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PoliticsSeptember 18, 2020

Candidates defect in all directions in ugly minor party battle

alex b

They might agree on a lot, but the minor party scene is being roiled by conflict around the emergence of Advance NZ. And as Alex Braae reports, the Outdoors Party has suffered many casualties. 

With the election rapidly approaching, the Outdoors Party has been hit by a wave of candidate defections. But it’s not just about the Outdoors Party itself, so much as wider turmoil in the minor party scene right now.

At least six previously confirmed candidates have pulled out, leaving the Outdoors Party with a slate of just 28. Those that have left the party have gone in different directions, but some themes have emerged around inflexible party leadership, and a concern that those at the top of the party have put their own positions above the wider goals of the movement that the party draws from. 

The Outdoors Party sprang out of recreational hunting and fishing groups, before moving onto more hot-button policy issues like opposition to 5G technology, 1080, vaccines and Covid-19 restrictions. They define themselves as being in favour of people power and localised decision making. In that respect, they share some common ground with various other parties outside parliament. 

Candidates who’ve defected from the Outdoors Party so far include anti-fluoride activist and former Hamilton city councillor Siggi Henry, and former board member and East Coast candidate Jennie Brown, who both went to Billy Te Kahika Jr’s NZ Public Party. Brown believes there’s also been some movement of party members in the same direction, although she couldn’t give exact figures.  

Tensions have long been evident between the two parties, despite sharing many similar policy goals. The NZ Public Party, which recently joined forces with Jami-Lee Ross to contest the election, also put forward invitations to other minor parties to join under the Advance NZ banner. 

At the time of that merger, the Outdoors Party flatly ruled out an alliance. Co-leader Alan Simmons said: “We find it wrong that the Electoral Commission is considering registration of a party of which Jami-Lee Ross is both leader and secretary when he is facing Serious Fraud Office charges of election fraud. Large sums of money have been collected as donations by NZ Public Party and need to be accounted for under the Electoral Act”. It’s since been confirmed the Electoral Commission is investigating.

Outdoors party co-leader Sue Grey has also alleged a campaign of harassment and abuse by Advance NZ supporters, telling Stuff that “a nasty social media and email campaign has been directed at her” and Simmons. 

Billy Te Kahika and Jami-Lee Ross speaking to media after the launch. (Photo: Alex Braae)

Grey told The Spinoff that she 100% stood by the decision to not join up with the Public Party, and said “red flags” around them had long been clear. She said the harassment had stopped for a while after a statement from Te Kahika but recently, there’d been a new spate of “horrible emails and messages” from NZPP supporters. 

When asked about the allegations of harassment, Brown said they’d been “very vocal publicly about what’s been happening with Billy – I guess they didn’t expect a backlash from it”, referring to opposition from the Outdoors Party leadership to any alliance.

“I don’t want to call it hate but how they were speaking about people was just off-putting, you know? Honestly, Advance NZ, NZ Public Party, we all try and be loving and show support for each other. We absolutely don’t agree with the minor parties fighting,” said Brown.

She insisted that she still respected what the Outdoors Party stood for but said its electoral prospects were going nowhere compared to the significant momentum building up behind Advance NZ.

“Whether it’s good or bad publicity, we’re still getting publicity and exposure through Billy. The Outdoors Party isn’t really heard of. But we have similar values. Most of the minor parties have similar values, and it just depended on who had a better chance of getting in.” 

She said co-leader Alan Simmons had been given the opportunity to join Advance NZ on reasonable terms, but it never happened. “Alan has been in the Outdoors Party for quite some time, so there’s no way he would give up the leadership or co-leadership.”

New co-leader of The Outdoors Party Sue Grey (via Youtube)

For Brown and many others in this area of politics, the upcoming election has an almost epochal, last-chance feel to it that necessitates hard political choices. “They weren’t ready to work with others when we know what we have in front of us right now is so important.”

Brown said the invitation to join Advance NZ was still open to all parties seeking “systemic change”. But Advance NZ’s efforts to build a rebel alliance under its banner hasn’t been the only such effort among minor parties. 

A rival meeting aiming to build minor party consensus has been put together by Brad Flutey, a former Outdoors Party political strategist and candidate, who’ll now be standing for Social Credit. Flutey said it was organised in direct competition to Advance NZ, necessitated partly because of a lack of trust in Te Kahika.

Flutey said in his view, Te Kahika was being dishonest and spreading false narratives. “I even used the phrase that this was the meeting the Republican Party should have had when Trump was doing what he was doing.” He said he wasn’t surprised that actually very few minor parties had ended up joining under the Advance NZ banner.

There’s an increasing amount of common ideological ground between those parties and others outside of parliament like the New Conservatives and the One Party, particularly around a generalised sense of ordinary people losing control over their lives. Flutey said he’s seen debates on the fringes in which “they largely agree with everything they have to say.”

Flutey said personality clashes have prevented movement on alliances, adding that efforts to build coalitions among minor parties have struggled, in part because of the difficulty of getting everyone in the same room while Covid restrictions are in place. “When we have to communicate through social media, everyone formulates interpretations of other people incorrectly.”

Social Credit candidate Brad Flutey (via Youtube)

Flutey said he too still respects the people involved in the Outdoors Party and considered Simmons a mentor. However, he was convinced to make the switch after a meeting of the minds with Social Credit leader Chris Leitch, particularly around that party’s core goal of monetary reform. 

“I really desired to be mentored by Chris, and felt there was so much more I could learn from Social Credit than any other party. It was through the process of trying to facilitate the merger and seeing the incredible amount of work he actually does. I couldn’t make any other decision.” 

While Flutey wouldn’t hear a word against Simmons, the same can’t be said for another Outdoors Party splinter group the Attica Project, which will be fielding candidates as an unregistered political party.

Regenerative farmer Michael Kay, who’ll be standing under the Attica banner in Ōtaki, said control from the executives of the Outdoors Party and wider disorganisation had made it impossible for the party to get movement on policy development. “We wanted to change it so that we could have policy subcommittees so there was structure and it wasn’t like herding cats. [But] every time we’d go to do that, they’d say ‘oh don’t be authoritarian’.”

He said when he suggested the idea of having something akin to party whips, the reaction from the party was one of horror. “I realised there was no experience or knowledge of being able to settle the fact that this is how parliament works. If you don’t know what standing orders are or don’t know these processes, what are you going to do when you get there?” 

Michael Kay (left) and Mike Iles, both standing as candidates for Attica (Photo: Alex Braae)

Sue Grey, however, said it wasn’t an assessment she agreed with. She likened the falling out to “the young buck wanting to take over from the old buck”, attributing the conflict to younger people in the party seeing an opportunity to take over from Simmons. 

Mike Iles, standing for Attica in Mana, chipped in with his frustration about how the internal processes of the Outdoors Party worked. “There was no control. You’d have a meeting and one person would talk for half an hour, and then the meeting would be over so you wouldn’t achieve anything.” Iles said better structure became increasingly necessary because while he was involved, he saw membership numbers growing rapidly week-on-week.

There was particular frustration from the pair over the issue of writing policy, which never went anywhere when presented to the leadership, nor was there transparency from the leadership about the state of the organisation. “It was like dad’s political party, and we were all the children,” said Kay about Simmons. 

Grey said that also wasn’t an accurate characterisation of what had happened. She said that the agriculture policy was in the wheelhouse of Michael Kay but was never delivered. “For him to say that we didn’t listen, I just find that very odd.” 

In response to their experience of the Outdoors Party, Kay and Iles intend to run the Attica Project as a largely leaderless movement. Kay said he wasn’t swayed by Advance NZ’s approach, likening their recent anti-lockdown protests to “howling at the moon”. 

Meanwhile, Advance has itself suffered a significant defection of its own: former Horowhenua District mayor Michael Feyen announced earlier in the week that he’d no longer be the party’s candidate in Ōtaki. In fact, he said he wouldn’t be standing for any party at all. 

Alex Braae’s travel to Levin to meet the Attica Project was made possible thanks to the support of Jucy, who have given him a Cabana van to use for the election campaign, and Z Energy, who gifted him a full tank of gas via Sharetank.

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