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Will the growth of polarisation, far-right support and belief in “conspiracy” theories in Western democracies spread here? Some of these fears arose during New Zealand’s election campaign.
Billy Te Kahika jun (New Zealand Public Party) and Jami-Lee Ross and their new joint Advance Party were at the forefront of these concerns. Mr Te Kahika spouted utterly implausible conspiracy theories about 5G, the United Nations and Covid-19. One candidate even said the Lake Ohau fires were caused by a direct energy weapon.
Yet, Mr Te Kahika’s website drew four million views over two months. His public meetings were popular and enthusiastically supported. Advance New Zealand brought out crowds to marches protesting against lockdowns.
It was largely a relief, then, when Advance NZ managed just 0.9% of the vote on election night, a long way from the 5% MMP threshold to win Parliamentary seats, even if the nearly 21,000 votes received is not insignificant. Mr Te Kahika, meanwhile, fell well short of an electorate seat, winning just under 1000 votes in Te Tai Tokerau.
Mr Te Kahika has since announced his NZ Public Party is in effect splitting with Mr Ross. That, fortunately, leaves the deplorable Mr Ross on a limb with minimal backing.
A concern remains, however, about the number of fringe voters floating around. The New Conservatives (1.5%) could well include a small proportion who believe in the utterly implausible and who reject mainstream science. Both New Zealand First (2.7%) and Act New Zealand (8%) will likely have a cadre in this category.
If these bits and pieces could be combined, under a charismatic leader with more credibility than Mr Te Kahika, the 5% threshold could receive a serious nudge. Mind you, corralling such independent and dogged spirits could be a nightmare.
It was hard enough for the "Christian" parties, although the Christian Coalition, in fact, reached 4.33% in 1996. It then split between the more liberal Christian Democrats (later Future New Zealand) and the hardline Christian Heritage Party, under the later convicted rapist Graham Capill.
It has been argued Winston Peters was effective in pulling many of the anti-establishment and often grumpy voters with his policies on the likes of immigration, law and order and race. He talked the talk but did not deliver and, as such, is being seen by some as a useful democracy safety valve. Where will those voters go now?
The United States has seen a leader with presence hijack one of the two major parties and accelerate stark polarisation of voting, culture and society. While President Donald Trump might be a narcissistic liar, he has tapped deep veins in American anxieties.
Mercifully, so far at least, New Zealand is on a different path, despite the way social media echo chambers accentuate conspiracies.
Promising, for now, is the absence of that sharp polarisation. The ongoing University of Auckland Attitudes and Values Study has detected only a small increase, although its findings on rising scepticism about vaccination is disturbing.
While Act’s level of support is intriguing, the party does not fit the racist, reactionary mould of the far-right in Europe. It is liberal on most social issues, including, of course, the End of Life Choice Act.
New Zealand is, mostly, being spared the fears and alienation that propelled so many to vote for Mr Trump or for Brexit. Conspiracy theories have failed to make too much headway and our society remains relatively unified and cohesive.
Long may we, while tolerant of differing attitudes, remain relatively inoculated against dangerous conspiracy theories. Long may New Zealand stay free of destructive division.