The biggest groups active in the parliamentary occupation have their eyes on political prizes. Toby Manhire reports.
Organisations aligned with the occupation of parliament grounds in February have ratcheted up political rhetoric in recent weeks, focusing energies on protest activity, local election campaigns in the months to come and next year’s general election.
With vaccine mandates for the most part a thing of the past, leaders of the self-styled “freedom movement” have attempted to channel frustrations by pivoting variously to causes including masks, Three Waters, the health system and the broader cost of living crisis. The rhetoric and machinations are apparent across disinformation channels, says one expert, who is concerned about concerted efforts in New Zealand “to erode democratic institutions, electoral integrity and trusting the results of elections”.
‘People’s Court on parliament steps’
The Freedom and Rights Coalition, founded by Brian Tamaki of Destiny Church, has continued to convene regular demonstrations, most recently the July 23 action in Auckland that saw motorway lanes swarmed by pedestrians, prompting police to say they were pursuing prosecutions (none have yet been forthcoming). Addressing protesters, Tamaki oscillated between urging political manoeuvres and invoking events in Sri Lanka which saw a government toppled and the presidential palace occupied. He called for a “Sri Lankan solution”, saying of the parliamentary occupation in Wellington earlier this year, “we should have committed a Sri Lanka on them.”
The next phase for the FRC, the “Let’s Get NZ Back Again!” campaign, begins tomorrow with a march in Auckland, followed by another a week later in Christchurch. On Monday August 22, the group intends to embark on “the great Kiwi roadtrip”. In an echo of the Canadian-inspired “convoy” that morphed into a full-blown, 23-day occupation of parliament grounds, the journey begins from both ends of the country and culminates in Wellington.
On August 23, Tamaki’s group intends to lead a “mass parliament clean out”. Demonstrators, according to the promotional poster, will present a “petition for a vote of no confidence”, urge the opposition to call a no-confidence vote, and move to “force a snap election”. They will will also stage a “People’s Court on parliament steps for crimes against Kiwis”.
A spokesperson for Police confirmed they were aware of plans for protest activity in Auckland this weekend, and had “been in communication with organisers to discuss potential routes and plans”, adding: “Police recognise the lawful right to protest. We also recognise the rights of the public to go about their lawful business.” They were similarly aware of the proposed gathering Wellington. “We will monitor and respond to the situation accordingly, to ensure public safety and to make sure any disruption to the public is kept to a minimum,” said the spokesperson. The parliamentary speaker, Trevor Mallard, declined to comment on “parliamentary security operations or ongoing police matters”.
Tamaki’s renewed focus on electoral politics is reflected in a postscript to the “Get NZ Back Again” announcement, which describes a “parallel goal”: “Unite minor political parties and freedom movements to contest the next election.”
In May, Tamaki hosted a Tauranga byelection debate bringing together fringe parties including the Outdoors Party and the New Nation Party. In speeches since the parliamentary occupation ended, he has called for a political alliance. “The smart parties to get together and get in unity … for freedom fighters and commonsense kiwis,” he said at an April rally.
Tamaki’s big idea – “I reckon it’s brilliant, it’s a brilliant idea” – is a “lease your vote” approach to next year’s election, in the cause of meeting the 5% threshold. Small groups in the “freedom movement” would, he said, “put all our votes together, in this body, in this group. When you put it together with tens of thousands of other votes, then we got power.”
An indication that Tamaki is building bridges was evidenced by his appearance on the conspiracy theory saturated Counterspin channel last week. Tamaki’s FRC and Counterspin, led by extremist Kelvyn Alp, have regularly clashed, including at the occupation, where, for example Alp accused the FRC of undermining speeches and claimed his filming had been obstructed by “a silverback gorilla looking fucker” from the group. Tamaki’s coalition accused Counterspin of a “blatant smear campaign”.
Now, in a video posted on Alex Jones’s Infowars (which comes with pre-roll advertising featuring the high-profile US conspiracy theorist promoting diet supplements), the pair have pledged common cause. Alp commended the Auckland motorway action, laughing that he might have added “a couple of tweaks – pop the tyres and block everything”.
Tamaki said of the action ahead: “We can have a major upset before even the election if we just could unite all the people who feel dissatisfied with this government … We need a party that is going to rise united, like-minded people who believe we can actually take the next election and cause one of the most amazing political upsets in history.”
Tamaki has repeatedly insisted, however, that he has no personal parliamentary ambitions. “I’m not standing, by the way,” he told supporters at one rally. “That’s the last place I want to go. I’d have to turn into a deceiver, a liar and a crook.” In 2020, the Vision NZ party, led by Tamaki’s wife, Hannah, won 4,237 votes, or 0.1% of the total.
‘We can throw our weight around’
Along with the Freedom and Rights Coalition, the anti-vaccine group Voices for Freedom was among the most instrumental in keeping the occupation of parliament grounds ticking for more than three weeks.
In a Monday evening webinar on “the importance of the upcoming elections”, leaders of the group, which has been banned from Facebook and condemned by experts and regulators for propagating misinformation, urged supporters to stand for mayoral offices, councils and community boards – to “get in the mix and shake things up”. Those who took the plunge could rely on “a massive network around the country ready to spread your name”, said one organiser. The low turnout numbers for the local government elections, he said, means “we can really sway the results, throw our weight around”.
The group’s goal? To seize “a critical opportunity for us to nominate and vote for our people to represent us in our communities”, explained the notice online, before swerving into conspiracy territory: “And to make an impact on the extent to which the UN Agenda is making at a local level.”
The co-founders of VFF told supporters they did not intend to stand themselves in the forthcoming elections. In the 2020 election, one of the three women who lead the group, Claire Deeks, was ranked third on the Advance NZ list, behind Billy Te Kahika and Jami-Lee Ross. Advance, which won 1% of the vote, was deregistered last year. Ross is currently defending charges relating to donations in the Auckland High Court. Te Kahika, who has pleaded not guilty to charges of breaching lockdown rules, has disavowed electoral politics.
For its part, VFF has largely refocused energies from vaccines to masks. An email to supporters from Deeks this week seeking donations declared that “masks are actually the linchpin of the entire Covid narrative”. She baselessly asserted this was “not because they reduce the spread of any virus” – the evidence says otherwise – “but because they’re a visual cue that prompts fear, submission, and conformity”.
‘This election will be like no other’
A number of other individuals and groups in the orbit of the parliamentary occupation continue to pursue political goals. Matt King, the former National MP who addressed and commended the encampment, has founded the DemocracyNZ Party and is currently travelling the country. In a livestream this week he said he intends to compete in Northland and across New Zealand. “I believe there is a good 20% to 40% political homeless vote out there,” he said. “I believe this election [will] be like no other.”
The Outdoors Party, best known for its anti-vaccine, anti-1080 lawyer co-leader, Sue Grey, was buoyed by its performance in the Tauranga byelection, where Grey won more than 900 votes. Her co-leader, Donna Pokere-Phillips, who has previously stood for the Alliance, the Opportunities Party and te Pāti Māori, is now standing for the Hamilton mayoralty.
The far-right pastor Carl Bromley is seeking the Christchurch mayoralty, but has not succeeded in attracting much support from the movement more widely. That has upset Christchurch-based British extremist Lee Williams, who this week posted two videos accusing leaders of the “freedom movement” of “sabotage” for failing to back his friend. He pointed to the FRC, Sue Grey and Chantelle Baker as “gutless”, saying, “Do you think he’s an extremist? Is it because of his association with me?”
Chantelle Baker is yet to clarify any political ambitions or endorsements, as is her father, Leighton. A former leader of the New Conservatives, he was arrested and charged in relation to the final, rancorous day of the Wellington protest. Chantelle, who shot to prominence during the occupation, commands a massive audience for her disinformation-laden livestreams on Facebook and Instagram.
Rumours, meanwhile, that Tamaki’s group had been in talks with the NZ First Party proved groundless, and there is no evidence to suggest Winston Peters is about to dive in to the misinformation pool, even if he has flirted with the vocabulary of conspiracy merchants in recent times, such as a tweet condemning “the nation’s elite leftist cabal”.
‘Politics is more than elections’
There had been a noticeable “uptick” in discussion around political strategy within New Zealand misinformation and disinformation circles, said Sanjana Hattotuwa, who monitors and documents these groups channels as part of his work for The Disinformation Project.
In recent speeches, said Hattotuwa, Brian Tamaki had become “increasingly and troublingly more populist”. He found it “personally upsetting” to see the Destiny Church founder’s appropriation of the Sri Lankan experience, stripped of all context, and “heralded as the solution for New Zealand”. The plans for a “parliament clear out” and a “people’s court” seized on alarming language, he said, “adjacent to and signaling some very dangerous things going on in other spaces and places”, including the events being examined in Washington’s January 6 congressional hearings. Across disinformation networks there were discernible efforts “to erode democratic institutions, electoral integrity and trusting the results of elections. ‘Stop the steal’ is here; it’s literally here,” he said.
To dismiss the political machinations as unlikely to manifest in serious electoral success was as simplistic as it was naive, said Hattotuwa. “It’s not to say that you’re going to have a Tamaki as PM, or Carl Bromley, Lee Williams and Sue Grey as a coalition entering parliament. I’m not ruling that out, but I’m not saying it’s inevitable, either.”
There was, however, a clear and intensifying trend in the figures and factions he analyses – from the more ostensibly moderate groups such as Voices for Freedom through to the more extreme digital corners of New Zealand, where he had recently encountered “the most horrific content I’ve seen online in my life”.
He said: “Electoral politics is more than elections. It is nature, tone, timbre and trust of democracy. What is the fabric? How do we interact with one another? How do we see politics beyond parties? How do we negotiate difference? How do we see each other and our history and talk through difference of opinion? Tamaki and the assorted constellation of ant-vax or anti-mandate are also anti-government. Not that I’m opposed to democratic ideas of being anti-government. But this is anti-government to the extent that it is anti-democracy.”
Hattotuwa pointed to Labour whip Kieran McAnulty’s announcement in November 2021 that security arrangements for the Wellington homes of MPs would likely be boosted as a consequence of growing threats. “That is for me a really sad decline in what was a high-trust society that accommodated in a manner that I as a Sri Lankan would never have dreamed of: politicians in public spaces where you could go and talk to them, shake their hand and say, ‘hey mate, I don’t agree with you, but I’m not going to, you know, commit bodily harm against you.’ That has gone. If that happened in late 2021, then this year it’s deteriorated even more and doesn’t bode well for the future,” he said.
“So I’m worried about the election. But for me democracy is more than elections. It’s what happens between elections that matters as much, if not more. That is what these individuals, these networks, this vocabulary, this rhetoric, of whipping up emotions and amplifying anger, seeks to erode.”