and the Greens. “I’m standing because... when the students marched up Queen Street, I came with my two young daughters and my wife, and we marched,” he said in his opening statement. “It is vital that the next council is completely focused on climate action.” Collins said he would incentivise Aucklanders to leave their cars at home with a pledge to introduce “fully free” and improved public transport if elected. In an interview with Debate earlier this year, Collins spoke at length about his transport policy. Unprompted, Collins then brought up the housing crisis: “We’ve got to make sure that young people like yourselves and families have somewhere to live, and intensification is the answer,” he said. Last year, sweeping zoning law reforms were introduced to allow developers to build more dense housing. The issue has become a flashpoint for some groups, although the topic wasn’t brought up during the debate by organisers. By comparison, centre-right candidate Viv Beck said she would support free fares for students and community services card holders. However, Beck does not believe under-25s should have free access to public transport, which advocacy group Free Fares has been campaigning for. Beck said she would instead use the money to make public transport more usable in Auckland.
“People need a public transport system that gets them to where they need to go when they need to get there, and the evidence is that people need that first,” Beck said. “I have no problem with having targeted, free public transport, but I don’t think it should be free for everyone because I want to put the money into a better service.” Beck is the chief executive of Heart of the City - the city centre’s business association - and has been officially endorsed by National’s de facto local election arm. She proposes fast-tracking a series of busway projects across Auckland. When asked about the city centre, she said she was “very sad” to see it in its current state. Jack Tame, who hosted the debate, pressed Beck about whether she had played a role in the area’s perceived downturn. “It was devastating to see 90% of the business lost in one fell swoop in early 2020,” she said. Beck blamed this on construction, crime and changes to Queen Street made by the council. She said police needed more resources and that there should be more people-oriented spaces like Freyberg Square and the Britomart precinct. All candidates agreed that the city centre needs revitalisation - with candidate Leo Molloy speaking most loudly: “It’s embarrassing at the moment when you combine [Covid] with the petty crime and the ram raids. It should be addressed with urgency, and the best way to do that is getting some police down there,” he said. “We also need a big event down there to reactivate the entire city... we [should] put it in a nice, iconic downtown stadium, a cultural centre, and an aquatic centre, and then we pitch for the 2034 Commonwealth Games.” Molloy is a controversial businessperson and owner of the HeadQuarters bar on the Viaduct - his Wikipedia page does an excellent job of summarising his assorted controversies. On transport, the candidate said there were three stages to his transport plan: more “green hydrogen” buses, a trial for free public transport and a congestion tax. However, none of the candidates on stage fully supported the Government’s $14 billion light rail plan, linking the city centre to Māngere via tunnels. Five candidates want it cancelled and Collins said that he’d prefer a cheaper option that didn’t go underground.
On the state of the city centre, Collins said more wrap- around services were needed to help people in emergency housing. “We’re not going to hose down the homeless; what we are going to do is care about people. And that’s what the central city needs,” he said. “By taking a community approach, it means that we’re working with the business associations, the retailers, community constables, youth workers - that’s going to really support safety in the city.” Collins added that he believed more events alongside the council’s masterplan for the city centre would attract more people. This would provide more space for people walking or cycling and remove cars from parts of Symonds Street. The lively university event was a welcome addition to this year’s local election campaign. An event at the forgotten colonial outpost of Howick, held two days earlier, attracted a pale, retired audience. The change in pace didn’t go unnoticed by the candidates. “I think the audience is fantastic. We’ve done about 50 debates, it seems like that anyway, and we feel like we’re speaking at an old people’s home most of the time,” Molloy said. Collins remarked that he didn’t “think any of the debates had been this entertaining”. Aside from the frontrunners, the other three candidates on the stage also pitched in during the event - namely as targets for two eggs. Craig Lord is a “former engineer, freelance media operator, marriage celebrant, and event MC” who came third in the 2019 local elections (8%). Meanwhile, Ted Johnston is the current co-leader of the New Conservatives and also unsuccessfully ran for mayor three years ago - having persuaded half as many voters as Lord did. Hibiscus and Bays Local Board chair and Austin Powers impersonator Gary Brown also turned up to speak - having successfully dodged any hurled projectiles. Later in a Facebook post, the university’s debating society disassociated itself with the “egg-based violence” that left Johnston and Lord scrambling to get to the drycleaners.
“To be clear, Debsoc supports free speech on campus and does not condone the use of egg-based violence against others. The exec apologises to anyone with a lecture in B28 tomorrow: despite our best attempts at cleaning, it may still smell a bit eggy in there.” You can watch the debate on the University of Auckland Debating Society’s Facebook page.
Other publications have also reported more on the egg-throwing itself - we recommend checking out Craccum’s1 write-up. Enrol or update your details to vote in the upcoming local elections at vote.nz