A few weeks ago I devoted a post to an absurd article the Herald had run, by one of their “lifestyle columnists” (himself here on a work visa), Ben Mack. It was published a couple of days before New Zealand First chose to join Labour in a coalition government, supported by the Greens. Mack claimed that as a (temporary) immigrant, he was “terrified of Winston Peters”. It was an absurd article, debasing any sort of prospect of intelligent debate, and really unworthy of a serious media outlet – as the Herald still sometimes is.
But now he has, somehow, got a genuinely serious media outlet – the Washington Post no less – to run an article by him on “How the far-right is poisoning New Zealand”. No one in New Zealand is going to take it seriously, but some Americans – knowing pardonably little about New Zealand – might. If the article reflects poorly on Mack – but then he is a “lifestyle columnist” who has only been in New Zealand for a couple of years – that is nothing to what it says about one of the world’s better newspapers.
The article isn’t some considered analysis of that scattering of what might genunely be called “far-right” groups in New Zealand – the tiny National Front for example, whose small group of lawful protesters (and the rather larger group of “counter-protestors”) were recently in the news. No, instead we read that
A shadow is poisoning Middle-earth
But for all the excitement around Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her new government, the real power lies with the far right. And, more terrifying: The far right seized power by exploiting the very system meant to be a fairer version of democracy.
Little did you know. But now you do.
It is, apparently “appalling” that a small party that, in principle, could have supported either side into government (and has in the past), got to decide which bloc ended up forming a government. It isn’t clear why it is appallling: it seems a lot like MMP, which most New Zealanders (although not me) seem to like. PR systems are how most European countries elect Parliaments, and thus put together governing coalitions. It must seem strange to Americans, but it isn’t that hard to get your head round. And had the Greens been willing to deal with National, or Labour and National been willing to form a “grand coalition”, New Zealand First wouldn’t even have been in play. Parties made their choices, the voters made theirs, and on this occasion that left New Zealand First holding the decisive bloc of seats. And Mack also has a go at them for taking so long, apparently not aware of how slowly coalition negotiations proceeded this year in the Netherlands, and are still going on in Germany. It isn’t two months since the election.
But the pernicious influence of New Zealand First is already at work
The effects of the far right’s influence are already being felt. Amid pressure from New Zealand First, the government has vowed to slash immigration by tens of thousands by making it harder to obtain visas and requiring employers to prove they cannot find a qualified New Zealand citizen before hiring a non-citizen. They’ve also put forward legislation banning non-citizens from owning property,
But….but……. New Zealand First didn’t get any of its immigration policies (such as they were) adopted at all. The new government says it is adopting the centre-left Labour Party’s policy. And that ban on foreign purchases (of existing houses)? Well, it was supported – going into the election – by all three parties in the government, including the rather left-wing Greens.
It gets worse, US readers are told
Like American white supremacists in the age of Trump, bigots in New Zealand have also been emboldened by New Zealand First’s success into taking action beyond ranting on Internet message boards and social media. In late October, clashes erupted when white supremacists rallied in front of Parliament.
But apparently the National Front has a little rally every year. What changed this year was the actions of a group – led by two Green MPs – to break-up a lawful protest.
It is all pretty weird stuff. You might – as I did – read the Reserve Bank’s Monetary Policy Statement today, which lists the new government policies the Bank had specifically looked at. There were higher minimum wages, new state-house building programmes, increased government spending (and reversal of tax cuts) and a larger fiscal deficit. Oh, and the Labour Party’s modest promsed changes to immigration policy. This, according to Mack, is the “far-right” setting the agenda. He didn’t mention that the new government was going to reform the Reserve Bank Act to ensure that the central bank explicitly keeps an eye on keeping the labour market close to full employment. The far right at work no doubt. Because, you see
Put simply, while Ardern may be the public face, it’s the far right pulling the strings and continuing to hold the nation hostage.
What’s happened in New Zealand isn’t just horrifying because of the long-term implications of hate-mongers controlling the country, but also because it represents a blueprint that the far right can follow to seize power elsewhere.
Appealing to ethnically homogenous, overwhelmingly cisgender male voters with limited education and economic prospects who feel they’re being left behind in a changing world is nothing new for the far right. But what is new is its savvy at exploiting democracy by doubling down on these voters while mostly allowing larger political parties to attack each other on their own, thus positioning themselves as “kingmakers” who can demand concessions from those larger parties before carrying them into power.
As others have pointed out, like them or not, New Zealand First gets a larger share of its votes from Maori than many other parties. In fact, Peters himself is Maori.
And haven’t we been here before? As I noted in my earlier post
But – and here is where a bit of perspective and experience of New Zealand might have come in handy to Mr Mack – not usually that much [clout] at all. New Zealand First was in coalition with National in the mid 1990s – Winston Peters as Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer – and it was in partnership with Labour for a few years from 2005 – Winston Peters serving a Foreign Minister, and generally accepted as having done a reasonable job. And what changed? 1996 is a while ago now, but I can recall:
- a small increase in the inflation target, never subsequently reversed,
- free doctor’s visits for kids under six, never subsequently reversed, and
- a referendum on reform of New Zealand Superannuation, in which the cause Peters was advocating lost decisively.
Oh, and I think there was a Population Conference.
The 2005 to 2008 term was even less memorable, unless you were a Ministry of Foreign Affairs bureaucrat: their Minister secured them a great deal of additional money and the prospect of various new embassies.
I’m sure there was other stuff, but none of it was transformative.
New Zealand First’s vote shared peaked in the 1996 election. But the far-right is rampant – in control actually.
And looking through the Labour-New Zealand First agreement, quite what did New Zealand First secure? There were some ministerial jobs, they saw off the possibility of a water tax, they got a “regional development fund” which will be used (among other things) to plant lots and lots of trees. There were even more Police than Labour was promising, free driver training for secondary school students, a free health check for old people, and the possibility – no more – of some more capital for the state-owned bank. And not a jot on immigration policy.
You might like the new government’s policies, or you might not. You might like what NZ First specifically won, or you might not. But that coalition agreement doesn’t seem to offer any support for anyone wanting to claim that the “far-right” was somehow in control of New Zealand, or of the government. Indeed, if the (libertarian) right in New Zealand is celebrating anything in this government, it will be the referendum on personal use of cannabis, approval for medicinal cannabis use (Green causes) and the promise that the new government might free up onerous planning rules which drives house prices sky high (Labour policy). If there is a genuine “far right” in New Zealand, I struggle to see how they’d find anything to celebrate in the new government, with New Zealand First or not.
Quite how a quite newly-arrived American lifestyle columnist so misreads New Zealand is a bit of mystery. But how one of the world’s major media outlets, and serious newspapers, fell for this nonsense is a rather bigger puzzle. It might be the age of “fake news”, but generally serious newspapers are supposed to be guardians against it, not the purveyors of nonsense to the world.
UPDATE (Friday): The Post has now published a response by a New Zealand journalist.