No, the people who occupied parliament grounds weren’t all white supremacists or neo-Nazis, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t influenced by the radical right. Historian Matthew Cunningham explains.
A few days before police cleared the “anti-mandate” protesters from parliament grounds, a video of children dancing and waving colourful ribbons at the protest camp did the rounds on social media. “These must be the terrorists & neo nazi’s newshub, NZ Herald and the other fake news outlets speak of,” wrote one influencer shortly after the protest came to a violent and fiery end. “Gosh all that violence, can’t have that hey,” replied one commenter. “The training of child soldiers, no wonder they felt so threatened,” replied another.
Having spent countless hours wading through the mire of Covid-19 mis- and dis-information on social media over the past few months, I have seen this sort of argument play out many times. When faced with even the faintest whiff of the “f” word (no, not that one), someone will inevitably counter with a reference to how “normal” the protesters really are. Doctors, teachers, children, grandmothers – everyday people, pulled from their apathy by the supposedly tyrannical actions of their government.
And what about all the Māori protesters, the tino rangatiratanga and He Whakaputanga flags? How could they possibly be fascists, or neo-Nazis, or white supremacists? As another influencer put it after the Freedoms and Rights Coalition protest march on November 12, 2021, “[t]he news said that these were white supremacists yet every organiser that I met had Māori or Pasifika heritage”.
I did not support the occupation. Like the vast majority of New Zealanders, I trust in the overwhelming weight of scientific opinion regarding the safety and efficacy of the vaccines. But the protesters do have a point. Genuine neo-Nazis were thin on the ground at the parliament occupation and its many satellite protests around the country. Action Zealandia, whose members and supporters number in the mere dozens, explicitly stated that they were there as supporters rather than leaders. And the scattering of National Front representatives had clearly forgotten what century they were in.
It’s true that certain celebrities of New Zealand’s racist right wielded some influence over the protests. Kyle Chapman, former leader of the National Front and Right Wing Resistance, has been a regular attendee at Covid-19-related protests since early 2021. An ally of former Advance New Zealand Party candidate Claire Deeks’ Voices of Freedom and anti-1080 lawyer Sue Grey’s New Zealand Outdoors Party, Chapman claimed that he had shifted his focus from “racism against white people” to “everybody’s medical freedom”.
Those familiar with Chapman’s chequered past will remember his previous claims to have abandoned his racist ways. After finding God in the 1990s, he founded a ratepayer-funded trust to rehabilitate other former skinheads which he soon abandoned to establish a local chapter of the white supremacist Hammerskins. He claimed to have “turned his back” on racism again after the Christchurch terror attacks only to start selling plastic Nazi toys in early 2021. Just recently, Chapman and his followers set up a “Freedom Village” in Christchurch’s residential red zone. His ambitions to make the community self-sufficient – including its own school and non-fluoridated water supply – are reminiscent of his plans to establish a European-only mini-state in North Canterbury in 2009.
But neo-Nazis aside, the “anti-mandate” protesters largely fail to acknowledge two uncomfortable truths. The first is that New Zealand’s radical right encompasses more than just fascists and white supremacists. There is a broad church of intolerance simmering to the right of the centre-right. Religious bigotry, anti-government sentiment, anti-socialism and opposition to Māori Treaty rights and obligations, for example, cannot be dismissed simply as racism.
The Christian religious right – particularly Pentecostal churches like Destiny and City Impact – have played a key role in the mobilisation of “anti-mandate” sentiment since August 2021. This has generally occurred through ostensibly independent front groups like the Freedoms and Rights Coalition. But the coalition has close links to Destiny, which has formed a series of failed Christian political parties over the past dozen years. A fledgling proposal in November 2021 to channel the coalition’s supporters into “a new political party of the people, by the people, for the people” met with mixed responses. More recently, Brian Tamaki asked the protesters to “lease their votes” to the coalition so it could lobby politicians on their behalf.
Having observed the Freedoms and Rights Coalition’s social media pages for several months, I have noticed that a reasonable proportion of people’s comments are religious in nature. Apart from referencing scripture, many explicitly idealise Tamaki as their ordained “apostle”. Others refer proudly to their involvement in the long lineage of Destiny protests stretching back to the “Enough is Enough” protest against the Civil Union Bill in 2004. Former New Conservative Party leader Leighton Baker was also present at the protests, positioning himself as a reluctant intermediary between the disparate protest groups and the police.
The second point that the “anti-mandate” protesters fail to acknowledge is that one does not need to be a card-carrying neo-Nazi to be influenced by radical right ideas. Several radical right ideologies from overseas – particularly Australia and the United States – have metastasised into the New Zealand context. QAnon, the alt-right, identitarianism and sovereign citizenship have been “repackaged and reshared” in New Zealand, particularly through social media. Such ideas have been lurking in New Zealand for several years and began to spread during 2020, but they have grown “by order of magnitude” since August 2021.
Radical right-influenced conspiracy theories are rife among the “anti-mandate” protesters. These conspiracy theories are a recycling of much older tropes. The QAnon-sourced belief in a global network of Satan-worshipping paedophiles is a modern rebranding of a centuries-old antisemitic blood libel myth, as is the resurgence of anti-Freemasonry. So-called sovereign citizens’ rejection of any form of government authority traces its roots to several racist, anti-government and anti-tax groups that arose in the United States in the post-war period. William Potter Gale, who first enunciated sovereign citizen ideology in 1970s, was associated with several white supremacist, antisemitic and Christian patriot groups. And fears of a United Nations-backed plot to foist communism upon an unsuspecting world draw on decades of radical right suspicion of international institutions and agreements including Bretton Woods, the International Monetary Fund and the European Economic Community.
And while Trump flags were generally few and far between at parliament, the utter rejection of the mainstream media and expert opinion was straight out of the Trump playbook. When truth is dispensable, falsehoods abound. Covid is a hoax, Covid is an engineered bioweapon, Covid is no deadlier than the common cold. The vaccines kill people, the vaccines contain microchips, the vaccines make people magnetic, the vaccines are a plot to reduce the global population. The vaccinated are more likely to catch the virus, the vaccinated are more likely to get sick and die, the vaccinated have compromised immune systems, the vaccinated shed the virus, the blood of the vaccinated is black and congealed. The government has committed crimes against humanity, the government has instituted apartheid, the government staged the Christchurch terrorist attacks, the government should be tried and executed. It’s the Freemasons, or the Illuminati, or the Rothschilds, or the New World Order. It’s Bill Gates, Klaus Schwab, George Soros, the Clintons. And you can’t trust the media to report on any of it, of course – they’ve been bought out by “Jabcinda” for 30 pieces of silver.
The presence of Māori protesters and He Whakaputanga flags is a prime example of how radical right ideas have metastasised into the New Zealand context. One of the key factions involved in the protests was Sovereign Hīkoi of Truth, a mix of imported radical right ideas with indigenous activism. Take a foundation of tribal sovereignty (Ngāpuhi did not cede their sovereignty to the Crown), add a dash of sovereign citizenship (individuals are inherently sovereign and the government is an illegitimate “corporation”) and a twist of QAnon (a global elite is harvesting adrenochrome from children), and what do you get? A movement operating “under the korowai of He Wakaputanga o ngā rangatira o ngā hapū o Nu Tīreni” that heralds “a new way of being”:
[W]e do not have to live under authoritarian government law, we maintain what has already been gifted to us under divine natural law to live as free people on the land. Standing in our own mana for what is rightfully ours. For the people by the people. He waka eke noa – We’re all in this together.
Hīkoi leader Carlene Hereora tried to recapture the narrative from moderating influences about a week and a half into the occupation of parliament grounds. Forget “no more mandates”, she proclaimed – the protesters should be aiming for “no more government”. Her supporters are still fighting the “real battle” on Waitangi grounds, the other key site of power in their worldview.
Then there is Karen Brewer’s band of crusaders who are fond of shouting at the gates of Government House. Convinced that the government, public service and judiciary are infested by a paedophilic network of Freemasons and DeMolays, Brewer has convinced her followers that they have the power to order the governor-general to dissolve parliament and call a fresh election – one in which prospective candidates are thoroughly vetted to weed out those who attended Freemason-run schools, of course. The pseudolegal belief that a certain combination of words will have a magical effect on government officials is classic sovereign citizen thinking. It’s also not the first time Brewer has tried it. In early 2019 she claimed that Australian voters could sack their government by writing specific words on their ballot papers, and in late 2019 she claimed that Australian farmers could legally extract as much water as they wanted. Brewer has referred to fellow protestors as “controlled opposition” and insists that her plan is the only real way to oust the government.’
There are other examples of radical right influence. Like Counterspin Media, which operates on Steve Bannon’s online media platform GTV and is hosted by Kelvyn Alp (the founder of an anti-government militia in the early 2000s). Alp regularly claims that Covid is not real and called upon the military to “take over the government” during the parliament occupation. Or Damien De Ment, a QAnon-influenced conspiracy theorist and Trump supporter, who has regularly threatened politicians, academics, activists and the media with summary trials and execution for their “crimes”. Or John Ansell, former ad-man most known for the controversial “iwi / Kiwi” billboards in 2005, who believes the mandates are part of a broader communist takeover. Ansell has proposed executing politicians by lethal injection and believes that the prime minister staged the Christchurch terrorist attack because she “wanted another Port Arthur”. Or Richard Sivell, a “vociferous” participant in the parliament occupation who was recently arrested for allegedly threatening to kill the prime minister. At the time of his arrest, Sivell was occupying a Crown-owned property under “allodial title”, an archaic common law doctrine popular among sovereign citizens that is “completely foreign to New Zealand land law”.
In a discussion fuelled by anecdotes, it’s easy for the “anti-mandate” protesters to dismiss these as the views of a minority. But the few data points we do have are striking. Curia’s poll of the protesters indicated that slightly over three-quarters were fully unvaccinated, despite comprising only 3-4% of the over-12 population. Mandates were not merely an abstract concept or a matter of principle for them – they’d made a conscious choice not to be vaccinated, notwithstanding those with medical reasons not to. It makes sense that the unvaccinated would be overrepresented at a protest against vaccine mandates, but why were virtually none of them wearing masks?
The Curia poll also revealed that a disproportionate number of protesters voted in the 2020 general election for parties that had pushed misinformation about the pandemic. Advance New Zealand was overrepresented by a factor of 7.6, the Outdoors Party by 7.1 and the New Conservatives by 5.9. Many of the leading figures in these parties subsequently played a key role in the “anti-mandate” protests. Yet they cumulatively represented fewer than 20% of those surveyed. The Māori, Green and Act Parties were likewise overrepresented (by factors of 3, 2 and 1.6 respectively), while National and Labour were underrepresented.
This suggests two things. Firstly, almost one in five of those surveyed may already have begun their journey down the rabbit hole during the 2020 election campaign. Although hard to imagine today, this was a time when lockdowns, mask wearing, 5G technology and the origins of the virus itself were more prominent within conspiracy circles than the vaccines that were still under development. Secondly, it suggests that the considerable uptick in mis- and disinformation since August 2021 has captured a much wider audience.
When you’re that far down the rabbit hole, it’s easy to justify more extreme measures. A survey of E Tū and PSA members who work in the parliamentary precinct found that almost half of them reported being verbally abused during the protests. Six percent reported physical abuse, and 80% knew someone who had been physically abused. A Telegram poll run by one of the protest groups revealed 94% agreed that members of parliament and the media should be charged with “crimes against humanity”, while about half supported non-peaceful uprisings. Not the most reputable source, but disturbing nonetheless. More recently, a group of self-styled “sheriffs” inspired by sovereign citizen ideas convened a “grand jury” where they voted to adopt the death penalty for various public figures. Recent surveys have also found a concerning increase in antisemitic beliefs among New Zealanders that appears to coincide with “the rise of online conspiratorial beliefs, QAnon included, fuelled by the pandemic”.
So what does this all mean? Is the opposition to all things Covid “a kind of Trojan Horse for norm-setting and norm-entrenchment of far-right ideologies in Aotearoa New Zealand”, as the Disinformation Project has suggested? From Brexit to Bolsonaro and Tea Partiers to Trump, we have seen centre-right parties in other countries co-opted or supplanted by more radical alternatives in recent decades. New Zealand has thus far avoided this resurgence of the radical right. But times of economic and political crisis drive people to extremes, and there is a correlation between socio-economic deprivation and lower vaccination rates.
Not all the protesters were influenced primarily by radical right ideas. There were other threads in the tangled skein too – the “wellness” and “alternative medicine” crowds, hippies, mummy influencers, anarchists, opponents of post-settlement governance entities, anti-1080 activists and opponents of water fluoridation. It was a discordant symphony of diverging agendas papered over by a common mission to end the vaccine mandates. Yet one need only scratch the surface of this common mission to find the morass of conspiratorial contortion underpinning it – a morass which, it seems, is not going anywhere.
Matthew Cunningham is one of the editors of a forthcoming book, Histories of Hate: The Radical Right in Aotearoa New Zealand.