With the demise of Winston Peters and his NZ First Party, the New Zealand Right is in the market for a replacement “Drummer”. To say that the political merchandise currently on offer is shoddy would be an understatement. The manifestoes of the New Conservatives, Advance New Zealand, The Public Party and Heartland New Zealand are too cramped, and their leaders too lacking in talent, to serve as any sort of replacement for Peters and NZ First. For the time being, therefore, right-wing anger and resentment will seek to find expression in the National Party and Act – vessels too old and weak for wine as new and strong as theirs.
That said, it is difficult to see a radical right-wing party built from scratch achieving very much very soon. For a start, who would lead it? It is equally difficult to see the next Winston Peters in the latest intake of MPs. If there is a truly dangerous man or woman among them, then these qualities have been kept exceptionally well hidden.
David Seymour has performed admirably, it is true, but for a good part of the last term he was essentially pushing on an open door. National was too divided, too conflicted, to offer a credible alternative to Jacinda Ardern’s kindly populism. This allowed Seymour to move Act into the unoccupied political space. Holding that space, however, should National ever recover its mojo, will be a much harder task. Historically, Act’s success tends to be inversely proportional to National’s and, hence, a reflection of the Right’s overall weakness.
Could National’s leader, Judith Collins, morph into the long-awaited Drummer in the way her predecessor, Rob Muldoon, did between August 1974 and November 1975? The answer is: No.
There just isn’t enough of Judith Collins: intellectually, culturally or performatively; to become New Zealand’s next Drummer. She possesses neither Muldoon’s ear, nor his stomach. Muldoon “heard” the anxieties and resentments of “ordinary” New Zealanders more clearly than anyone except Norman Kirk – the man who had the good grace to die just weeks after Muldoon became National’s leader. More significantly, “Piggy” Muldoon had ample stomach for the political brutality required to transform the electorate’s anxiety and fear into votes. It helped, of course, that he was an intellectually formidable politician who despised “intellectuals”. That always plays well with “ordinary blokes”.
If the Drummer is not to be found in Act or National, then the Right will have to go looking for him elsewhere. (That the Drummer might be female is, of course, possible, but given the nature of right-wing Kiwi culture, unlikely.)
The monied men of the Right will not find him among the ranks of the ideologically compliant. The Drummer cares nothing for the “rules” of neoliberalism. For him, economics is a means to an end – nothing more. Having carefully studied the fortunes of the populist parties of Hungary and Poland, he’s convinced that nationalism only succeeds electorally when mixed with good sized dollops of socialism. This, he tells his friends, was where Trump got it so wrong. You can’t promise to rescue the working class from the clutches of the liberal elites, and then pump billions of dollars into the already bulging pockets of the One Percent!
So, where should they look for their twenty-first century Drummer? Will he be found, like Hitler, regaling the patrons of a crowded beer-hall with all manner of outlandish conspiracy theories? Unlikely. The place to find New Zealand’s next Drummer, Winston’s replacement, is by frequenting the one place Peters never felt comfortable – Online.
They’ll know him when they see him. He’ll be raffish, but not dishevelled. He’ll be articulate, but not slick. He’ll tell the most outrageous lies, which they will want to believe. But, most important of all, he’ll tell the most outrageous truths, which nobody else has the courage to speak. He’ll say the things that everybody on the Right (and even some disillusioned comrades on the Left) are thinking – and they’ll love him for it.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 4 December 2020.