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From left: Ben Harris, Sue Grey, moderator Mark Thompson, Simon Gutschlag, and Deon Claassens, at the Nelson minor party debate (Image: Alex Braae/Jihee Junn)
From left: Ben Harris, Sue Grey, moderator Mark Thompson, Simon Gutschlag, and Deon Claassens, at the Nelson minor party debate (Image: Alex Braae/Jihee Junn)

PoliticsSeptember 22, 2020

What the conspiracy theorist parties believe, and why it matters

From left: Ben Harris, Sue Grey, moderator Mark Thompson, Simon Gutschlag, and Deon Claassens, at the Nelson minor party debate (Image: Alex Braae/Jihee Junn)
From left: Ben Harris, Sue Grey, moderator Mark Thompson, Simon Gutschlag, and Deon Claassens, at the Nelson minor party debate (Image: Alex Braae/Jihee Junn)

On Saturday four parties that believe Covid-19 is being used by the government to impose social control put their differences aside to share a stage. Alex Braae went to Nelson to see where they were coming from.

“If you question the government, you get called a conspiracy theorist. Why? And what’s so wrong with questioning if there’s a conspiracy to control us?”

Advance NZ’s Nelson candidate Ben Harris was in full flight. He wasn’t shouting, but he was clearly furious about people in power who weren’t in the room. Everyone else on the debate stage was fervently nodding along with his points.

The comment came at the back end of a deeply unusual election event in the Nelson suburb of Stoke. Four minor parties – they called themselves “emerging” parties – were represented, with the bulk of the audience watching a live stream. The first part was about setting out their differences. The second part was figuring out what they agreed on, and how they could work together in a hypothetical future government.

Debate moderator Mark Thompson also had an unusual role, in that he was also highlighted consensus positions. Periodically he’d break in to speak directly to the live stream about why the audience should vote for a minor party – any minor party. “Consider the possibility that a vote for Labour or National, or their current coalition partners, is the wasted vote.”

I went along out of a desire to understand where these parties – the New Conservatives, Advance NZ, the Outdoors Party and the One Party – were coming from, not to grab the most outrageous or shocking soundbites. I was also acutely aware of being a representative of the mainstream media. According to Harris, I’m part of an institution that is currently pumping out Labour propaganda because of millions spent on Covid-19 information ad buys – which to be fair is helping many organisations stay above water.

“Conspiracy theorist parties” doesn’t quite capture what they’re about, even though they theorise that conspiracies are taking place. Nor does a term like “anti-establishment”, because in fact a lot of candidates of these parties have all the trappings of respectability, like suits and small businesses.

The term I’ll use to describe them here is “anti-official”, because they are united by a sense that decisions should not be taken on their behalf, not by MPs in a representative democracy and especially not by those who aren’t elected. And what is an official, but an unelected person who decides things for other people? All the way up through the layers of government, from local councils to supra-national organisations like the World Health Organisation or the UN, there are officials telling you how you can and can’t live your life, with varying degrees of force to back them up. For some, that really rankles.

NZ Public Party leader Billy TK at an anti-lockdown protest. (Photo: David Farrier).

Each party on stage was forged out of a sense of betrayal. That a change was made that they weren’t asked about, and would have fiercely opposed if they had been. Over the course of reporting on each of these parties, it has been possible to pick out many of those moments.

For the One Party, it was the removal of the parliamentary prayer and what that represented about New Zealand no longer being a Christian nation. For the Outdoors Party, it was the sense that hunters and outdoors enthusiasts were being ignored on matters like 1080 drops. For Advance NZ, it was the Covid-19 lockdown.

For the New Conservatives, the repeal of Section 59 (also known as the anti-smacking bill) remains a trauma they’ve never really got over. It wasn’t the law itself, so much as the referendum which happened afterwards – hundreds of thousands of signatures were gathered to initiate the process, the referendum won by a massive margin (albeit on a low turnout) and was then blithely ignored by the government of the day.

It’s why one of the policies they campaign on the most now is binding referenda – in their view, the people spoke on smacking, and weren’t listened to. It’s also partly why New Conservative now draws a lot of support from former NZ First supporters – in their view, the decision by Winston Peters to put Labour into government rather than the larger National party was an anti-democratic outcome.

You can argue the point on all of these things, of course. Maybe Section 59 was just a bad piece of legislation that let child abusers off the hook. Maybe 1080 is simply the best means we have at our disposal to protect native birds. Less than half the country now identify as practicing Christians, so why should parliament pray in the name of Jesus Christ?

And for many people, all of those points are moot, because in their view the job of governments is to govern. A strong case can be made that the immediate lockdown approach was the right one, once it was clear cases were in danger of spiralling in March. Both death rates and infection rates have stayed very low by international standards, and after a horror quarter, the economy is now in a decent position to rebound – far more so than a country like the UK, where haphazard and inconsistent lockdowns have resulted in extreme infection rates, shattered the economy, and forced people to spend much more time locked inside their homes.

The small studio audience at the Nelson minor party debate (Photo: Alex Braae)

The massive majorities in public support for lockdowns is evidence that most of the country fundamentally accepts hard decisions need to be taken on the public’s behalf, provided they believe they’re the right decisions. All the polling conducted to date by reputable companies suggests that the approach taken by the government to Covid-19 has been overwhelmingly popular, and they’re on course to win re-election as a result.

Ah, but what if the people who make up that majority in New Zealand aren’t really using their own agency? What if they’ve been conned?

In Nelson, New Conservative candidate Simon Gutschlag noted his party had called for borders to be closed eight weeks before they actually were, and wondered if the delay was about “the government serving its own purpose.” Harris from Advance NZ said the government had “capitalised on the good nature of Kiwis,” and that “people’s rights to choose their own health outcomes has been taken away”. Deon Claassens from the One Party, a medical doctor, said “we’ve never quarantined healthy people in the past, and now we are, so there’s an agenda going on”. He enigmatically added that “we do believe, and we don’t take this lightly, this is more than just a Covid pandemic.”

To what end? Control of the population. Impoverishing otherwise profitable businesses so they’ll come to rely on the state. Indoctrination through the education system. And all of it in the service of the UN’s Agenda 2030 – a set of sustainability goals that to many look completely benign, but to those who believe in the conspiracy represent a Trojan horse for mass depopulation and a one-world government.

Outdoors Party co-leader Sue Grey noted that each party had come to the same conclusions about an agenda via different means, through their own research and talking to the experts they trust. Grey herself is a lawyer, and is an intelligent enough person to have won legal battles against highly resourced opponents.

The idea of media literacy, and knowing which sources to trust, is a paradoxical one. I can personally vouch for the trustworthiness and general honesty of New Zealand’s class of working journalists (though of course, why take my word for it when I’m one of them?) We understand the media, we’re savvy about what we read and watch, and we challenge those in power. 

And yet, everyone who is considered to be media literate has an instinctive understanding that they’re being lied to in some shape or form all the time, and continues broadly trusting those sources. If the TV news shows a clip of a politician saying they’re happy with an obviously bad poll result, we don’t blame the news for putting a lie in front of us. As for the politician, we call it a range of different things – PR, spin, bullshit. But fundamentally the concept of media literacy is about sorting out what the truth is, by being able to tell when we’re not being told the truth.

So why does it matter to mention that Grey is a lucid and intelligent person? Because how she came to hold her views and how I came to hold mine is pretty much the same: analysing information knowing full well that what is coming through respected channels might not be true. She just took that process a lot deeper than I did, and came to much more far-reaching conclusions. Once you start understanding that the official version on one matter is wrong, the onus can flip, and mistrust becomes the norm.

Billy Te Kahika speaks at the Advance NZ/NZ Public Party merger (Photo: Alex Braae)

Where does it stop? There can be a snowballing effect, which is how you end up with convergences of conspiracies – those who are against vaccines are also highly likely to be against 1080, for example, as both are seen as attacks on bodily and health autonomy. It can at times lead in strange directions. Climate change denial has increasing currency in these circles, because of the involvement of UN and IPCC officials in promoting climate science. But it’s well documented that climate change denial was in fact a conspiracy heavily promoted by the oil industry.

On a personal level, I started to become aware of news during the murderous lies that led to the Iraq war, and it’s probably only because I have worked in newsrooms and seen how they operate that I trust in the fundamental honesty of the format. But I’ve never forgotten the lesson that actually, sometimes those in power do propagate conspiracies, with terrible consequences for the victims of them.

A split is forming between parties that are anti-official and pro-official (in the sense of paying attention to government science advisors, the WHO and so on). One thing the debate in Nelson made clear is that the latter will never be able to reach those in the anti-official camp. Once upon a time, Winston Peters may have been able to do that, but his stint in government – and particularly signing the UN Global Migration pact – has ended those chances forever.

It’s something voters who are generally pro-official understand too, which is why there was such derision towards National’s deputy leader Gerry Brownlee over the “interesting set of facts” press conference in which he implied the government had been secretly aware of community transmission. It was a particularly foolish political blunder, because it alienated pro-official voters, with the sort of rhetoric that will only appeal to those who will literally never vote National.

Labour meanwhile appear to be thrilled to be running on behalf of the pro-official camp against the likes of Advance NZ. At a candidate meeting in Martinborough last week, MP Kieran McAnulty increasingly directed his barbs against the Advance NZ candidate and associated hecklers in the crowd, rather than against his actual rivals for the seat from National and NZ First. Near the end, he earned the biggest cheer of the night from everyone else by thundering that the government’s Covid-19 response was built on “listening to the experts, not reading conspiracy theories on Facebook”.

The electoral power of the anti-official parties doesn’t yet appear to be strong enough to make a dent in parliament. Even with a large chunk of this vote appearing to coalesce around Advance NZ, there will still be enough differences between the different factions in this space to prevent a true and total unification. But while elections are the point of democracy for many of those who support pro-official parties, that’s not really true for those at the Nelson meeting.

They’ll vote, and they might lose and allege a conspiracy around the results. But regardless of the outcome they’ll continue to be extremely democratically engaged, agitating at all levels of politics all the way through the electoral cycle. And they’ll continue to offer an alternative to everyone who has that nagging feeling deep down that things aren’t quite right, and something needs to change.

Alex Braae’s travel to Nelson 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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