The final act in this week’s protest on the lawns of parliament was the announcement by Destiny Church leader Brian Tamaki of a new political party. Perhaps this was the whole point of the event, as it was never entirely clear what the protest was actually against in the first place.
According to Tamaki, the proposed Freedoms NZ party (which has yet to be formally registered) would be a coalition of three existing fringe parties: the New Nation Party (which is keen to leave the United Nations), Vision NZ (which promotes the idea “Kiwis will once again be First, no longer playing the runner up to immigrants or refugees”), and the anti-5G Outdoors and Freedom Party.
Given the fractious nature of extreme-right politics, it was perhaps not surprising when the last of that triumvirate announced it had not agreed to any alliance. But tempting though it might be to dismiss the latest attempt by extremists to take their place in the very institutions they publicly denounce, there are important reasons we should not be complacent.
While extremist parties have historically struggled at general elections in New Zealand, the political landscape has altered significantly in the past two years. Recent polls are now registering support for those on the extreme right.
It is true this support is fragmented across small parties, which have a terrible track record of cooperation. And at this point none is close to the 5% threshold (or single constituency seat) required to secure a place in parliament. But even if it seems unlikely Tamaki will be able to persuade other prominent figures on the right to hand their own platforms to him, it won’t be for lack of effort.
More importantly, by refusing to rule out working with them in the next parliament, National Party leader Christopher Luxon has potentially given Tamaki and his fellow travellers a sniff of credibility.
Luxon’s equivocation is slightly mysterious. Tamaki has said he believes COVID was the work of Satan and that Christians would be protected from the virus. He has compared life in Auckland under lockdown with concentration camps. And his views on migrants, family values and the place of women in public life have seen him compared with Hungary’s autocratic leader Viktor Orban.
It’s hard to imagine this sitting comfortably with at least some of Luxon’s own caucus colleagues – particularly its women MPs.
And while it might also be easy to agree with Luxon that fringe parties have little chance of clearing electoral thresholds, this also minimises the threat such movements pose to the fabric of liberal democracy in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Lessons from Europe
There are two lessons about the influence of right wing populists in other countries that should be heeded.
The first is that it is reckless to glibly assume such parties cannot enjoy electoral success. In the 1980s, no European government required the support of populists to take or remain in office. But during this century, as many as 11 European governments have relied for their existence on coalition with right wing populist parties.
Moreover, once the dust had settled on the 2019 European Parliament elections, the populist/right-wing nationalist bloc held 112 (15%) of the 751 seats.
The term “bloc” suggests a degree of ideological, strategic and policy coherence that doesn’t necessarily characterise Europe’s populists. But that shouldn’t obscure the fact they are emphatically there.
What’s more, populists do not need to be in office to have an impact. They can exert significant influence indirectly in a number of ways: by occupying the news cycle (thereby securing public visibility), by shaping the political agenda, by pushing mainstream parties to the right, and by moulding the language with which politics is transacted.
Rise of the far right
In the United Kingdom, the influence of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party on the Conservative Party’s sharp tilt to the right in recent times is just one example.
And Boris Johnson’s decision to prorogue parliament to force through a “no deal” Brexit, while unsuccessful, was widely seen as a tactic to bring back voters who had deserted the Tories at the European elections.
Not so many years ago people laughed at the idea that extreme right populists could win parliamentary seats. No one’s laughing any more. In many parts of the world, populist parties are no longer constitutional oddities – they are institutionalised features of party politics and acceptable partners in government.
By refusing categorically to rule out a political accommodation with Tamaki and his followers, Luxon is keeping alive the possibility – however faint – this may also come to pass in New Zealand. Until we hear otherwise, not ruling them out means they could be ruled in.
This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Richard Shaw, Massey University.
Richard Shaw does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.