How the far right is poisoning New Zealand is an opinion piece in the Washington Post, and I suspect most who read it and are not familiar with the politics of Aotearoa New Zealand will reach the conclusion headlined in the piece.
But do the “facts” used to support the headline stack up?
First of all, what is meant by the far right? I don’t think we’ll all completely agree what is meant by far right in politics, but this definition from Wikipedia seems reasonable:
Far-right politics is a term used to describe politics further on the right of the left-right spectrum than the standard political right, particularly in terms of more extreme nationalist, and nativist ideologies, as well as authoritarian tendencies.
The term is often associated with Nazism, neo-Nazism, fascism, neo-fascism and other ideologies or organizations that feature extreme nationalist, chauvinist, xenophobic, racist or reactionary views. These can lead to oppression and violence against groups of people based on their supposed inferiority, or their perceived threat to the nation, state or ultraconservative traditional social institutions.
With that out of the way, let’s look at some at the claims made.
New Zealand First has traditionally been an afterthought in New Zealand politics. Really? The New Zealand First Party has been a coalition partner in 3 of the last 4 governments. Its leader, Winston Peters has held the post of Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs in two previous administrations, and held the role of Treasurer in one.
And no matter what one’s of opinion of Peters might be (and mine are not very favourable), those under forty are unlikely to have known a time where he hasn’t been in the headlines. There’s no doubt that he’s a populist, cares little for political correctness, enjoys controversy and being in the spotlight. Peters formed NZ First in 1993 after resigning from the National Party, and has been its leader ever since. The party and Peters are so closely intertwined, that the two names are frequently used interchangeably. Being an afterthought in NZ politics? Absolutely not.
Mack then stated “a far-right party that received just seven percent of the vote had the power to decide who would rule“. Two problems here: far right and power.
New Zealand First policies do not fit with the definition of far right as defined above. Most political commentators here call the party centrist, fitting somewhere between the two major parties: National (centre right) and Labour (centre left). To put the left/right divide in NZ into perspective, the centre right here is further left than the centre left in the USA.The left wing of the American Democrat party would be in alignment with the NZ National party.
Peters is guilty of making racist comments in the past, although never when in government, and I think he would qualify as a bit racist, but he has shown no animosity towards immigrants and ethnic groups already in NZ. The party is anti immigration, although they support an increase in the number of refugees being admitted to the country. The party is socially conservative and Peters voted against the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the 1980s, civil unions in 2005 and marriage equality in 2013, but as far as I can see, neither the party nor Peters has advocated repeals of the legislation. At one time he and the party campaigned for a repeal of the so called “anti-smacking” legislation, but that seems to be off the radar for the time being.
In many ways Peters is an enigma: Highly combative yet liked and respected by political allies and foes alike. I’m not fond of his style, nor many of the policies held by NZ First, but it really does take a vivid imagination to paint either as being far right.
If one does the maths, there were some 15 different possible scenarios that could have been played out in the formation of a stable government after the September elections. Some, admittedly, were unlikely to happen but there were a number of scenarios that could have formed stable governments without the involvement of NZ First. To claim that a party with 7% of the popular vote had the power to decide who would rule, is a failure to understand the nature of negotiation. Labour, the greens and NZ First reached an agreement to form a viable government. Let’s see: Labour 36.9% + NZ First 7.2% + Greens 6.3% = 50.4%. I think that’s sufficient public support to give them the right to form a government. National did not have a moral right to form a government simply because it had 44.4% of the popular vote.
Mack claims that Peters and NZ First held the country to ransom by delaying a decision for weeks while making increasingly extreme demands. Huh? Negotiations started the day after the final vote was declared, and were concluded ten days later. Given that any agreement had to be ratified by members of three political parties (four if you include the negotiations between National and NZ First that were going on at the same time), it was quite an achievement to conclude negotiations in less than two weeks.
And what were the extreme demands that apparently Ardern had kowtowed to? Slashed immigration? A plank In labour’s election platform was the reduction in the net migration gain, currently running at over 70,000 per year, which is placing a strain on housing stock and infrastructure. The section of the coalition agreement on immigration starts with “As per Labour’s policy…” So no far right plan imposed on the new government.
Mack also claims they’ve also put forward legislation banning non-citizens from owning property. Ah, no they haven’t. The proposal is to prevent overseas investors from purchasing and speculating in existing housing stock. There will be no restrictions on non-citizens who reside here from doing so. And foreign investors will still be able to build and own new housing stock. This has been Labour policy since 2013.
So what has NZ First achieved? An increase of the minimum wage to $20 per hour by 2020. This is about $2 more than labour had proposed. The biggest “concession” gained by Peters is funding of regional development to the tune of 10 billion dollars over 10 years. There’s also an agreement to review the existing Super Gold Card with the possibility of replacing it with a new generation Super Gold Card. If these are extreme demands from the far right, I’ll eat my hat.
As for the white supremacists clashes outside Parliament: Six National Front members were holding an annual rally on the steps of parliament when they were glitter bombed and man-handled by several hundred anti-racism protesters. If this is a sign of increased support for far right ideals, what should I make of 60,000 who took part in a far right rally in Poland?
When we look at the new Labour NZ First government, it must be noted that 41% of the executive are Māori or Polynesian, and within the combined caucuses of Labour and the Greens, 50% are women. Hardly a good sign for white supremacists and bigotry.
Before I close this rant over the Washington Post’s appalling journalism, I need to point out that governance agreements between parties in New Zealand tend to form very loose coalitions. To maintain party distinctiveness, the agreements have “agree to disagree” clauses. These allow parties in government to vote against each other on matters important to them.
An example of this is likely to arise when the TPP free trade treaty comes up for ratification in Parliament. Both NZ First and the Greens oppose the treaty and will most likely vote against it. This will not be a threat to the government due to the agree to disagree arrangements. In this particular case, the government will be able to rely on support from National, but there will be other occasions where it will be unable to raise the support necessary to pass legislation, even with major concessions to other parties. However, such events are very unlikely to bring down a government.
If you’d like to know more on how our novel arrangements for multi-party governance is developing in New Zealand, you might like to read the PDF document MMP and the Constitution published by the Victoria University Faculty of Law. It’s a little old, being published in 2009, but it does illustrate how pragmatism rather than ideology influences how the country is governed.
Sorry Ben Mack, but if New Zealand is being poisoned by the far right, then the rest of the world must be in its final death throes.