NZ’s resurgent New Conservatives: riding the culture wars to the 2020 election

Of all the would-bes stuck in minor party hell, the New Conservatives may be the horse that bolts on the back of opportunistic campaigning and culture wars. Alex Braae heads to the Bay of Plenty to watch their leader, Leighton Baker, in action.

Leighton Baker strode purposely up to the front of the room when his name was called, to polite applause. He had been introduced by the softly-spoken branch convenor for the New Conservative party in the Bay of Plenty. Taking the microphone, Baker surveyed the neat rows of plastic chairs in front of him, most of them full. 

“Can you all hear me?” he called out. He didn’t bother to speak into the mic, projecting a first impression of practical blokiness.

The party’s leader proceeded to speak without notes or amplification for more than an hour. He held the crowd with projection and presence, keeping them leaning forward slightly throughout. On a Wednesday afternoon in the Tauranga bible-belt suburb of Bethlehem, his speech had been punctuated by congregational murmurs. Later that night in the rural settlement of Oropi, he kept his audience warmed up with call and response tactics, and fun sized chocolate bars thrown to people who spoke up. About 100 were at the first meeting, and almost as many at the second. 

Baker’s style was more like an MC’s patter at a sports club awards night than the thunder of a demagogue. He promised that controversial subjects would be covered, and duly delivered. Guns, free speech, youth justice farms and prisons, sex education, 1080, Israel Folau. 

Above all, he stressed that people should be able to speak their minds. “If you disagree with them, it’s hate speech, and you’re not allowed to say it,” he exclaimed in disbelief about transgender people. He presented as the concerned, ‘common sense’ patriarch, wondering if everything was changing too fast. He described a “religion of sexuality sweeping through the nation” and worried that “it’s being forced on young people who have no idea what is going on”. 

The nods to some of the country’s recent culture wars were subtle but unmistakable. Baker doesn’t present himself as a culture warrior, rather an honest broker of the war itself. At both events, during a section on free speech, he paused slightly as if struggling to recall, before asking if anyone remembered “Stefan Molyneux and Lauren – what’s her name?” before it came back to him as Southern. One time he appeared to call her “Sutherland.” But it took him no time to remember the point he was making: people had a right to pay to see them speak.

In the 2017 election Leighton Baker was an utterly marginal figure, and almost nobody wanted to see him speak, paid or otherwise. There was no media interest in the Canterbury builder, business owner and former trades tutor who had risen to leader the same year. The Conservatives got basically no votes; their party had been shredded in the previous years by the various sagas around Colin Craig. Many in the party still seem quite bitter about what their former leader did to their hard work. But they’re getting a revenge of sorts, in that they’re growing again, and perhaps even finding a more stable footing.

Leighton Baker and the New Conservative party were the only show coming to the small BOP settlement of Oropi any time soon (Alex Braae)

That is clear in their level of relative competency so far, as a small organisation with no employees. There have been very few moments of the sort of ineptitude that often characterises minor parties. One exception was the recent decision to U-turn on a hardline policy against pornography, which followed an outcry from supporters on Facebook howling nanny state. The New Conservatives at least were smart enough to recast the backdown as listening to the people.

The abandonment of the Conservative Party moniker Colin Craig launched the party under wasn’t immediately successful either. When it was announced midway through last year the New Conservatives’ only real presence was around Canterbury and in Auckland, where leader Leighton Baker and deputy leader Elliot Ikilei are based respectively. 

The rebranded New Conservative Party arguably still hasn’t been successful in any way that indicates electoral success is likely. But they do now have 35 electorates covered by committees, with convenors and teams out volunteering. The party doesn’t release membership numbers, but based on rough figures given by party secretary Kevin Stitt, it could be estimated at around 1000-1500 members, more than enough to clear the Electoral Commission’s hurdle of 500 members for registration. They have an increasingly sophisticated organisation, and a growing programme of active campaigning that is starting to result in stirrings in the polls. They have pamphlets to hand out and drink bottles with logos on them. It’s a functioning party again.

An insight into their growth in membership can be found in the story behind the party’s biggest recent single-day spike in member registrations this year. Elliot Ikilei, a prolific user of Twitter, was temporarily locked of his account for tweeting “‘Trans women’ are men with dysphoria/disorder, to be treated with compassion and tolerance.” It could be seen as trolling or bullying, in that it attacked the very foundation of identity for a group of people while also appearing to be supportive. The party didn’t see it like that, with Kevin Stitt insisting it was purely “a free speech issue”.  

A screenshot posted by Elliot Ikilei about his appeal against twitter suspension.

While it wasn’t reflected in the attendance at either of the meetings held in the Bay of Plenty, Stitt told me a quarter of new people joining are between 18-30, which could reflect the party’s aggressive social media strategy is working. The style relies heavily on memes, but the content is much more fervent and fearful than what other parties tend to produce. Recent examples included dire warnings of more crime because of the gun buyback, and the promise to be on the “front lines” of the “battle for life” coming around abortion. Stitt says the latter issue remains a rallying cry for conservative young people.

Stitt is one of many volunteers who have been around since the party was formed; others have come back now the party has recovered its mojo. They’re battle-hardened old hands like Bay of Plenty convenor Norman Sutton. He left in the Craig fallout, and told me in Oropi it was probably for the best the party fell short of the 5% threshold in 2014. Now he’s back in the fold. Sutton organised the two-day tour of his region for the leader, including six different events. Turns out, a surprising number of people want to hear what Leighton Baker has to say, even if he’s the leader of a party that has been given almost no chance of success.

Leighton Baker speaking to the crowd in Bethlehem (Alex Braae)

So who are the New Conservative believers? In standard demographic terms, those who turned out in Bethlehem and Oropi were older and whiter than the general population. Many seemed to be of the view that their ideas were shared by the majority of the people in the country, and that these ideas were simply common sense.

It may have just been because it was Tauranga, where the MP used to be Winston Peters, but many at the meetings seemed to be disgruntled NZ First voters. That was certainly the impression given by my very informal and unscientific polling. Among the audience, the New Conservative policy of binding citizen-initiated referenda went down very well – in fact, the issue was what Baker opened with. Many people there seemed to feel let down by Peters, and the policy was pitched as a way for the people to put a leash on any and every unpopular government decision. 

The New Conservatives are moving in on a lot of policy turf formerly held by NZ First. They were among the groups opposed to the UN Migration Pact, using it as a wedge issue to attract those disappointed with Winston Peters’ defence of it. They’ve also adopted much of the ‘one people’ type positioning around Māori and the Treaty of Waitangi’s place in New Zealand, which used to be a reliably easy issue for Peters to campaign on. Among the more recent recruits to the party’s board is Casey Costello, who was the co-spokesperson for race-relations assimilationist group Hobson’s Pledge alongside Don Brash. Costello was at the Bethlehem meeting, and told me that even though enthusiasm within the party hadn’t yet been widely picked up, “something big is happening”, and that parties in parliament should be nervous. In contrast to Costello, the volatile former rugby executive David Moffett is no longer involved, after briefly serving on the board.

Three conversations stood out as reflections of who was there, and the types of constituencies being targeted. The first was with Paul, a member of the Rotorua Pistol Club who was at both events. He is a sport-shooter, and was furious about the gun control measures put in by the government in the wake of the Christchurch mosque attacks, because of a lack of exemptions for competitors. Previously a relatively apolitical soft-National voter, he says New Conservative’s stance against the buyback had led him to giving them a go.

The New Conservative party have made a pitch for hunting votes, by opposing the government’s gun buyback (Image: via Facebook)

The second, in Bethlehem, was with Margaret, a devout Christian who had been to Uganda almost a dozen times for missionary work. With shining eyes, she testified to her views on the harm of abortion and sex education in schools, beseeching the country to turn back towards conservative Christian values. There was no avarice or guile to her calls; she was a true believer.

The third was with a young guy who had driven from Hamilton for the meeting in Oropi. He had lived for a few years in Samoa and Singapore, and was utterly dismissive of the understanding that ‘liberals’ had of other cultures. I suggested to him that a lot of New Conservative policy seemed to boil down to a culture of support for traditional, patriarchal families, and he responded by suggesting it only seemed like that to me because that wasn’t my culture, and that the numbers were with him.

That sense of different segments not being able to understand each other culturally will be crucial to the party’s prospects in 2020. One of the highest profile media moments the party has had this year was when Leighton Baker joined the hosts of The Project to discuss homophobic rugby player Israel Folau. To some conservative viewers, it looked like more like a mugging than an interview: a bunch of TV celebrities ganging up on an honest bloke talking about free speech. To many other viewers, it looked like a defence of the indefensible. TVNZ talk shows regularly feature Elliot Ikilei; hard-right blog Whaleoil described a recent visit as “members of the condescending panel laughing at him and trying to dismiss his views. It was very much three against one.” Any impression of a silent majority being talked down to by a liberal elite suits the New Conservative strategy perfectly. 

New Conservative deputy leader Elliot Ikilei acknowledging protesters at a fractious University of Auckland debate last year (Image: via Facebook)

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Ironically, thanks to the profile boost that comes with more media scrutiny, the New Conservatives could actually gain support, rather than lose it. Take, for example, their position on climate change. At both meetings, Leighton Baker asked the crowd if anyone seriously thought people could control the climate; across both of them only one person called out to say yes. Baker then ridiculed the system of carbon credits, saying the costs of sea level rises could be mitigated simply by building houses on higher piles. It was an utterly anti-scientific position to take, but in relation to New Conservative’s wider strategy, that doesn’t matter. They don’t need the votes of people concerned about climate change, but could certainly do with the votes of climate change deniers and sceptics.

They still see two viable paths to get into parliament. The first is simple – crack 5% in the party vote – and at the moment the party is seeking donations to support a push for an eye-wateringly ambitious 20%. As well as that, Kevin Stitt indicated that Botany is a seat they’re looking at running to win in, with the possibility that Elliot Ikilei could appeal to voters turned off by sitting MP Jami-Lee Ross. The former is obviously a more realistic plan.

An accommodation with National seems distinctly unlikely, as the major party hasn’t shown any public appetite to embrace a wholly independent potential coalition partner, preferring instead to float the idea of list MP Alfred Ngaro setting up his own vehicle. As well as that, Destiny Church’s Hannah Tamaki showed no interest in anything other than absorbing New Conservative, when she was asked about working together at the launch of her Coalition NZ party. They’ll also be contending with the history of conservative parties in New Zealand quickly hitting a low ceiling of voter support, and the 5% threshold itself. 

Regardless, the New Conservatives now look certain to be a serious presence on the campaign trail between now and the next election. The scale of their organisation now means an effective unknown can draw a crowd to political rallies on a wintry weekday night. Leighton Baker made a virtue of not requiring a microphone at these events. But if his party’s voice continues to grow, that will almost certainly need to change.


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