Good morning and welcome to The Bulletin. In today’s edition: Exploring the rapid rise of Billy TK’s NZ Public Party, report finds senior military officers misled ministers over Operation Burnham, and Lake Taupō water monitoring to be led by iwi.
Within the space of a few months, Billy Te Kahika Jr has gone from being a relatively obscure blues musician, to becoming a politician deemed important enough to bother fact-checking. The alert came in from international news service AFP on Friday, who will be running fact-checking services over the course of the election campaign. The particular claim made by the NZ Public Party leader was that the military had been authorised to remove people from their homes to enforce Covid-19 restrictions, and to be perfectly clear, that is not true. But the huge spread of the facebook post in which the false claim was made was part of the reason why it was fact-checked.
It highlights one of the serious issues that everyone who covers Te Kahika and the merged Advance NZ/NZ Public Party will have to grapple with. Te Kahika holds many views which would accurately be described as conspiracy theories on a range of subjects, with the unifying idea between them all being the belief that Covid-19 is being used by international organisations and governments to strip the public of their civil liberties. Stuff’s Charlie Mitchell wrote an excellent feature over the weekend going through the wider belief system. The problem is, a claim like the one debunked by the AFP was made as a point of fact, and can therefore be disproven as such. But that doesn’t necessarily apply to a theory or belief in the same way – for example, the party’s position of being distrustful of the motivations behind vaccination campaigns. You can’t really disprove an opinion, because by definition it is subjective, even if the scientific consensus on the topic runs against them.
The wider movement didn’t come from nowhere, and nor did it go entirely unnoticed as it was building up. Local papers like the Gisborne Herald reported on packed public meetings held around the country. Closely adjacent protest events, like those that took place at the Auckland Viaduct because of a conspiracy theory about superyachts and child trafficking, were reported on by The Spinoff’s Josie Adams. But there has been a significant shift over the past week especially in terms of nationwide mainstream media coverage, in large part because of the merger event held with Advance NZ and former National MP Jami-Lee Ross.
On that merger, there has been little further movement as yet in terms of other small parties being brought into the fold. And a particularly revealing story by Stuff’s Andrea Vance came out over the weekend, in which Outdoors Party co-leader Sue Grey alleged that she had been the subject of a targeted harassment campaign by Public Party supporters, because she and co-leader Alan Simmons had refused to merge with them. Te Kahika denies directing or instigating any of that, and asked his supporters to stop. But the messages sent to Grey speak to a growing confidence among those in that political space that the Public Party is now the dominant faction, with the sort of momentum for conspiracy theories that hasn’t been seen in years.
Does all of this mean Billy Te Kahika could make it into parliament? It still seems overwhelmingly unlikely. As Ben Thomas and Annabelle Lee-Mather pointed out near the end of the recent Gone By Lunchtime episode, there is likely to be quite a hard electoral ceiling on parties with these sorts of views, and Lee-Mather in particular said that as things stand, Te Kahika has basically no chance of winning the Te Tai Tokerau electorate that he is running in. Te Kahika placed 6th in the preferred PM stakes of the recent One News Colmar-Brunton poll, even if it was with only 0.7% support. But to be honest, I’m not sure if the upcoming election is really the most important point.
Right now overseas, we’re seeing the effects of significant swathes of society losing all faith and trust in governments and scientific experts. The Covid-19 outbreak in the US has seen cases go through the roof, in part because many Americans refuse to wear face masks. And in Berlin over the weekend, nearly 20,000 Germans marched against Covid-19 measures, in a protest that included elements of the extreme far right. Regardless of what happens in the election, the genie cannot necessarily be put back in the bottle once it is out.
An exciting development for The Spinoff: We’ve now got merch for sale! You can check out everything we’ve got on offer here, but among other things we’ve got tea towels, pens, coffee cups, and T-shirts for sale. You can also buy copies of The Spinoff Book, which we released at the end of last year, featuring dozens of the best pieces of writing to appear on the site over our first five years.
Yes, I realise the irony of placing this story immediately after a long discussion of conspiracy theories, given the vitriol that was directed at those who first brought it to public attention. But the inquiry into Operation Burnham – the SAS raid in Afghanistan that killed several villagers and a child – has found that senior military officers subverted the system of civilian oversight by misleading their minister, and by extension the public. Justin Giovannetti has covered the inquiry report release, which cleared the soldiers themselves of acting unlawfully. Writing on The Spinoff, Amnesty International’s Meg de Ronde laments that it took such brave and dogged work from journalists Jon Stephenson and Nicky Hager to bring the story to light.
The Waikato Regional Council will cede Lake Taupō water quality monitoring to the Tūwharetoa Māori Trust Board, in what is a significant first for local government. Radio NZ reports that never before has a regional council officially transferred some of its functions to an iwi group. The move is being made partly as a bid to localise the work more, and partly to recognise the ancestral connection between the lake and Ngāti Tūwharetoa.
A majority of New Zealanders are in favour of making every returning NZer pay for managed isolation, reports One News. The wide margin of opinion came in a Colmar Brunton survey, and after the government announced a limited payment regime. On the topic, Jai Breitnauer has issued a call for compassion in the discussion, with some in the limited charging categories now unlikely to be able to see family for a long time as a result.
Cases of travellers from New Zealand who later tested positive for Covid-19 in Korea and Australia are currently being investigated. Writing on The Spinoff, Dr Siouxsie Wiles explains what the four potential scenarios are in these cases, from the most innocuous – false positive tests – to the most serious scenario that they caught the virus in New Zealand. Regardless, Dr Wiles advice is clear – “we need to go back to being a bit more vigilant. So, wash your hands, stay home if you are sick and keep track of where you go and who you see.”
It appears that the proposed new international airport for Tarras in the South Island isn’t getting any more popular with locals. Crux went along to a public meeting on the proposal, at which one organiser was quoted as saying there was 98% opposition – with the other 2% still making up their minds. One aspect of the story that was really interesting was the clear view from Christchurch International Airport Ltd that it would be better for them to avoid public meetings – not out of not wanting to hear the views of the people as such, but because of the group dynamics that can take place in small, tight-knit places, which can serve to make opposition more vociferous.
From our partners: The story of rally driver Hayden Paddon is one of extraordinary determination coming up against barriers, tragedy and terrible luck. Contributing writer George Driver spoke to Paddon about the challenges he has faced to get into the highest echelon of motorsport, and why he believes that an electric rally car will soon outrace the internal combustion engine.
A bit of housekeeping: If you’re a Spinoff Member and didn’t see the message on Friday, the Bulletin World Weekly is going on hiatus over the election campaign period. Obviously there’s going to be a lot of domestic news going on, and we’ll try and slot a bit more world news into The Bulletin, which will still continue as normal. There are going to be some very exciting election coverage projects for both the whole site and me personally, which I can tell you all about in the next couple of days.
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Right now on The Spinoff: There’s a frankly ridiculous list of great stories worth sharing, so this is going to be a bit long today. We’ll start with society and politics – Michelle Langstone sat down with the new minister for everything Megan Woods to talk about what drives her. Indigenous human rights experts Tina Ngata, Dr Arama Rata and Dilwin Santos outline the foundations of racism in Aotearoa, and the structural changes needed. George Andrews looks into a phrase the current PM is frequently borrowing from former PM Norman Kirk at the moment, and finds it’s not actually what he said at all. Jonathan Barrett argues the case for a tax on inherited wealth to address entrenched inequality. Epidemiologist Adrian Esterman explains how the state of emergency in Victoria came to be, and what it will look like.
In local politics: Josie Adams covers a wild battle over berms between a cafe, Auckland Council, Auckland Transport, and the Waitematā local board. Justin Latif looks at the five local boards around South Auckland, and how they want to transform their areas.
And in just other great reads: Phil Taylor writes about his unlikely friendship with Dan Dudson, a prolific burglar who liked sending long, handwritten letters to the detectives busy trying to pin him down. Alice Webb-Liddall teaches you how to get the most out of op-shopping. And an anonymous bookseller lifts the lid on the weirdest and most aggravating things about the job – and the customers.
For a feature today, a philosophical and meandering discussion of the value of historical awareness in understanding the present moment. This essay from The Point magazine is written by a journalist and historian who has spent a lot of time in the north of Canada and Alaska, learning from Indigenous people about what contact with the outside world has meant for them. When Covid-19 hit, the lessons were stark. Here’s an excerpt:
A colleague gently chided me for paranoia. The first shelter-in-place order in the United States was three weeks in the future; officially, everything was fine. But I kept thinking of Alaska’s orphanages, all the beds full after 1918. It was not special prescience on my part. The evidence was not lacking, as March neared, from epidemiologists and journalists reporting from Wuhan and Italy. The New York Times made open comparisons to the Spanish flu.
Elders I know in the Arctic took in COVID-19 with a store of expertise so often dismissed, but they know what an epidemic is, and who brings it, and who is most likely to die from it. What we all shared was an informed imagination, the ability to conceive that much of what was normal—staying in hotels, shaking hands, air travel, open libraries—was provisional. An act of conjuring bounded by shards of what was known.
Accusations around a culture of toxicity and abuse have been levelled at the sport of gymnastics over the weekend. Both Stuff and the NZ Herald broke significant stories, with a particular emphasis in both on how children end up being the victims of that. In the story by Stuff’s Zoe George, some extreme instances of fat shaming and psychological manipulation follows young women in particular throughout the sport, from junior to elite level. And in the story by the NZ Herald’s Dylan Cleaver, the focus is on one prestigious club, in which such treatment is levelled against girls as young as eight. There are now calls being made for an independent inquiry.
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The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.