A shadow is poisoning Middle-earth.
On the surface, New Zealand’s new government sounds like a progressive dream: a young, energetic prime minister reminiscent of Barack Obama or Justin Trudeau who not only discusses the importance of feminism but calls people out for misogynistic comments on the spot; ministers for climate change and child poverty reduction; and the fact that the heads of the three branches of government are all women.
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.
Led by veteran politician Winston Peters — who has made racist comments toward immigrants and people of Asian descent and Trumpian abuse of the press — New Zealand First has traditionally been an afterthought in New Zealand politics. That all changed this past September, when the two largest parties finished close enough in the general election that whichever party New Zealand First decided to enter a coalition with would control enough seats in New Zealand’s German-style MMP (mixed-member proportional) parliament to govern. In other words, a far-right party that received just seven percent of the vote had the power to decide who would rule.
If that wasn’t appalling enough, Peters and New Zealand First held the country for ransom, repeatedly delaying the announcement of their decision for several weeks as they extracted more and more concessions from suitors. When Peters finally declared on Oct. 19 that New Zealand First would go into a coalition with Ardern and her Labour Party, it was only because Ardern had kowtowed the most to his increasingly extreme demands.
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, the new minister for immigration has equated increased immigration with increased unemployment (while also failing to denounce his party’s claims that immigration is a factor in New Zealand having the highest rate of youth suicide in the developed world) and proposed a plan that would require people receiving welfare to work.
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. Threatening fliers have also appeared in public, calling on white people to “unify” in order to “preserve identity.”
All this flies in the face of Ardern and her “more compassionate” government’s outward progressiveness. But Peters — who took the roles of deputy prime minister and foreign minister as a condition of working with Ardern — and New Zealand First can end the coalition agreement, which would trigger the need for new elections. 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. Then, they can rule from the shadows by threatening to leave the government at any time and plunge the country into chaos when things don’t go their way. It’s a dangerous tactic that could prove brutally effective in other parliamentary systems like New Zealand’s if the far right is not confronted early for its bigotry, regardless of how marginal its support may seem.
If she truly wants New Zealand to be a more tolerant place for all and to set a worldwide example that hate is not acceptable, it would be best for Ardern to end her unholy alliance with New Zealand First and the far right, even if it meant she might not return as prime minister. As long as the far right has power, bigotry and hate will continue to fester in Middle-earth.
Ben Mack is a New Zealand-based columnist for the New Zealand Herald and associate editor of Villainesse.
Read Watkin’s response: No, New Zealand is not in the ‘poisonous grip’ of the far right.