|Walking On Sunshine: National’s Sam Uffindell cantered home in the Tauranga By-Election, but the Outdoors & Freedom Party’s Sue Grey attracted an ominous level of support.|
THE RIGHT’S gadfly commentator, Matthew Hooton, summed up the Tauranga by-election in his usual pithy fashion. “Tonight’s result is poor for the National Party, catastrophic for Labour, very good for the Act Party and brilliant for the far-right nutter fringe. The last bit makes it terrible for New Zealand.” About National and Labour, Hooton is simply being provocative. But his assessment of “the far-right nutter fringe’s” impact on the by-election is spot-on.
The 2020 election result in Tauranga, which saw the gap between National and Labour shrink dramatically, was – as every political commentator should know (but apparently doesn’t) aberrant. Hell, the entire General Election was aberrant – as National’s loss of seats like Rangitata and Ilam made clear. For Jacinda Ardern and her party to have held onto the roughly 400,000 “Thank-you for saving us from Covid-19” votes that pushed Labour up-and-over 50 percent of the Party Vote, would have required her to shift New Zealand into some sort of weird parallel universe, where the absence of success goes unreproved, and political failure is rewarded.
Much as she might like to be living in such a universe, the Prime Minister knows that she is not. Which is why she and her advisers would have been looking at the results of 2017 for guidance – not 2020. On that basis, the Tauranga By-Election was very far from being a catastrophe.
As Greg Presland, lawyer and regular contributor to the Labour-leaning website “The Standard” tweeted shortly after the result was announced: “Election night Tauranga result is Uffindell 56% Tinetti 25%. 2017 election result was Bridges 54% Tinetti 26%. Beware of claim this is a bad result for Labour. Looks like business as usual without the anti-Government bounce that opposition parties hope for in by-elections.”
Equally untrue is the claim that the Tauranga result represents a poor showing for National. To easily restore the status-quo-ante-Covid was all anyone could reasonably have asked of Sam Uffindell. This was especially true of a contest precipitated by an incumbent National MP in circumstances entirely lacking in political drama, whose outcome was never in doubt. Uffindell was always going to win, and win he did in a commendably boring campaign. (Exciting campaigns in safe seats are generally regarded as unhelpful – even dangerous!)
In these circumstances the risible 40 percent turnout was as predictable as the result itself. With the outcome a foregone conclusion and the rain bucketing down, only the most faithful of party stalwarts were ever going to make it to the polling booths. That they did so in almost exactly the same percentages as the 2017 contest should be enough for any sensible commentator to conclude that normal electoral transmission in Tauranga has been resumed.
Although Act’s candidate, Cameron Luxton, should have felt extremely pleased with his 10.26 percent of the votes cast, he could be forgiven for feeling that he had earned a much bigger share. Most observers of the by-election campaign concur that Luxton was by far the most dynamic candidate.
Once again positing a parallel political universe, this one featuring publicly-owned local broadcasters committed to bringing fulsome coverage of electoral contests to their viewers (don’t guffaw, New Zealand once boasted such broadcasters!) Luxton would have ended his campaign with an embarrassingly large number of traditional National voters in his column.
Those Tauranga electors who tuned into the debates on the weekend political shows can hardly have avoided drawing unfavourable comparisons between Luxton and Uffindell. Not that he really needs to, given the result, but if Sam could arrange for a generous injection, or two, of political passion, his value to Team National would undoubtedly be boosted. Languid-and-Aristocratic is not the Kiwi way – not in politics.
But, if the Tauranga candidates with the best chances appeared to lack all conviction, then at least one of those written off as belonging to the worst was definitely not lacking in passionate intensity. Sue Grey, candidate for the New Zealand Outdoors & Freedom Party, managed an impressive 4.72 percent of the votes cast.
Just how impressive is immediately apparent when one considers that the nationwide support for the Outdoors Party in 2020 was a miniscule 0.1 percent. (3,256 Party Votes.) On Saturday, another 53 votes would have put Grey over 5 percent. Replicated across the country in 2023, that would put at least six NZOF MPs in the House of Representatives.
It is important to acknowledge that Grey’s result was achieved in a by-election with a very low turnout (40.6 percent) and in which the Greens, NZ First, and the Māori Party opted not to field candidates. Nevertheless, the 47-fold increase in the NZOF Party’s support is so dramatic that it merits serious political scrutiny.
The Outdoors Party’s beginnings are nothing if not firmly rooted in the “heartland”. It was founded to represent the huntin’, shootin’ fishin’ community: rugged, authority-scorning, Kiwi blokes and sheilas entirely lacking in affinity for the vegan “Greenies” of the big cities, who wouldn’t know one end of a hunting rifle or fishing rod from the other. On the other hand, the sort of hippies who hare off into the bush to live off-the-grid, and who decry the use of 1080 poison by DoC, are a different story. Like them, these outdoorsmen and women also favour the legalisation of cannabis and would like the state to FRO out of their lives.
If that description rings a bell, then it’s because a great many of these characters could be found camping in Parliament Grounds earlier this year. Begin with a general pre-disposition towards believing the absolute worst of the Powers That Be, mix-in the uncompromising government demands of the Covid-19 Emergency, and then allow the resulting anti-vaccination fury to be articulated by a personable online spokeswoman – who just happens to be a lawyer and scientist – and hey-presto! Sue Grey gets 917 votes in Tauranga.
It is also important to note that Grey’s co-leader is fellow lawyer Donna Pokere-Phillips. This bi-cultural aspect of the NZOF Party is important. Though harbouring a strong anti-immigrant element within its ranks, there is very little evidence of the anti-Māori sentiment that disfigures so many far-right groups. If this is fascism, then it is of a quintessentially Kiwi, backwoods libertarian, variety. Not so much brown shirts as black singlets.
Unsurprisingly, the evangelical Christian leader of the Freedoms & Rights Coalition, Brian Tamaki, has been working hard to draw together all the parties of the far-right into a single electoral proposition – an “Alliance”-style coalition of the Dark Side, if you will. So far unsuccessful, Tamaki is likely to remain so. Too much of his message bears a “Made in the USA” stamp. New Zealand, one of the world’s most secular nations, marches to the beat of a very different drummer to Donald Trump and Q-Anon.
The NZ Outdoors and Freedom Party, while far too angry and conspiratorial for most New Zealanders, has, nevertheless, clearly shown itself to have something going for it. Good keen fascism, perhaps? Something that was always there, just below the surface of New Zealand progressivism. The New Zealand poet, James K. Baxter, saw it and wrote about it in his “Pig Island Letters” series.
Lines that could have been written for Sue Grey and her comrades:
Her son is moodier, has seen
An angel with a sword
Standing above the clumps of old man manuka
Just waiting for the word
To overturn the cities and the rivers
And split the house like a rotten totara log.
Quite unconcerned he sets his traps for possums
And whistles to his dog.
This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 20 June 2022.