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May 25, 2009 | by  | in News |
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Auckland students rally against National candidate

There was controversy in the Auckland University Quad last Wednesday during a debate featuring several contenders for the Mt Albert by-election. Invited were Labour’s David Shearer, National’s Melissa Lee, the Greens’ Russel Norman, and ACT’s John Boscawen.

The contention began before the debate even started, with a motion being passed during the weekly Student Forum meeting that Melissa Lee is racist. This was passed in reaction to Lee’s earlier statements on national television (later retracted) that criminals from South Auckland travel into Mt Albert to commit crime, and that the completion of the ring-route motorway might divert some of these criminals to other Auckland suburbs. Journalists in the Quad setting up for the debate overheard the passing of the motion, and within two hours the story was on the New Zealand Herald website.

The Auckland University Students’ Association (AUSA) was quick to distance itself from the motion, issuing in a press release emphasising the fact that motions passed at Student Forum “can only recommend resolutions to the students’ association executive for approval,” and “is not official AUSA policy.”

The beginning of the debate was slightly delayed when a political activist stole a National Party sign with Melissa Lee’s head on it, writing “RACIST” on her forehead, and gave her a Hitler-style moustache. AUSA President Darcy Peacock was chairing the meeting, and refused to start the debate until the hoarding was returned, which it eventually was.

The candidates spoke on a range of issues, from who financed their Parties’ campaigns in the 2008 general election, to whether their parties had animal welfare policies (Russel Norman raised his hand; the other candidates seemed confused). Also discussed was the best solution to Auckland’s transport issues, and the Supercity proposal in general.

Melissa Lee was singled out for special attention by students. Despite the obvious presence of many National Party placards and supporters in the crowd, there was a lot of heckling when she was allowed time to speak. Criticism came most heavily from students located above the quad, in Culture Space. The group, composed largely of Pacific Island students, were obviously offended by Melissa Lee’s earlier statements on South Auckland, and one shouted “I am not a criminal!” during the debate, to the laughter and applause of those in the quad.

One student watching suggested that watching Melissa Lee trying to field questions while being heckled was “a bit like watching Christians being fed to the lions.”

Despite the poor weather, an estimated 300–400 students turned up to listen to the debate. This represents one of the strongest showings an AUSA event has enjoyed in a long time, and certainly the largest of this year. AUSA Education Vice President Akif Malik suggested the high turnout might be due to the perceived importance of the Mt Albert by-election in the media.

“A lot of issues important to students, like transport and the Auckland Supercity, were discussed today,” Malik said. “I think a lot of students came to see Melissa Lee after some of the things she’s said in the media lately,” he added.

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