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The postmortems.
The postmortems.

PoliticsOctober 26, 2023

How the fringe right responded to a ‘fierce slapping’ of an election 

The postmortems.
The postmortems.

In some quarters, the recriminations flew.

The occupation of parliament in early 2022 delivered a jolt to New Zealand politics, a challenge to our sense of social cohesiveness and a stark illustration of both the distress and conspiratorial thinking in the anti-vaccine movement. It was also a kind of crucible for a number of groups with ambitions to establish political parties and contest elections. 

In an echo of the events at the occupation, those efforts at once proliferated and splintered. Beleaguered by conflicting ambitions and giant egos, energies often seemed focused principally on bickering and infighting, whether between or within the nascent political groups. 

That disharmony has persisted through to the election aftermath; you can hardly scroll a “freedom movement” Facebook group without encountering someone accusing one or other of the political wannabes of being part of a devilish Freemasons plot. Little wonder: October 14 was not the night of triumph that some had forecast. The best performing fringe right party, Liz Gunn’s New Zealand Loyal, returned just over 1% of the nationwide vote, according to the preliminary results, but none of the others came close to that.

The real success of the night for the fringe right was New Zealand First. It is impossible to say just what proportion of the party’s preliminary 6.5% result came from such groups, but there is no doubt Winston Peters – the highest profile politician to wander through the “freedom village” – and many of his candidates welcomed them to the flock. It could well be their backing of Winston Peters, despite his role as deputy prime minister alongside Jacinda Ardern for three years from 2017, was instrumental in NZ First returning to parliament.

Peters is now engaged in preliminary talks with the National Party ahead of special votes, but he was quick to acknowledge the support of the self-described “freedom movement”. On election night itself, he sat down for an interview with Cameron Slater, best known as the attack blogger of the now-defunct Whaleoil at the centre of the Dirty Politics scandal and these days a host on Reality Check Radio – the broadcaster of choice for the fringe right, set up by Voices for Freedom

Peters issued “our grateful thanks” to Reality Check Radio listeners. “With their help we’ve made it.” He promised to represent those who had ben “misled and maltreated”.

Winston Peters and Reality Check Radio's Cameron Slater.

Among the panoply of fringe right parties, most of which promote an anti-vaccine stance and seek to channel the energies of the 2022 parliamentary grounds occupation, the most successful was Liz Gunn’s NZ Loyal. The party, which promotes an array of conspiracy theories, had a late start, registering at the end of August.   

When the deadline fell for furnishing the Electoral Commission with party lists, NZ Loyal had only provided three names. One of the three withdrew, meaning that had the party reached the 5% threshold it would only have returned two MPs, rather than the eight or so to which it would have been entitled. Gunn unsuccessfully sought in a court action to have the deadline extended.

Gunn’s party has so far fallen 1,973,964 votes short of her two million target (she later called that “a tongue-in-cheek thing”), but Gunn this week described the election as “a humbling, marvelous experience”. She committed to continuing, saying: “This is not a fleeting thing. NZ Loyal is here to stay … We are still in a war. The enemy, those who want nothing less than a full Kiwi subjugation, they are still as ruthless as they are conniving.”

In the final days of the campaign, Gunn declared that immediately following the election she would unleash “the mother of all revelations”. After polling day passed, and in the face of numerous appeals from supporters and critics to share the “MOAR”, Gunn posted a video a week after the election. (The delay, she explained in a subsequent video, was in part down to “very serious health issues” including bouts of “serious coughing”.)

Gunn claimed that a ”whistleblower” had provided data revealing undisclosed vaccine-related deaths in New Zealand. The “evidence” she supplied came in the form of two official information releases from early 2022, one from the Medsafe, the other from the Ministry of Health. Both were already in the public domain and neither offered the evidence for Gunn’s baseless claims. 

Gunn held out hope that the so-called whistleblower had more information and would “find the courage to … divulge it all”. She would then “take it to Winston Peters”, she said, in pursuit of  a “full-blown criminal investigation”.

Gunn has separately railed against Reality Check Radio, saying it had denied her reasonable airtime during the campaign, a charge RCR decried as “flat out lies”. 

It was a disastrous election night for Brian Tamaki. The Freedoms NZ umbrella party that he set up originally hoped to bring many groups under the brolly, but finally ended up comprising Freedoms NZ, the Outdoors & Freedom Party, Vision NZ and Rock the Vote NZ. The allied parties attracted less than a third of one per cent. 

“We won, we won,” said the self-described apostle, opening his sermon the morning after the election at Destiny Church. He meant the Rugby World Cup quarter-final, saying: “It was going to be hard coming [here] and trying to explain victory today with two losses.”

Tamaki said much had been learned on the campaign, in the “cut and thrust and learning and seeing”. He said: “It’s fun, actually. Come back for some more.”

Things got grimmer quickly, however. “We are a heathen nation … a perverted country,” Tamaki seethed, before railing against “the far liberal left”, immigration, Islam and the rest. He bemoaned the refusal of Christopher Luxton (sic) to pursue abortion reform. “He realised he must denounce his faith and deny his Christianity otherwise he wouldn’t get the votes,” said Tamaki. 

“I am not disappointed,” said Hannah Tamaki, leader of Vision NZ and Brian’s wife, speaking earlier to the same congregation. “I’m so thankful for all the people who did an amazing job.” Yet she did have “one disappointment”: that so many people of faith failed to join under the umbrella. She added: “But I’m so glad we do have a man and a woman now, so we won’t have the most gay parliament in the world any more.”

Hannah and Brian Tamaki.

The co-leader with Tamaki of the umbrella party, Sue Grey, was by contrast in a philosophical mood on October 15. On Facebook, the Freedoms & Outdoors Party leader posted: “Well done to everyone who was elected. I'm excited to now be able to focus on new legal challenges, summer and other important things.”

Less sanguine was Alan Simmons, the Outdoors & Freedom Party founder and president and Grey’s partner. Gunn’s big MOAR had him declaring: “Liz disloyal Gunn’s mother of all revelations is just a rehash of Sue Grey's revelations of this matter earlier this year … Fame at any price lizard Gunn but we all know what a lying joke you are. While Sue puts together a people's inquiry, lizard Gunn is looking to give it to winstone to run – end of accountability.”

For Simmons, as for many Freedoms NZ advocates, Gunn had sabotaged their political efforts. Ahead of the election, he wrote: “Disloyal Liz is conning the voters and will go down in history as the fraud that blew the freedom movement apart.”

Alfred Ngaro, leader of the New Zeal Party, was one of those chided by Hannah Tamaki for failing to get on board. In a video posted the morning after the election the former National MP said that while a vote just over half a percent “may not have been the result we wanted”, it had been an “amazing night” given the party had just 100 days earlier set about rebranding the party from ONE to New Zeal. “This is just the beginning,” he said.

Another former National MP, Matt King, had faced a series of ructions within his DemocracyNZ – including the claim there was a “shadow leader” – in the lead-up to the campaign. After finishing a distant fourth in Northland, with his party attracting about a quarter of one per cent in the party vote, King posted an uncaptioned picture of a northern New Zealand beach to Facebook. Responding to a supporter concerned about his wellbeing, King said, “Taking some time to reassess and recharge the batteries.”

Helen Houghton, leader of the New Conservatives, told The Platform the party’s 0.15% result, a drop from 10 times that number in 2020, was “crushing”. She suggested the party struggled from a lack of big donors and an electorate reluctant to risk their vote not counting. “All the small parties did badly,” she said, but: ”We’re back to square one.”

“Obviously by the result, maybe there's not that many people that agree with us,” was the reality check for Leighton Baker, leader of the Leighton Baker Party, in a video posted on the morning of October 15. “But we still have an obligation to present a different view.”

Baker, the New Nation Party, and Ngaro

The former New Conservative leader congratulated the winners and saluted all who stood, saying: "We still have an obligation to say what we think is right and true. Whether we're wrong or right, it just gives people a different alternative of something to listen to.”

The account of the New Nation Party, which mustered a little over a thousand votes across New Zealand, offered a plaintive comment beneath the video. “Together we would have been better Leighton but there you go.”

Over at their own page, the NNP, which finished last of all options in the list vote, behind Baker’s party, thanked its supporters, observing, “all minor parties have been handed a fierce slapping in the major party fight for change and the voter desire to punish Labour”. 

In words set upon a road escaping into a sunset horizon, it counselled: “It is not the end of the road. IT IS ONLY THE BEGINNING.”

Keep going!