A Fractured Front: the Fall of NZ’s Unified Right Wing

The right wing in Aotearoa has always been very good at falling in line behind a single party. Where the left has typically been split between the moderate Labour Party and a social democratic alternative, (see Alliance or the Green Party) by and large right wingers of all shades have until this year been a unified block of National voters.

Following National’s defeat in 2017 the right has seen an unprecedented splintering. After a series of new leaders following Bill English’s failed campaign, the National Party has been fairly rudderless. As a result, smaller, previously fringe parties have capitalised on this opportunity and seen a surprising spike in popularity.

Summary of poll results for parties that received less than 10% of the party vote in the 2017 election

ACT, a far right ‘libertarian’ party and the primary beneficiary of this splintering, have seen their projected vote share increase by 1600%: 8% in a recent poll – up from 0.5% at the last election. This puts them over the 5% threshold to enter parliament on party vote alone – 8% would see them get 10 seats in parliament. Similarly, the New Conservative Party peaked at 1.6% in mid September, impressive considering how wildly reactionary and religion-informed their manifesto is.

National, now under Judith Collins, is facing a real crisis. Their chances of forming a government following this election are slim to none. Even if they do manage to form one it would have to be in a coalition with ACT, a serious blow to the party’s status as undisputed leader of the right. 

Ms. Collins’ career before and after entering politics has been relatively normal for a right wing politician – she worked as a lawyer specialising in employment, property, commercial, and tax law – helping capital skirt the law her whole life. Recently, Collins has led the charge in a new wave of anti-communist rhetoric. When asked her opinion on ‘meat free Mondays’ she said “I’m not going to tell people when they can eat their meat – I’m not into communism”. Injecting anti-communism into completely unrelated topics is the hallmark of this modern resurgence of McCarthyist thinking. Collins’ comments echo Trump (a man she has described as “better than any of the other presidents”) and his assertions that Joe Biden is a vessel for “wild-eyed Marxists”. 

Collins’ leadership is further compromised by her history of scandal as a minister under past National Governments: from her Oravida conflict-of-interest scandal in 2014 to her Malthusian comments regarding climate change in 2018. It seems that despite rotating through 3 different leaders in less than a year, the National Party is incapable of producing one that can win an election.

Leadership isn’t the only field in which National has recently proven their ineptitude. The party has, in the last 8 months, shown itself to be ill-equipped to handle the COVID-19 crisis that NZ has done a fairly effective job of managing so far. Their solution to the health and economic crisis facing the country? Attacks on the welfare system and feverish calls to introduce UK-style austerity measures. Consecutive National governments have irreparably harmed the lives of working people, with privatisations, tax cuts for the wealthy, and the strengthening of ties with the US as their primary agenda of the last three decades. They are – simply put – the running dog of NZ’s (and, indeed, the globe’s) largest corporations and wealthiest capitalists.

ACT, having just one seat in parliament for the last decade, has been on the fringe of politics since their founding in 1994. A far right ‘libertarian’ party, they propose the lowering of minimum wage, abolition of hate speech laws, removal of Māori seats in parliament and a reversal of gun control legislation passed following the 2019 Christchurch mass shooting just to name a few of their policies. This style of ‘anti-government’ politics has so far largely been confined to the United States – ‘big government’ being the watchword of the Republican Party for the decades. In keeping with this US tradition, ACT only opposes a ‘big government’ when it comes to economic policy. Expanding our cooperation with Five Eyes and escalating the war on China aligns perfectly with the interests of the national and international bourgeoisie, after all. The party has dedicated its entire existence to furthering the class interests of the NZ’s wealthiest at the expense of the workers. Its rise from the bloated carcass of National should come as no surprise.

The New Conservative Party, on the other hand, are a relatively new party with a much more ‘traditional’ set of policies. The party was founded in 2011 as simply ‘the Conservative Party’. In the 2011 election the party, despite its meagre size, spent $1.88 million on their campaign – the second most of any party in that election. Most of the funding came from Conservative Party leader, building management tycoon and multi-millionaire, Colin Craig. In spite of this, the Conservatives received only 2.65% of the party vote share and weren’t able to enter parliament. Their vote share went up in 2014, to 3.97%, then plummeted in 2017 to 0.24%. This prompted a complete rebrand of the party with Leighton Baker, a residential and commercial building magnate, taking on the party leadership and the prefix ‘New’ being added to the party’s name.

In keeping with their name, the New Conservatives stand for a return to ‘Judeo-Christian values’ in New Zealand. In the opinion of this author, the phrase ‘Judeo-Christian values’ is a rather oblique way of saying ‘reactionary and racist views’. Baker claims that the party is simply ‘centrist and anti-communist’ but as history (and indeed, their manifesto) has shown to be true – scratch an anti-communist and a racist bleeds. The party, of course, follows the far right trend of the Hobson’s Pledge approach to anti-Māori politics – they support the removal of Māori seats in parliament. What is shocking, however, are the rest of their social policies – with highlights including repealing the Anti-Smacking Law and the forced rehousing of single mothers into “residential accommodation with a suitably trained/experienced couple as hosts”. This policy, reminiscent of dystopian fiction rather than modern welfare practices, includes a proviso that effectively bars the mothers from dating. In addition to this, their economic policy will remove ‘red tape’ from primary industries (health and safety guidelines and environmental controls) as well as abandoning the Paris Climate Accords, Emissions Trading Scheme and Zero Carbon Bill – a non-binding agreement and two policies that do very little but subsidise the private sector. The vitriol these policies are met with aren’t the result of genuine criticisms, but posturing and dog whistles that deny climate change itself.

The New Conservatives are unlikely to achieve the threshold of 5% required to enter parliament, but their growth as a result of National’s collapse has revealed a far more openly reactionary and hostile undercurrent on NZ’s right wing. Hector McLachlan covered the party and its links to Fascism more in his article on the subject.

This splintering of right wing electoral forces following National’s slump is fascinating and will likely see a more divided right wing for this election at the very least. Whether the right will regroup and return to their unified approach of years gone by, or if this is the last gasp of reactionaries in Aotearoa as the Overton window shifts past them remains to be seen. Pay close attention to right wing rhetoric over the next few months and remember Georgi Dimitrov’s call to action in his address to the Seventh World Congress of the Communist International in 1935:

“Fascism will not collapse automatically. Only the revolutionary activity of the working class can help to take advantage of the conflicts which inevitably arise within the bourgeois camp”