Conspiracy theorists appear to be trying to build a movement in rural New Zealand, Byron Clark writes
Analysis: The innocuously named Agricultural Action Group (AAG) was founded on election night 2020 by Robert Wilson, Fred Roberts and Heather Meri Pennycook.
What do these three have in common? They all stood as candidates for Advance New Zealand, the political project of former National Party MP Jami Lee Ross and conspiracy theorist Billy Te Kahika. AAG is targeting rural New Zealanders with the same kind of conspiracy theories that Advance NZ became known for.
The trio subsequently resigned from Advance NZ to focus their efforts on the new organisation, with Pennycook carrying out some promotional work on the first episode of Counterspin Media – a New Zealand-based talk show that streams on GTV, the network founded by former Trump adviser Steve Bannon and billionaire Chinese dissident Guo Wengui. GTV is a significant source of fake news and misinformation, so much so that if you share a link to GTV on Facebook it will automatically be deleted and your account restricted.
After claiming climate change was “theoretical” and noting the group would be publishing information on their website showing it is “a farce”, Pennycook alleged there was a sinister motive behind environmental regulations.
“What’s the hidden agenda to decimate the agricultural industry? Stalin did it, look at your history. You want to bring in communism you take out farmers first, they’re often self-sufficient, they often have firearms.”
“They can mount resistance!” responds host Kelvyn Alp. Alp has a long history on the fringe of New Zealand politics and has occasionally gained mainstream attention, such as in 2002 when 20/20 profiled him as “a disaffected former soldier who claims he has his own army and is prepared to go into battle with the Government.”.
Counterspin has a small audience consisting mostly of people already committed to a conspiracy theorist world view, but AAG isn’t just organising on fringe social media platforms. The group has been hosting meetings throughout provincial New Zealand, at times attracting crowds of up to 200 people.
“Pretty early on there were some wild conspiracy theories being peddled…Having worked within government, frankly, that’s nonsense, but because there’s an underlying tension founded on legitimate policy concerns currently, it could be persuasive for some, which is unhelpful.”
Of course, not everyone who has attended a meeting has necessarily left as a convert to the group’s way of thinking, and there has been a growing backlash against the group in rural New Zealand. Andy Thompson, host of The Muster on the Hokonui radio station, home of rural news from Otago and Southland, has been scathing of the group on his show, decrying their “anti-climate change nonsense, Covid conspiracy nonsense, [and] anti-vax nonsense”.
Otago Federated Farmers president and former New Zealand First MP Mark Patterson, who attended an AAG meeting, told the Otago Daily Times the group was playing into rural residents’ genuine concerns in order to further its own agenda, without addressing the “real issues”.
“Pretty early on there were some wild conspiracy theories being peddled, regarding the United Nations’ Agenda 21, and that organisation’s leading of a shadowy global cabal dictating to our Government.
“Having worked within government, frankly, that’s nonsense, but because there’s an underlying tension founded on legitimate policy concerns currently, it could be persuasive for some, which is unhelpful.”
In the interest of balance the Otago Daily Times contacted the AAG for comment, and quoted Pennycook as saying: “Some of the facts we present can cause a cognitive dissonance because they sound so insane. That makes it easy for people, like Mr Patterson, to twist what we’re saying and label it as ‘conspiracy theory’.”
Clutha Mayor Bryan Cadogan told the Otago Daily Times that calls by AAG for people to “deregister” as tax-paying citizens and peacefully resist police intervention in activities on private property were “undermining to society”.
Sovereign Citizen movement
Talk of deregistering as taxpayers and resisting police on private property likely comes from the influence of the Sovereign Citizen movement, whose adherents believe they should decide which laws to obey and which to ignore, and don’t believe they should have to pay taxes.
While Sovereign Citizen ideas are particularly American (the Southern Poverty Law Center estimates there are about 300,000 sovereign citizens in the US) they get adapted for other countries they spread to. Earlier this year, a self-proclaimed sovereign citizen with links to Te Kahika’s Public Party, one of the complement parties of Advance New Zealand, refused a covid test in managed isolation and described herself as a political prisoner. Topics being discussed by Te Kahika on his current speaking tour include the “the reality of personal sovereignty”.
Someone heavily influenced by sovereign citizen ideas was the US cattle rancher Cliven Bundy. In 2014, after a 21-year legal battle over his refusal to pay fees for grazing his cattle on public land adjacent to his ranch, Bundy and his family ended up in an armed standoff with the Bureau of Land Management. The Bundys were supported by various militia groups as well as conspiracy theorist broadcaster Alex Jones, who turned up at the ranch with a film crew to provide sympathetic coverage on his show.
Listening to the rhetoric coming from the AAG could reasonably lead one to suspect that in the case of a rancher having an armed standoff with a government bureaucracy, it would be taking the side of the rancher – if not outright encouraging them.
In an opinion piece he wrote for the Southland Times after attending an AAG meeting, Cadogan wrote: “What I experienced was most definitely not what was expected and I believe as Mayor I have a civic obligation to bring my concerns to the public’s attention.
“What I witnessed in two of the speakers was a careful manipulation, taking those present from legitimate issues to extreme political agendas, and spicing things up along the way with calls that undermined the very fabric of our society, deriding virtually every institution that upholds law and order, and incite friction and disharmony.”
Federated Farmers national president Andrew Hoggard said there was a real risk of the agricultural sector being made out to look like “a bunch of fringe nutters”…That concern turned out to be well founded, with “Cindy→Stalin”, “Black utes matter”, and “Jacinda Kiwis do not want Communism!” among the slogans on display.
AAG threw their support behind the ‘Howl of a Protest’ that took place in July, organised by Groundswell. Groundswell co-founder Bryce McKenzie told The Spinoff that AAG was “involved in spreading the message” but not formally aligned with his own group.
“They say a lot of good things, it’s just some of the things [they say] that we probably stand a wee bit distant from,” McKenzie said, adding: “We actually prefer to not go too extreme.”
On the morning of the protest, the New Zealand Herald reported Federated Farmers national president Andrew Hoggard saying there was a real risk of the agricultural sector being made out to look like “a bunch of fringe nutters”, noting that a big concern was offensive signage being brought to the protests and doing more harm than good.
That concern turned out to be well founded, with “Cindy→Stalin”, “Black utes matter”, and “Jacinda Kiwis do not want Communism!” among the slogans on display.
Members of the anti-vaccine group Voices for Freedom, which like AAG was founded by a former Advance New Zealand candidate, turned up at the Auckland demonstration with signs advertising its website.
Bryce McKenzie told Newshub the signs were “definitely not” a fair representation of farmers’ views and said protest organisers were “really grateful for how well-behaved people were”.
Chris Miles, the organiser of the Hastings protest, had made a speech with rhetoric comparable to some of the more controversial placards, telling the crowd that New Zealand was on the brink of “being taken down a socialist plug hole”.
Miles went on to say it was “crazy” that the Government was “preying upon the very people who are the backbone of the economy” and that the country was “at a crossroads politically like it’s never been before”.
“Imagine trying to explain this to our fathers and grandfathers who fought in two world wars, many of them giving their lives, to ensure that their children and grandchildren would have freedom and a great life in what they know as God’s Own … If we aren’t careful we will end up like Zimbabwe or Venezuela.”
Other organisers and supporters appeared on a special episode of Counterspin covering the day of protest, including Rural Advocacy Network chairman Jamie McFadden and Grey District mayor Tania Gibson.
New viewers who tuned in to see interviews with McFadden and Gibson but kept watching would then see Alp claim the last election was rigged, with AAG co-founder Wilson agreeing.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that the election here was rigged, as it was in the US and we’re starting to see come out over there- y’know, AAG’s always been at the forefront of the information battle that’s going on in the rural sector, just as you guys are in the overall media sector,” Wilson said.
It should go without saying that this is an example of fake news – there is no evidence to suggest either the New Zealand or United States elections were rigged.
Wilson’s interview hits all the usual high notes of conspiratorial beliefs. “The saddest thing is most people don’t even realise they’re slaves, they have yet to wake up to that degree,” he said. “It’s coming and it’s happening, and we’re seeing it first hand with what we’re doing, but there’s a long way to go yet.”
Sue Grey, the leader of the Outdoors Party and a prominent anti-vaccine and anti-5G activist was the next guest to speak about the Groundswell event. She noted that “one of the things that amazed me was…a lot of people were talking not just about the rural issues but the hate speech [laws] and the just out of control draconian government that’s making people feel extremely uneasy”.
Grey went on to suggest the Government would borrow money from “Chinese banks” using water as collateral, before moving on to the topic of the Covid-19 vaccine, which Alp claims (without evidence) is being used to commit genocide.
People like Alp and Grey, and the individuals behind AAG have always existed on the margins of politics. Ideally they will stay on the margins, but being given tacit support from groups like Groundswell and politicians such as Gibson helps these ideas gain a foothold in mainstream political discourse.
If these ideas were to spread further and become popular, that would put New Zealand’s response to climate change – not to mention the Covid-19 pandemic – at risk.