Analysis: They’re beginning to register in the polls, but under criticism for policies seen as far-right and with only a week to go, do the New Conservatives really have a shot at making it to Parliament? Marc Daalder reports
The New Conservatives sure aren’t Colin Craig’s party anymore.
That’s one of the first things the party’s leader and Waimakariri candidate, Leighton Baker, wants to get across. While the old Conservative Party was a one-man band, this newer body is a grassroots political movement for democracy and family values, he says.
“The party is different because it’s based on a team approach. There’s no one person who’s controlling the whole thing.”
This is Baker’s fourth election with the party and his second as party leader – he took up the reins in January 2017, a year and a half after Craig resigned in disgrace over sexual harassment allegations.
Despite his long history with the party, Baker has struggled to get the New Conservatives to register above 2 percent in the polls, although he insists that internal polling has the party on 4.5 percent. His campaign has also been marred by repeated vandalism of party hoardings, allegations that a candidate lied about being a Cancer Society ambassador and policies that critics say are alt-right.
Getting over Craig
Under Craig, the Conservative Party was focused on social and family issues, with opposition to the anti-smacking bill kickstarting the party’s support ahead of the 2011 election. It fared well in its first two polls, reaching 2.85 percent in 2011 and 3.9 percent in 2014, but everything fell apart when the news broke of Craig’s alleged sexual harassment of former press secretary Rachel MacGregor.
Craig resigned and Baker, who had himself resigned as a board member just three months earlier, ended up as board chair. The leadership position remained empty while the party struggled to reconsolidate its base. Baker himself raised the possibility that the party might not contest the 2017 election or would have to change its name first.
In the end, he led the party – name unchanged – into electoral oblivion in September 2017. The Conservatives garnered just 6,253 votes – 15 times fewer than at the previous election and just 0.24 percent of the party vote. Two months later, the party changed its name to the New Conservatives.
That rebranding has come with a slight ideological shift as well, with the party focused more on culture wars issues – free speech, abortion, gun laws – that sound like they’ve come straight from the American right. But Joshua Tait, a historian and expert on conservatism, told Newsroom the New Conservatives’ politics are rooted in a sense of vulnerability about Western civilisation.
“The difference between the New Conservatives and most of our centre-right or right-wing spectrum is that totalising – although not necessarily coherent – world view that sees themselves pitched in an ideological battle against something that has all sorts of names, and I think none of them are particularly useful, but leftism, or progressivism, or marxism or cultural marxism,” he said.
“Now ACT has an ideological vision as well, but it’s a much more modern one – it’s a neoliberal outlook that’s quite distinct from the New Conservatives’ vision, which is predicated on an existential conflict between a religious Western civilisation and the threat of secular leftism. In the New Zealand context, it does seem quite out of the bounds of what we normally expect our conservative parties to look like.”
What does that look like in practice?
In part, it’s a rejection of what Tait says the New Conservatives might see as secular moral degeneracy. For the party faithful, that means one issue: abortion.
“The recent abortion law reform has shifted a lot of the socially conservative voters who were upset that National didn’t hold the line stronger against it, that New Zealand First went for it and ACT went for it and so on. So I think they’re looking for a more socially conservative option,” he said.
At the same time, however, he sees the party as less religiously-oriented than that of Colin Craig. It is instead much more focused on its own secular perception of Western civilisation – hence the references on the website not to Christianity but to Judeo-Christian heritage.
Paul Spoonley, a distinguished professor at Massey University and an expert on New Zealand’s extreme right, made a similar observation.
“There’s certainly a lot less of the evangelical and Christian elements, although they’re still present. There’s much more on rights and, in particular the idea that somehow rights to speech are being impinged and there are organisations which are restricting the rights of New Zealanders,” he said.
Indeed, the party has a number of policies addressing culture wars issues that few other parties seem to think are worth any focus.
In their Heritage Policy, the New Conservatives say, “Public statues and memorials to historic events and figures are an important part of our heritage and must be protected. New Conservative is the only party prepared to state a policy on this.”
That’s a response to discussions earlier this year in New Zealand (and perennially in the United States) about removing statues of colonisers, slave-owners and other historical figures who engaged in unsavoury acts. The party has also waded into debates about transgender rights and transphobia, insisting in its Gender Identity Policy that “there are two biological genders” and demanding the removal of “gender ideology” from educational resources like Mates & Dates.
Sharia Law and migrant pacts
At times, these policies veer into language reminiscent of far-right extremism. Parroting American Islamophobia, the party promises to “ensure there is no conflicting jurisdictional authority in New Zealand, such as aspects of Sharia Law”.
Baker told Newsroom he had seen no indication that anyone wanted to implement Sharia Law as an alternative to the secular justice system in New Zealand, but cited discredited reports of “no-go zones” where European law enforcement are purportedly unable to investigate crimes as a disturbing precedent.
“It’s preemptive. We’ve seen internationally where parts of Sharia Law were implemented,” he said. “All we’ve said is put a stake in the ground and said this is New Zealand. We’d love people to join New Zealand. People from all over the world come here, of all different belief systems, whether they’re Muslim or Hindu. We’re saying come in and join New Zealand, the culture we have in New Zealand, but don’t try and change us to what you have left behind. Just enjoy the different flavour we have here.”
The New Conservatives also want New Zealand to withdraw from the non-binding United Nations Global Compact for Migration.
Signatories to the agreement pledge to do more for migrant welfare but are not required to make any legislative or policy changes. Nonetheless, the innocuous document has become a target of far-right fever dreams about a wave of migration from developing countries. The March 15 terrorist opposed the agreement and referenced it in writing on one of his assault rifles, prompting the National Party to remove a petition against the pact form its website on the day the terror attack took place.
That left the New Conservatives as the only party still promising to pull New Zealand out of the agreement.
“This is something that our Government signed us up for without discussing that they were going to sign up for it,” Baker said. He claimed the Government only revealed it would sign the compact two weeks before doing so in late 2018, but New Zealand publicly signed up to a UN declaration in September 2016 committing it to work on the global agreement.
Spoonley said the New Conservatives are concerned about perceived threats to New Zealand’s sovereignty – yet another potential vector for the attack on the West, in Tait’s framing.
“There’s a deep suspicion of anything that is international and the UN epitomises that. And there’s often an explicit argument that those international organisations are working against New Zealand’s interests,” Spoonley said.
Can they make it?
But the party’s leaders aren’t the only issue for Spoonley.
“It’s not always the leadership of the New Conservatives that voices them, but as soon as you get anywhere near some of the meetings or the online comments, then you begin to see this QAnon and conspiracy material starting to appear. I’m really talking about the concern with free speech, vaccines, 5G, the UN. There’s quite a clear populist nationalist message which has conspiracies feeding it in various ways. I think they’ve found a constituency here which appears sympathetic to some of the fringe and sometimes the far-right views that have been circulating internationally.”
Baker dismisses all of this, calling it laughable.
“I laugh at it, actually. I think it’s bizarre. The reality is what we’ve stood up for is that families are really important, we believe in hard work, people being rewarded for effort, we believe in free choice, we believe in justice and democracy. I can’t see anywhere where that could be considered far-right,” he said.
For him, the party’s central policies are the ones that touch on family values and proposals to reform the way New Zealand operates so that it has fewer MPs and more decisions are made through referendums, including binding, citizen-initiated ones.
Whether they’ll have a chance to implement those policies is another question entirely. The party’s best showing since last election was in the latest Newshub/Reid Research poll, which had it on 2.1 percent. That’s still less than half of the votes the New Conservatives need if they want to be sending members to Wellington.
Baker insists the party still has a chance, saying the polls don’t reflect the enthusiasm he’s seen on the ground.
“I’ve been involved for about 10 years. I’ve never seen the amount of action that we’re seeing at the moment, right across New Zealand.”
He also pointed to the fact that the New Conservatives are one of just two parties (the other is Labour) to be running candidates in every electorate, including the Māori electorates. That’s despite the party wanting to abolish Māori electorates.
Other political experts aren’t so bullish about the party’s electoral chances.
“There’s always been maybe a 2 to 3 percent constituency for this sort of conservative Christian party,” Tait said.
“I think you’ve always had that type of voter group, probably primary evangelical or conservative Catholic, looking for a political party putting more emphasis on Christianity. And I know the New Conservatives tend to put it in a secularised Western civilisation language, but many of the voters are looking for a party that has explicit religious values in a way that National and certainly ACT or New Zealand First don’t.”
Jennifer Curtin is a professor of politics and Director of the Public Policy Institute at the University of Auckland, as well as an expert on minor party politics. She told Newsroom that New Zealand’s MMP system can only support a handful of political parties – tacking on a conservative minor party when the libertarian ACT is doing so well could be too much to sustain.
“How many parties can MMP in New Zealand sustain? The argument is that we can only have two parties on different spectrums. Around the centre, around the different ways of seeing a mixed economy versus a market economy, we know that for the most part Labour and National capture that. Then a party system like ours could theoretically sustain parties that voters identify with their postmaterialist issues. This might be where the Greens come in and potentially a party that’s based on ethnicity,” she said of research commissioned around the time the country moved to MMP.
“The argument is there’s only really room for one more party, just by nature of the votes, the number of votes, the number of electorates and the number of seats – and the way in which voters identify, I suppose.”
The New Conservatives also face a historical obstacle in that no party has ever entered Parliament without being led by an existing MP and having split from an existing party.
“No party ever has. There’s some historical hurdles we’ve got to overcome,” Baker acknowledges.
“There is definitely a cohort of Christian conservative votes out there in New Zealand and the first Conservative Party demonstrated that, by getting 3.9 percent,” Curtin said.
“That seems to have dissipated – where those votes have gone, I wouldn’t like to speculate. But the argument would be that, theoretically at least, our party system would only be able to sustain one of those parties, ACT, New Zealand First or the New Conservatives.”