Tea and quips at Epsom candidates' debate

Rodney Hide dominates bloodless debate

Rodney Hide strides up to the counter and helps himself to a cup of tea. He confides that he lost "50 kilos of fat" on a rowing machine. He collects compliments, as he always must when sharing this information, and heads off to schmooze. Of the five Epsom electorate candidates who have come to Somervell Presbyterian to debate tonight, he is the only one who seems completely at home with the schmooze. Sharp in a pin-stripe suit (mercifully not the banana jacket he has been sporting of late) he is also the only candidate not to wear a party rosette on his breast. He doesn't need to: Rodney Hide is Act. He is a dancing, joking, razor-sharp, street-fighting embodiment of his brand.

Inside the church sanctuary, where a family-focused congregation of about 200 gather on a Sunday, Hide rests his cup of tea on the moderator's desk and settles into a seat next to genial Green MP Keith Locke. The rest of the candidates line up on the other side of the table--United Future's Janet Tuck, Labour's Kate Sutton, and National's Richard Worth, from whom Hide nicked the seat in 2005. Although Richard Worth makes sure in his opening address to mention that he has worshipped at this church and knows all about associate minister Reuben Hardie's aborted rugby career, it is Hide who owns the stage. He gets the biggest laughs. He is the most accomplished off-the-cuff snarkster. And you can't help but stare at the rude health of the man. Hide is tanned, his head shines, his teeth gleam. He looks like Mr Clean.

On to round one. What is the number one issue facing the Epsom electorate? Striking straight to the primal fears of some of the country's wealthiest folk, Hide and Worth both plump for law and order. "Let's not play making criminals' rights paramount anymore," says Hide, who has moved David Garrett of the Sensible Sentencing Trust into Act's number five position. Let's get serious about DNA testing, says Worth, who is also attired in a pin-stripe suit and wears a gold signet ring on his left pinkie.

Twenty-seven-year-old Sutton, fresh and eager, wearing a party-appropriate red shirt and red painted fingernails, says she knows from door-knocking that it is policies to help women make choices about how to manage their work and child-rearing commitments that matter most to the people of Epsom. She underlines Labour's role in establishing parental leave, four weeks of annual leave, and flexi work hours and sits down beaming. Sutton knows she doesn't have a shot at this seat, and she knows that she has just delivered a near-flawless plug for her party. It is the first of many. (Afterwards Sutton is congratulated by several older ladies who think she did a marvellous job.)

Tuck is all business--big business. The former schoolteacher, who has that calming, cosy schoolteacher effect on the audience, warns that the world financial crisis is only beginning to make itself felt. Now is the time for stability, she says, and a party vote for United Future will ensure that Labour or National have a dependable partner in government.

Locke, still smiling like a garden Buddha, takes the podium and reveals that the biggest issue for Epsom voters is extending their opportunities to leave the car at home. The mostly grey-haired audience is underwhelmed.

Round two: what is the number one issue for New Zealand? This gives Tuck, looking tired in her brown sponge-painted effect jacket, a chance to preach to the converted about the economy. Sutton chooses sustainability and opens herself up for an avuncular tut-tut from Worth: "Kate, you're being completely unrealistic," he says before returning to the subject of law and order and touching briefly on "the tragedy" of Iceland's bankruptcy.

Hide is concerned about the loss of "our best and brightest" overseas, which leads to perhaps the iciest audience question of the night: "If our best and brightest have left New Zealand, what does that make us? And why would we vote for you?"

But Hide is also fed up with bureaucratic red tape, being told "what light bulbs we can use, what we can put in the kids' sandwiches, whether you can smack them", which elicits some nodding grunts from the grandparents in the room. He also reckons we need to "dump the dopey Emissions Trading Scheme".

Predictably, and rightly so for a senior member of the Greens, Locke says the most important issue for New Zealand is securing our children's future. "We judge all our decisions on whether they would thank us for what we're doing today." Unlike the others, who try to squeeze as much information as possible into their allotted 90 seconds, Locke politely ducks his head when time is called and heads back to his seat before he is finished speaking.

Heading into question time, the candidates are starting to flag--except for the frowning Hide and the energetic Sutton, who looks like she's having a ball. Worth stretches his legs in front of him and picks at his fingernails. Tuck flips through a plastic folder containing policy notes. Locke looks at the ceiling.

The audience want to know what the candidates will do about the gender pay gap, KiwiSaver, the growing prison population, beneficiaries, and the devaluation of education. Worth uses the education question as an opportunity to mention National's proposed $1.5 billion broadband roll-out and how it would allow students in remote parts of the country to access expert teaching. "The reality is there probably won't be a calculus teacher in Gore," says Worth, to which Somervell Minister Brett Johnstone interjects, "Hey, I went to high school in Gore."

A question about what each party can do for Epsom's large Chinese population sinks like wet newspaper when the Chinese journalist who asked it looks around and realises she is the only Asian present. Still, the candidates valiantly speak of values such as hard work and respect for the elderly, immigration policy, and how to help Asian immigrants access help when they are victims of crime.

After 90 minutes of scrupulously polite policy talk, closing addresses give the candidates a chance to drive home their appeal for the party vote--except Worth and Hide. Worth clasps his hands and asks nicely for the party vote and personal vote while Hide takes the opportunity for another quick jab. "You vote for me, don't you Keith?" he says. "I know John Key does. He's a good constituent."