A parade of former and aspiring politicians lent their support to the movement – and now there’s a byelection in play. Toby Manhire looks at the characters involved and the challenges they face.
Distant though it might already seem, it is not yet three weeks since the convoy-turned-occupation-turned-riot came to a blazing end on the grounds of parliament. There was no uniform demand across the 23-day long protest. Some simply wanted vaccination mandates removed. Others sought the overthrow of the system of government and mass executions. Somewhere along the way were those looking to harness the anger at the grounds of parliament into an electoral force.
The next general election is a year and a half away. Things might feel different by then; vaccine mandates will almost certainly be long gone. But the depth of feeling witnessed in Wellington will not easily evaporate. And now we have something else: Simon Bridges’ decision to quit politics presents a byelection in Tauranga in the weeks to come.
The ‘anti-mandate’ sentiment
The latest polling tells us one in three New Zealanders is opposed to vaccine mandates – up from one in five in November. But as the omicron wave washes across the country, albeit with an embattled health system clinging to the coral, the case for strict vaccination rules weakens. And Jacinda Ardern is about to disappoint the most swivel-eyed of the freedom fighters by removing the mandates they insisted she was instituting to rule the world.
It would be arrogant and foolish, however, to imagine that what happened in Pipitea was nothing. Polling suggests as much as a quarter of New Zealanders backed the occupation. So which individuals and political parties might strive to use the parliament grounds occupation as a springboard for power? Buckle in.
National, Act and Te Pāti Māori have to varying degrees sought to link the protests at parliament to wider disaffection with the government. National, for example, diagnosed the occupation as a symptom of a “chasm of division that has opened up our country”. David Seymour met with protest representatives and called for mandates to be scrapped. Months before the occupation, Debbie Ngarewa-Packer and Rawiri Waititi had opposed state mandates.
It’s possible, therefore, that those sympathetic to the wider cause could gravitate to one of those three parties. But it’s important to stress, too, that none of them endorsed the occupation. None spoke to or mingled with the crowds. All, in fact, unequivocally condemned the action, and all have been attacked by key occupation figures.
Winston Peters / NZ First
If Peters’ decision to roam maskless in “camp freedom” told us anything, it’s that his instinct for a photo-op and needling the government of the day is intact – and he’s not done with politics yet. But while “Tauranga” and “byelection” might sound like clues in a word game for which the very obvious answer is Winston Peters, don’t assume his battlebus will be rolling down The Strand any time soon. Peters’ historic success there may not fit the city it is today, and there is an irritating court case to be dealt with. On whether he’d enter the Tauranga race, Peters has so far only said that it is a “fascinating question”.
As for the wider anti-mandate cause, Peters and New Zealand First might be happy to pipe a “nanny state” tune, but it’s hard to imagine them blasting a full-on pitch to the anti-vax crowd; the party membership and voting base, much like both vaccination rates and anti-occupation sentiment, skew heavily towards older New Zealanders.
Matt King / DemoracyNZ
The former National MP resigned his membership of the party as he travelled to Wellington to address the protesters, and soon announced plans for a new political party, saying, “I feel I have unfinished business.” On Friday night, King revealed the party would be called DemocracyNZ, a “party that stands for democracy and uniting all Kiwis through common values”. Is a Tauranga byelection in his sights? “We are not advanced enough in our set up to contest it,” King told The Spinoff.
Appearing as a guest last week on the conspiracy-theory-fuelled Counterspin Media – an organisation that would like to see New Zealand’s parliament burnt to the ground its participants tried and executed – he cheerfully said: “I do believe there is a place for a party that can hold the balance of power and enshrine the bill of rights”.
Leighton and Chantelle Baker
Former New Conservative leader Leighton Baker was a prominent presence at the occupation, operating as a quasi-mediator (“intermediary”, he said) with authorities. Leighton Baker’s daughter, Chantelle, was a social media sensation during the occupation, posting lengthy, upbeat and dangerously misinformation-laced livestreams on Facebook to audiences that sometimes topped 20,000. On her most recent livestream on Facebook last week she wondered aloud about the “MSM” narrative on the war in Ukraine, the “odd timing” of it all and the role of “US-funded biolabs”.
Leighton Baker was the second leader (after Colin Craig) of the Conservative Party, which changed its name during his tenure to the New Conservative Party. In 2017, he led the party to 0.24% of the vote; that increased to 1.5% in 2020. Baker was then replaced by the party board. Current New Conservatives co-leader Ted Johnston (see below) told The Spinoff that Baker had left the party 16 months ago and “currently has no association nor ever likely to be”.
Ted Johnston / New Conservatives
Co-leader Ted Johnston gave two speeches at the parliament occupation. “It is time to dump the old dinosaur parties in parliament,” he told The Spinoff . “As I said to voters, ‘time to throw out the trash.’” The protest, he said, would be remembered as “a seminal moment in NZ history”.
Johnston – who is also standing for the Auckland mayoralty – said the New Conservatives would be entering a candidate in the Tauranga byelection but it was too early to know who. The contest would provide “the first real barometer of the effect” of the parliament action. In the latest 1News/Kantar poll, the New Conservatives registered 0.9%.
Brian and Hannah Tamaki / The Freedom and Rights Coalition / Vision NZ
The Destiny Church-founded FRC played an integral role in the occupation, providing the infrastructure and communications to allow it to last beyond the first day. Their involvement enraged some, however, including Counterspin Media and its insurrectionist leader Kelvyn Alp, who took exception to the intervention of a “silverback gorilla looking fucker”. The FRC responded to claims of interference by saying they’d been victims of a “smear campaign” and accusing other protest groups of failing to “put aside their egos” to allow Brian Tamaki to speak on their behalf. A statement declared: “It’s embarrassing to see politicians, ex-politicians and wanna-be politicians clambering over the top of each other for the limelight.” In a recent online sermon, Tamaki accused politicians, the media and academics of “sorcery” and “whoredom”.
Ahead of the 2020 election, Brian and his wife Hannah launched a party, Vision NZ, which secured 0.1% of the popular vote. The party’s website has not been updated since the election and did not trouble the scorers in the latest 1News/Kantar poll. The Freedom and Rights Coalition did not respond to a request for comment, but in a Facebook post last week, Brian Tamaki urged people to join “The Peoples Political Movement”. He added: “Its Not A Political Party. We Are Politically Neutral” and promised: “Something Politically New and Innovative is amongst us.”
Claire Deeks / Advance NZ / Voices for Freedom
Claire Deeks is one of the three founders of Voices for Freedom, the most visible, slick and well-funded of New Zealand’s anti-vaccine groups. VFF been banned from Facebook and condemned by experts and advertising regulators for spreading anti-vaccine misinformation.
In the 2020 election, Deeks stood for Advance NZ after the Jami-Lee Ross-led party merged with Billy Te Kahika’s Public Party. She was ranked third on the party list. Advance, which won 1% of the vote, was deregistered last year and its website is now defunct. Deeks did not respond to a request for comment.
Carl Bromley / Independent Coalition Party
The far-right, Islamophobia-promoting Baptist pastor Carl Bromley, who recently recovered from “a nasty flu” after attending the Wellington occupation, has been promoting a new “Independent Coalition Party”, which would take the form of a “bus” to carry a number of small parties across the 5% threshold and into parliament.
He is appealing to minor parties, including the New Conservatives, the Outdoors Party, Vision NZ, Advance NZ, Social Credit and, most ambitiously of all, The Opportunities Party, to join a coalition that would operate a “rotational facilitated leadership”. There is no sign so far that any of them is interested.
Billy Te Kahika / Public Party
Currently on bail for charges, which he is contesting, around breaching Covid restrictions, the blues musician turned conspiracy theorist and would-be politician did not answer emailed questions on whether he might stand in Tauranga or at the general election, instead taking issue with the use of the term “anti-mandate” and castigating at length “the government side and that includes media, like Spinoff”, which, he said, “maligns, attacks, smears and belittles people on ‘our side’ without actually considering the merit of the concerns”.
Te Kahika did, however, offer a clue to his thinking in a livestream on Wednesday. He directly dismissed Bromley’s coalition idea, saying “I tried that in 2020” and it failed. His alliance with Jami-Lee Ross’s Advance NZ in 2020 ended rancorously, after receiving 1% of the party vote. The “so-called freedom leaders” today, he said, had revealed themselves to be “selfish, narcissistic, egotistical. They’re just interested in one thing and that’s sucking on the sav as hard as any of these people who are currently in parliament.” He made an exception for Liz Gunn (see below). “I really think she is a lovely lady. I think she’s got a beautiful heart,” he said, adding that it was just a shame she is “uneducated”. Instead of attempting to effect change via a “corrupt system”, Te Kahika is currently expounding a He-Whakaputanga-inflected version of the sovereign citizen theory.
Sue Grey / Outdoors and Freedom Party
In a recent comment thread on a Facebook video featuring Karen Brewer, who has been encouraging people to stand outside Government House and demand the governor general magically dissolve parliament, the Outdoors Party account posted a conspiratorial note: “Why would we want to dissolve parliament when they will just elect another lot from the psychopathic death cult? We need to get rid of the corporation.”
But the Outdoors Party is not apparently done with electoral democracy. Sue Grey, co-leader of the party, anti-vax lawyer and a regular speaker at the occupation, told The Spinoff: “The NZ Outdoors and Freedom Party is still finalising the details of its plans, but definitely intend standing a very strong candidate in the Tauranga byelection.” Ending mandates would be part of a wider platform of policies, she said, including alternative health solutions, regenerative agriculture and decentralising power. In 2020, the Outdoors Party won 0.1% of the party vote. In the latest 1News/Kantar poll, the party registered 0.4%.
Chris Leitch / Social Credit
The Social Credit Party (established 1953) will be best remembered by many for its success, as a proponent of the economic theory for which it is named, under Bruce Beetham in the 70s and 80s. After a detour and a fleeting name change, it has continued to work hard under Chris Leitch, however, pumping out press releases and occasional full-page newspaper ads. Leitch travelled to Wellington and spoke to protesters on February 11. He said it was time for a party “that is prepared to speak out when they know our democracy, our freedoms, and our sovereignty are under attack”.
“Standing a candidate in the Tauranga by-election is under active consideration,” Leitch told The Spinoff. But: “Should Social Credit decide to contest that seat, it will not be focusing its campaigning on the mandates issue,” he said, citing a range of other issues including three waters, the health reforms and housing. In 2020, the Social Credit won 0.1% of the party vote. In the latest 1News/Kantar poll, it registered 0%.
Rob Wilson / New Nation Party
“Agricultural Action Group” figurehead Rob Wilson, who had a flash of notoriety when he was wrongly identified by many protesters as an “antifa” plant on the final day of the parliamentary occupation, has been appointed leader of the South Island Branch of the New Nation Party. He told Counterspin last week that the blockchain provides the solution to the problem of “rigged elections” and that we are on a “slippery road to the new world order”. Concerned about the “group of psychopaths who sit in the Beehive”, Wilson’s political ambition is to “get in there, dismantle the current system, replace it, and then go home”.
The New Nation Party has already announced Andrew Hollis will be its candidate in the Tauranga byelection. NNP leader Michael Jacomb says the party does not promote new world order conspiracy, does not believe the 2020 election was rigged and “comments by followers and visitors to our Facebook page are quickly either removed or countered with our belief there was no tampering or rigging of results”. Jacomb stresses: “The ambition of NNP is to make change and bring democracy and stability back to our country.”
And the rest …
Former Act leader Rodney Hide found “brotherhood and comradeship” at an occupation he believed to be “successfully defying a tyrannical parliament”. He wrote: “I am not a hugger but I could not help myself. I hugged at Freedomville. I felt human. I was a person not a biohazard.” Hide, who left politics in 2011, has not responded to questions about whether that new energy might translate into another bash at representative democracy.
Former Māori Party co-leader Marama Fox was there, too, though she says there’s no political comeback on the cards for her.
Broadcaster and anti-vaxxer Liz Gunn has previously said she would like to see her “Free NZ” platform extended into a political party. “What great recall you have,” she said when that was put to her by The Spinoff, but wouldn’t say how her plans are shaping up.
Russell Coutts‘ most recent Facebook post was a paid partnership with Rolex Watches, promoting the SailGP regatta in San Francisco. “Looking forward to exciting racing,” he said.
An earlier version of this article wrongly stated that Rob Wilson is the leader (rather than South Island branch leader) of the New Nation Party and incorrectly ascribed his views to the party. It has been updated. Apologies.