Can the conspiracy theories of social media be coalesced into a party that makes parliament under MMP? We’re about to find out. Alex Braae attends the conscious conspiracy-theory-replete coupling ceremony.
A covers band was smashing out a blistering version of ‘Higher and Higher’, on a stage packed with candidates. The flags were waving proudly over a packed and heaving Logan Campbell Centre in Auckland. Vinnie Eastwood, New Zealand’s most prominent conspiracy theorist YouTuber, was right up the front in a suit getting absolutely wild with it.
The band rolled straight into ‘Simply the Best’, which was meant to be the triumphant intro music. But the star speaker wasn’t quite ready to come out, and there was a lull.
In the brief break, I had a chat to Norm from Tauranga. He had never voted in his entire life, but had suddenly been mobilised. He has no trust at all in the established media, but had started to “wake up” after seeing what was “really happening”, as he put it.
Then the band picked up the chorus again. At least a thousand voices in the hall roared as Billy Te Kahika Jr, the leader of the New Zealand Public Party, emerged. He placed his hand on his heart, and drank in the standing ovation.
The first speaker was the party’s Banks Peninsula candidate, who rarked the crowd up with calls that it was time to take the country back. Finally, he said, there was a leader who would be speaking the truth to them.
“This moment has risen like a tsunami from the silent ones. We have heard you, and together we have watched in amazement, disbelief and increasing unease as the government and ones before them have sold us out.”
When it was Te Kahika’s turn to speak, he opened with a long mihi, before expressing surprise to be “at the front of a movement to lead on your behalf”. He described himself as “the most reluctant politician you’ve ever seen” and told the crowd, again and again, that it was “your movement”.
Te Kahika’s journey through “the eclectic kind of life I’ve had” has largely revolved around music. Last time he was on the stage at the Logan Campbell Centre, he was playing support for bluesman George Thorogood. He’s a Christian, and has a small ministry in Te Tai Tokerau. Over the last few months, he has been speaking to increasingly large crowds through the provinces, and building up an immense social media profile.
During lockdown, he started to “look at the narratives surrounding the Covid-19 health crisis”. He had been in Chicago a few weeks previous, and said while he was there, “Covid-19 had entered the global media”. Then, coming back to New Zealand, it was “fear, fear, fear” on every screen he saw. “And I started to see cracks in the story.”
“It told me that the Covid-19 health crisis was something that was going to be used, to eventually destroy our democracy in Aotearoa New Zealand.” He wanted people to understand that he believed in the dominant scientific understanding of Covid-19 at first, but no longer did.
It hardly needs saying that the views of Te Kahika – and evidently shared by the crowd – go against official scientific advice. In fact, it might even be fair to say that they don’t believe official scientific advice precisely because of who the messengers are. They have no trust in the government, international institutions like the World Health Organisation or the United Nations, or billionaire philanthropists like Bill Gates.
There were attacks on Dr Ashley Bloomfield, who had spent time at the WHO. “Anyone who does any length of time at an organisation like that is going to be fully indoctrinated.” There were enthusiastic boos for the “fully groomed globalist” Jacinda Ardern. “Her story speaks like the perfect history of a prime minister who will betray our people.”
It was Agenda 21. It was anti-vaxxing. It was 5G. It was people being forced out of the provinces to live in “technocratic high-rise cities”. It was all on the way, said Te Kahika, and he was the only one who could stand in the way of “them”, who were using Covid-19 to get the public used to “herd control”.
His speech was sharp, and he proved expert at moving the crowd. When he needed them to laugh, he had a joke about the people in the room knowing how to grow food, grow kūmara, and “grow other stuff as well, but we won’t go there”. When he needed them to be angry, he asked questions to which the response was a single roared word – “No.”
A curious aspect of the strident anti-globalism of his platform was that it also embraced multiculturalism, in stark contrast to the similar sorts of populism being seen in the US and Europe. Much of the crowd was Māori, and there were explicit references in Te Kahika’s speech to bringing in New Zealanders from other ethnicities, along with candidates who Te Kahika described as “new New Zealanders”.
The press releases ahead of the event pitched it as a merger of Advance NZ and the NZ Public Party. Jami-Lee Ross, who formed Advance NZ after being kicked out of the National Party, had apparently not brought many of the people along.
But Te Kahika did give a strong shout out to his new co-leader. He had spent weeks talking to minor parties about whether they wanted to work together, and received dismissive responses. But not Jami-Lee Ross. “Out of all of these people, there was only one person who said to me, ‘Billy, I want to help. Billy, I want you to use my party, and I want you to take the number one list position in this party,’” said Te Kahika.
When he did take the stage, he said it was “one of the most exciting days of my political career”, and that he had never before spoken to such a large and excited crowd. He was ready to give the people what they wanted, saying it was time for a new type of politics. “Judith, Jacinda, Winston, it’s all one and the same. Now I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough of politics as usual down in Wellington.”
He too called for “more questioning” about “how the Chinese Communist Party has been allowed to wreak so much economic devastation around the world”, referring to the unevidenced theory that Covid-19 is a bioweapon. Within the first three months of the election, Ross promised that the free-trade agreement with China would be suspended, pending a “full investigation”.
It’s a curious stance for an MP who spent years as the National Party’s chief whip. By all accounts, he was politics as usual, until he exploded his own career. “I’ve seen up close how more and more, that party has given up our people to foreign interests,” he said of his former colleagues. He cast it as a case of blowing the whistle on dodgy donations. There were hecklers during his speech saying he needed to address the allegations made by the women, which he said afterwards that he didn’t hear. By the end of his speech, the people were on their feet for Ross too.
Te Kahika will be running in the Māori electorate of Te Tai Tokerau, and while it is a long shot, it is not entirely beyond the realm of possibility that he could win it. The area has long been impoverished, particularly for those who are Māori, and successive changes in representatives hasn’t changed that. Why shouldn’t the voters take a punt on someone offering something very different?
The strategy from here could also give Advance NZ (the party under whose banner the two parties will be running) an outside chance at the 5% MMP threshold. The aim is to create a “centrist version” of the Alliance, which gained significant support to the left of Labour in the 1990s. Ross said that there had been talks with seven other parties, saying they could keep their independence, structure and leadership under the combined banner. “If we ever want to take on the established parties, we must unite together,” said Ross, saying bygones could be bygones.
Ross name checked a list of parties with which they had been talking – the Outdoors Party, the New Conservatives, the Opportunities Party, Social Credit have all been talked to, along with the very newly formed One Party and Heartland Party. Vision NZ and the Tea Party (which has been accused of following a pro-Chinese Communist Party line) were the only ones off the table.
In response, several of those parties immediately ruled it out. New Conservative deputy leader Elliot Ikilei said “we were presented with a proposal that would dissolve our integrity, support and values foundation, therefore have respectfully declined”. Geoff Simmons from the Opportunities Party was more blunt – “no way would I ever stand on a stage and shake hands with those snake oil salesmen”. Ross later claimed that it was a different story when the two parties had a meeting a few weeks ago.
The response from Alan Simmons, co-leader of the Outdoors Party, was particularly interesting. He said their party would have nothing to do with it, after also attending a meeting with Ross and Te Kahika, coming away from that deeply suspicious. “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 the NZPP and need to be accounted for under the Electoral Act.”
At the media standup after the speeches, Newshub’s Jenna Lynch asked Ross and Te Kahika a series of questions trying to pin down exactly what they thought about hot-button conspiracy theory topics like 5G and vaccinations. In response, she got a lot of talk about how the party was “just asking questions”, and reflecting what they were hearing back to the people. At one point, Lynch appeared almost frustrated when the pair denied that such talk would be dangerous for the country’s Covid-19 response – “come on Jami-Lee, you’re an intelligent person, you know what asking these questions does”. He wasn’t thrown in the slightest.
There were more people filming the media at the press conference than actual reporters there. The NZ Public Party has built the following it has predominantly online. It is possible that citizen videos of the event will reach as many people through social media as the mainstream outlets that covered it. As the reporters were finishing up, a man muttered at us about the “$50 million for bullshit” bailout that was announced earlier in the year. Leaving the standup, some smiles were returned with hard stares when people saw my camera.
But for the people who turned out, it had been a thrilling day, and they left upbeat. They had come from all parts of the North Island. And over the next weeks, they’ll take that message out far and wide, and in the process probably reach people totally unreachable by other forms of politics and messaging. The results of that could be unlike anything New Zealand has ever seen before.