Conspiracy theorists big losers in NZ election

Image via Lynn Grieveson at Newsroom.co.nz

By Byron Clark. Written for the Pandemic issue of Fightback magazine. Subscribe here.

One of New Zealand’s newest political parties has had a disappointing result in the election and its survival as an organisation is now looking uncertain. Blues musician Billy Te Kahika Junior founded the New Zealand Public Party after the viral success of his Facebook live videos, where he made claims about 5G mobile technology being a bio-engineered virus and that the United Nations being inspired by Satanic teachings.

Being too late to register with the electoral commission to be on the ballot this year, the party formed an alliance with Advance New Zealand, the political vehicle of disgraced former National Party MP Jami-Lee Ross. Ross withdrew from standing in his former electorate of Botany, hoping instead to enter parliament as a list candidate with co-leader Billy Te Kahika winning the Te Tai Tokerau seat, which Ross described him as “on track to win” in the lead up to the election.

On election night Te Kahika gained just one percent of the votes in the electorate, polling behind the candidate for the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party and besting only the New Conservative candidate and two independents. Even if he had won the seat Ross would not have joined him in parliament, as the total party vote for Advance New Zealand was just 28,434 votes, around 1% of the total. 

Victoria University’s New Zealand Social Media Study, which tracked misinformation spread by political parties on social media, found 31 per cent of Advance New Zealand’s posts on Facebook were “half-truths” (content that’s not completely false but still contains information that’s not fully accurate) while a further six per cent of posts were falsehoods. The Advertising Standards Authority ordered them to pull advertising that falsely claimed the government had made vaccines mandatory and two days before the election Facebook removed their page- which had approximately 33,000 followers- for repeatedly posting misinformation about Covid-19.

Traditional media was divided on how to report on Billy Te Kahika and Advance New Zealand, or to report on them at all. “I felt there was a good chance Billy TK would manipulate any interview platform to further push misinformation.” wrote Jack Tame, host of TVNZ’s Q+A programme, which did not cover the group. “You give him a hard time, and he says the media’s conspiring against him. You let him share his ideas and you run a serious risk of legitimising them amongst his followers.”

Stuff took a different approach, producing a forty-five minute documentary ‘False Prophet’ about Te Kahika, which detailed his alleged bullying and underpayment of people he’d worked with in the music industry and as well as inappropriate conduct toward women, as well as exploring the anti-Semitism that underpinns many of the conspiracy theories he was propagating. 

Following the election it was reported that during the campaign, high-ranking members of the Public Party had raised concerns that money collected by Te Kahika was unaccounted for and that contractors had not been paid. There was a bid to remove Te Kahika as leader, but Jami-Lee Ross opposed this as he saw Te Kahika as his only path back to parliament.

“He’s deeply flawed as we all are,” Ross said in a text message seen by Stuff “But we are better to work around those flaws to do right by the people he has given voice to. Taking him down hurts every single candidate who has believed, every single candidate and both of us.”

On October 25 Te Kahika emailed candidates stating “I believe it is time that the New Zealand Public Party (NZPP) breaks away from the alliance with Advance NZ and, with Reset NZ, reform back to the party we are meant to be” (Reset NZ was a small, unregistered party that also joined with NZPP). In a statement provided to the media, NZPP director Michael Stace was quoted as saying “NZPP is clear that its leader is not stepping down, and it is not severing its relationship with Advance NZ” noting that the party was merely becoming autonomous again after failing to enter parliament. A few weeks later however the split between the two parties appeared more acrimonious, with a messy dispute over money playing out in public. 

Ross told The New Zealand Herald that Advance would hold a special general meeting held early in 2021 and a reconstituted party, with a new nationwide structure, would continue in preparation for the 2023 election. This appears overly optimistic on Ross’s part as it’s widely believed his political career is now over. In a now famous interview, Newshub’s Tova O’Brian told him they wouldn’t be inviting him on the programme again, after accusing him of “whipping up fear and hysteria among vulnerable communities” and cutting him off with “I don’t want to hear any of that rubbish” when he tried to claim COVID-19’s fatality rate is similar to that  seasonal flu (something experts have disproven).

Meanwhile Billy Te Kahika has suggested the election was rigged, claiming that hundreds of thousands of votes had either been disqualified or not counted. (The Electoral Commission has rejected this, saying the process was transparent and robust.) With the party banned from Facebook he has used his ‘Public Figure’ page to encourage supporters to follow him to the small social media site MeWe where he is unlikely to ever regain the same reach he had on Facebook. 

We may not have seen the last of the New Zealand Public Party however, while failing to achieve representation in parliament the hundreds (possibly thousands) of people who attended rallies and town-hall style meetings held by the group can’t be written off as insignificant. Speaking with Newsroom, The University of Kent’s Karen Douglas said the outcome of the 2020 election did not mean conspiracy theorists would not be successful in the future, or that they would die out.

“As societal situations fluctuate, conspiracy theories may become more appealing again.”

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