An increasingly crowded field of parties are competing to harness the vestigial energy of the parliamentary occupation.
Even as the occupation of parliament grounds was extinguished in violent clashes early last year, the protest’s ringleaders were thinking ahead to the 2023 election. Some sought to power up existing political vehicles, others pledged to launch new parties. There were calls for unity under a single “freedom movement”, as well as groups which eschewed the idea of taking part in an election entirely, demanding that nothing short of an overthrow of parliament would do.
Today, with just over 100 days to the election, a frenzy of political organising is under way, with roadshows travelling the country and a cacophony of online activity seeking to rally to their cause what remains of the angry, the disaffected and the credulous.
‘This is us saving each other’
The newest addition to the crowded field is Liz Gunn, the former television breakfast host whose journey to the conspiracy fringe was first witnessed in her outrage at lockdowns and vaccine mandates. She has seized on cases such as the “Baby W” controversy over the use of “unvaccinated blood” and pumped out disturbed videos depicting, for example, Jacinda Ardern as a demon and the Labour Party logo as a swastika.
In a video message posted this week across social channels, Gunn announced her plan to launch the New Zealand Loyal Party. In a 22-minute speech viewed more than 6,000 times on Facebook alone, Gunn laid out a conspiracy buffet: fluoride, 1080, Bill Gates, “gender programming”, the World Economic Forum, “glove-puppet” media, 15-minute cities, the “brown mafia”, and the “weather patterns [that] have been so odd”.
Gunn launched attacks on Chris Hipkins, Chris Luxon, David Seymour and “the head of the Greens, I can’t remember who they are”. And the plan for NZ Loyal? To get “servants of the people” elected and then “divest the power from the central body in parliament”.
There was, however, a condition. “I can do it only with a mass of real Kiwis behind me, with me,” said Gunn. She would not register the party unless she signed up 500 members. That much is in keeping with electoral law, which requires proof of at least 500 paying members who are eligible to vote. But Gunn imposed a time limit: she needed those signatures within a week. “I believe with all my heart we’ll have that,” she said. “This is not me saving you. This is us saving each other together.”
Counterspin appeared to endorse the new venture this week, lauding “a crucial message [for] all voters who care about the future of New Zealand”. Gunn is a regular contributor to the alt-right conspiracy outlet, which devoted this week’s hour-long episode to promoting deranged claims from a man who believes the south pole is being used as an air traffic control hub for extraterrestrials and that the 2011 earthquake in Christchurch was caused by “a misfired energy weapon located in Antarctica”.
Counterspin frontman Kelvyn Alp spent much of the occupation last year rejecting the idea of change via democratic processes. On the final day he told viewers: “Can you imagine if a few boys brought out of their boot a few AK47s? Those muppets would have run for the hills. That’s the problem. You disarm a population under a false flag so they can then come and eviscerate you.”
Asked this week by supporters if he might stand for parliament, Alp said: “The state would shit a brick if I did.” That seems unlikely. The last time he tried, in the 2011 Te Tai Tokerau byelection, he finished last, winning 72 votes.
‘The other cheek of the arse’
Despite repeatedly telling followers that he would absolutely not be running for parliament, Brian Tamaki is running for parliament, as co-leader, with Sue Grey, of the Freedoms NZ umbrella group. At a rally last month, the founder of Destiny Church and the Freedom and Rights Coalition announced that Grey and her Outdoors and Freedom Party had been persuaded into the tent. They have not yet formally notified the Electoral Commission, however, as they take a case over advertising funding allocations to the High Court.
Vision New Zealand, led by Brian’s wife, Hannah Tamaki, and the New Nation Party are registered parties and part of Freedoms NZ. Other unregistered parties in the venture are Rock the Vote, Yes Aotearoa, and Direct Democracy. Speaking as Freedoms NZ completed a six-week tour of the country in Dunedin this week, Tamaki said another “fairly big” party was “on the brink” of joining his umbrella group. The Dunedin meeting was interrupted by a group protesting Tamaki’s homophobic and transphobic stances.
After resuming, Tamaki, a self-described apostle of Christ, said, “National has become the other cheek of the [Labour] arse, and Seymour is stuck in the middle. Oh boy!” He went on to tell the audience that the party would win 20% of the vote. Its component parts are currently polling, combined, on less than a single percent.
Kelvyn Alp’s Counterspin and Tamaki have a history of antagonism. Most recently, after Counterspin ran an investigation which painted the Tamaki couple as antivax apostates for hosting mobile vaccination units in Destiny Church car parks, Brian issued a statement declaring he was “seriously progressing defamation charges” against those who are “poisoning the minds of many against us with whatever slurs or lies people come up with because they hate or have difficulty with our success”.
‘There is no shadow leader’
Former National MP for Northland Matt King spoke to protesters at the parliamentary occupation, and registered his party, Democracy NZ, to amplify their cause in October 2022. He, too, has been in roadshow mode for much of the time since, seeking to build a team of candidates and a support base.
King encountered a major speed bump after the board turfed out the candidate for Waikato, Steve Cranston. Four other candidates quit in solidarity, saying Cranston had been singled out after seeking transparency from the board on issues including the role of “a shadow leader” and demanding “a change in party culture”. In a livestream, Cranston said: “There needed to be an acknowledgement that we’re essentially a volunteer organisation. People needed to be treated with respect.”
King told Reality Check Radio he would not get into the details over “an ongoing issue with a candidate” but it was “a reasonably sized hiccup, but we carry on” and it was wrong to describe the party as “imploding”. And: “there is no shadow leader.”
‘We’ve already got brand recognition’
Standing by the water’s edge in the Marlborough Sounds at the start of the month, Leighton Baker announced the launch of a new party. Its name: The Leighton Baker Party. Former leader of the NZ Conservative Party, father of perhaps the country’s leading conspiracy Instagrammer, Chantelle, Baker said: “I can‘t sit by and stand and watch what’s happening to our democracy in New Zealand. We are losing our freedoms.” People were “demonised”, he said, if they wanted to debate, for example, “gender ideology”, climate change or “the whole vaccination and everything there”.
Baker, against whom charges relating to involvement in the final day of the parliamentary protest were dropped, said the party name had been chosen because in his name, “we’ve already got brand recognition”, and therefore it was “being fiscally responsible and using what we have”.
‘I’m just ordinary’
Alongside Jami-Lee Ross, former blues musician Billy Te Kahika led Advance NZ (incorporating the People’s Party) in a rollercoaster 2020 election ride. Since that ultimately disappointing venture, Te Kahika has largely rejected politics. He is currently on bail pending an appeal against a conviction for breaching the Covid-19 Public Health Response Act by organising and attending a protest alongside Vinny Eastwood during the 2021 Covid lockdown. The pair were sentenced to four months’ jail.
In a livestream this week from his Northland home, Te Kahika said, “in the last couple of weeks I’ve had so many people tell me, ‘Billy, please go back into politics, please stand, please try and bring everyone together in the freedom movement, etcetera, etcetera.'” His response? “If I thought I could get into parliament and make a difference for us all, I’d do it … it would be worth taking a gamble and enduring all the slander”. He lacked the connections to elite powerbrokers that he had come to realise were required to succeed, however. “Even if we could do twice of what we did in terms of promotion and activity in 2020, I don’t believe they’re ever going to let someone like me into parliament, because I’m just ordinary … I think that was the problem.”
What the polling says
The most recent Kantar poll for 1News, conducted and published at the end of last month, suggests the fringe right parties have a hill to climb. The parties in the Freedoms NZ umbrella group were backed by a total of 0.7%, with New Nation on 0.3%, Outdoors & Freedom on 0.2%, and Vision NZ 0.2%. Democracy NZ was backed by 0.7%. Leighton Baker’s former party, the New Conservatives, had 0.6%. In 2020, Te Kahika and Ross’s Advance NZ captured 1% of the overall vote.
It remains likely that the fringe right parties will have an impact on the campaign ahead as a disruptive, destabilising force, not least in their potential to feed disinformation into the mix. But the chances of any such group getting close to the 5% threshold required to make it to parliament without an electorate seat look vanishingly small.