Countering the Far Right in Aotearoa Today

This is a report and analysis of far right parties in New Zealand, with consideration given to the nature of those parties. Serah Allison’s report, published on 29 August 2022, contains much more detail on the far right rally and counter-rally in Te Whanganui-a-Tara on 23 August. The first part of this report complements Serah’s. The second section is a review of the far-right in electoral politics. The final section is on problems in combatting the far right and fascists, which includes an assessment of Pōneke Anti-Fascist Coalition’s counter-rally on 23 August.

23 August 2022

On Tuesday 23 August the Freedoms and Rights Coalition (FRC) staged a rally at Wellington’s Civic Square, a march to Parliament, and another rally at Parliament, featuring a mock trial of the government. The FRC mobilised perhaps 2,000 people. They were a mix of brown and white people, but more so brown and of them predominantly Māori.

Pōneke Anti-Fascist Coalition (PAFC) held a counter-rally at the Cenotaph. It was a strategic location as the FRC had to march past to access Parliament grounds. PAFC mobilised 200-300 people. Some Green MPs joined in (I saw Marama Davidson, Teanau Tuiono, Jan Logie, Chlöe Swarbrick and Ricardo Menéndes March).

The FRC had posted on facebook: “Just a reminder that today’s protest at Parliament is non-violent.” Indeed, there were no acts of violence, but Serah’s report details some intimidation.

The action on 23 August was an important one for the FRC and its leader Brian Tamaki. It was the culmination of a series marches and rallies in July and August calling for the downfall of the Labour government. The FRC called a nation-wide mobilisation with convoys to Wellington originating from Kaitaia and Invercargill. In the weeks leading up to 23 August the FRC had called for forcing a snap general election. Brian Tamaki talked of inviting pig and deer hunters with their guns. He said his followers should emulate the Sri Lankan people in storming parliament. Nearer 23 August the references to the use of force were dropped, possibly because it was clear that the FRC’s rally would not be as big as Tamaki had hoped. As of the time of writing, the FRC have not announced any further marches.

For the left it was critically important that there was a counter-rally. The infamous occupation of Parliament grounds and surrounding streets in February-March had not been opposed by the left, and since then the FRC had been getting away with not being countered. The exception was in Ōtepoti Dunedin on Saturday 2 July when the FRC was met with a far larger counter-rally, but this was only a small-scale event with the FRC gathering only about 40 people. On Saturday 23 July, the day when the FRC marched on the Southern Motorway in Auckland, there was no opposition. In Wellington on the same day a small FRC rally and march went ahead unopposed. On 6 August in Auckland there was only a hastily organised, and very small, counter-protest at FRC’s Patriot Day event and march in Auckland.

PAFC was formed at a meeting on 3 August with the aim of standing up to FRC’s planned march on Parliament on 23 August. Numerous organisations were identified and contacted by the group, crucially including Māori organisations. All considered, the PAFC counter-rally was a success. This time there was opposition to the far right and fascists despite that the event was held on a weekday. Hopefully the precedents for counter-actions set in Ōtepoti and now Te Whanganui-a-Tara will mean that the FRC can expect opposition every time it takes to the streets.

International Socialist Organisation members were involved in PAFC throughout: participating in PAFC organising meetings, producing written material, postering, a banner drop, making placards, doing contact work and more. We made a tangible contribution, not least in bringing a contingent from Victoria University. Immediately after the event the ISO contingent reassembled at Kelburn Campus to hold a debrief meeting.

The 23 August issue of The Guardian ran an article by Morgan Godfrey. Its theme was that the counter-rally reinforced that the “conspiracists, and the fascists, are already losing.” Similarly, Bryce Edwards dismissed the FRC as no more than a joke and attacked the counter-protest. In their different ways Godfrey and Edwards are complacent. Despite the success of PAFC gathering about 200-300 people to stand up to the FRC, the fact is that on 23 August we were vastly outnumbered. In the absence of leftwing opposition to a Labour government presiding over falling living standards, the danger remains of the far right seizing on the bitterness in society and turning it against scapegoats, pitting workers against themselves, instead of that bitterness being aimed where due, against capitalist policies of the government and the capitalist system. For the time being, and probably for some time to come, the far right remains a threat.

The far-right in electoral politics

On 23 August, Apostle Brian Tamaki, as he likes to style himself, announced the formation of a new far-right party, called Freedoms New Zealand, for contesting next year’s general election. It brings together Vision NZ and the New Nation Party (NNP). In the announcement Tamaki included the Outdoors and Freedom Party (OFP) in the new formation, but they immediately protested that they had not yet decided to join or not. Rivalry and doctrinal differences may well keep the far right plagued by division, but should the OFP and/or other groups join the Freedoms New Zealand project there is the possibility that it will attract support from people who in 2020 voted for the New Conservatives and the now defunct Advance NZ. In 2020 the much divided far right managed to get over 3 percent of the party vote. There is a real possibility of the far right increasing on that figure next year.

Vision NZ, led by Hannah Tamaki, wife of Brian Tamaki, is Destiny Church’s current political party. Its politics are far-right Christian fundamentalist and theocratic. In 2020 they got a paltry 0.15 percent of the party vote. Their best result was in the Waiariki electorate where Hannah Tamaki got 4.42 percent of the candidate vote, coming ahead of far-right rivals Advance NZ, Outdoors and New Conservative.

The New Nation Party is new. It stood Andrew Hollis in June’s Tauranga by-election, one of four far-right candidates. Hollis picked up only 260 votes, but the four combined got 1,575, or 7.56 percent of the vote. So far the NNP have two candidates lined up for 2023. According to the biographies on their website, the NNP leaders are either small business people or in management.

The OFP stood lawyer Sue Grey in the Tauranga by-election and got 1,030 votes (4.95 percent). In this year’s local elections they are standing in two mayoral contests (Hamilton and Tasman) and in an unspecified number of councillor elections. In 2020 the OFP declined a merger with Advance NZ. The OFP challenges preconceptions of what a far-right party is like. Part of their programme is environmentalism. They have an all-female and part Māori co-leadership team in Sue Grey and Donna Pokere Phillips (ex-Te Pāti Māori, ex-TOP, ex-Alliance). In June 2020 members of OFP were filmed in a racist attack on a young woman who had wiped out chalked slogans ‘It’s okay to be white’ and ‘All lives matter.’

Voices for Freedom (VFF), the main group involved in February’s Parliament grounds occupation, was formed in December 2020. It told its members that VFF did not support the FRC’s action on 23 August. It is distancing itself from street actions to concentrate on the local body elections, but not openly. Its supporters are standing as independents. It has been reported that FACT Aotearoa has identified 170 far right candidates, most of whom are hiding their politics. VFF claims 110 local groups and 40,000 members. Even allowing for exaggeration, VFF is probably the largest far right party in Aotearoa. VFF is led by an all-female team of ‘founders’: Claire Deeks, Alia Bland and Libby Jonson.

Of all the far-right parties the New Conservative Party is the most long-established. It has roots in Christian social conservatism. In the 2020 general election the party got 1.48 percent of the party vote, the highest vote of all the far-right groups. Since October 2021 the New Conservatives have had joint leaders in Helen Houghton and Ted Johnson. Johnson is described as ‘Kiwi Samoan.’ The party claims to have moved more towards the centre right under this leadership. If that is the case, it has not resulted in popularity. They stood Helen Houghton in June’s Tauranga by-election to get a derisory 103 votes, the lowest polling of four far-right candidates.

The ONE Party completes this round-up of the far right. It was founded in 2019 by Stephanie Hawawira and Edward Shanly as Christian fundamentalist theocratic party, similar to Destiny Church’s Vision NZ. In 2020 it won just 0.28 percent of the party vote. There was a deal with Vision NZ whereby ONE did not contest Waiariki and Vision NZ did not contest Te Tai Tokerau. Even so, ONE’s Janice Arahanga-Epiha only got 1.6 percent of the candidate vote in Te Tai Tokerau. In December 2021 co-leaders Hawawira and Shanly stood down to be replaced by Ian Johnson, Allan Cawood and Kariana Black. In the Tauranga by-election Cawood could only pick up 182 votes (0.87 percent).

Problems in organising against the far right and fascists

There is a distinction to be made between the far right and fascists; a distinction that the left sometimes fails to make. In truth, the distinction is not always easy to make. There is a considerable overlap in ideology. And, in accordance with the theory of dialectical materialism, society is in a state of flux. Conservatives today may become fascist tomorrow. Contrariwise the undoubtedly fascist Front National in France has transformed itself into a less extreme party and renamed itself Rassemblement National. Is Rassemblement National fascist, hiding a fascist core awaiting the time to switch to violent street action? I don’t know. What I am sure of is that the distinction between fascist and far right is not an arbitrary one.

This brief definition of fascism is a summary taken from the writings of the two great analysts of fascism: Clara Zetkin and Leon Trotsky.

  • It is a reaction to a political and economic crisis in society that the working-class movement has failed to resolve through a socialist revolution.
  • It makes its appeal to primarily to insecure middle-class layers, but also to the unemployed and demoralised workers.
  • It seeks to dominate the streets with this plebeian mass movement. It deploys violence against the left and victimised groups.
  • It uses racism and extreme nationalism to bind its supporters into an imagined national community.
  • Fascism deploys revolutionary anti-capitalist rhetoric until such time that it has proved its usefulness to, and won the support of, the capitalist class.
  • It is a dagger aimed at the heart of the working class. Whether it was under Hitler, Mussolini or Franco, on coming to power the fascists murdered or imprisoned communists, socialists, anarchists and trade unionists.

None of the parties discussed in the section above fully fit this definition of fascism. The FRC comes closest but as there is not a really deep political and economic crisis in Aotearoa at present they are unlikely to develop into a fully-fledged fascist movement for now, if ever.

The struggle in Aotearoa today is against forces that are best described as far-right. This assessment affects tactics. In the revolutionary socialist tradition fascist parties are not accorded freedom of speech. This is because fascist regimes are based on mass murder and exclusion of democracy. Otherwise we believe in free speech, even for political enemies. If anti-fascists were to forcibly prevent far-right, but not fascist, groups from exercising free speech they would damage their cause. The far right must be fought politically by attacking their ideas, which is not too difficult, and by organising as large as possible non-violent action to demonstrate opposition.

A further complication comes from there being a tiny number of genuine fascists, organised, for example, by Counterspin Media and Action Zealandia. The fascists cannot organise publicly, but can use the far right as cover and infiltrate its events. This was seen most clearly in the Parliament grounds occupation in February-March.

On 23 August PAFC’s banners read ‘Love Community! Hate Fascism!’ and ‘No Room for Racism.’ Its posters declared ‘Stop Hate.’ PAFC’s press release said ‘We stand for inclusivity, good dance moves, aroha and solidarity with minorities.’ The dominant thinking within the group had the idea of countering the fascists (as the far right were seen) with fun, love, music and dance.

While PAFC’s standing for inclusivity and solidarity was totally correct I am critical of PAFC’s slogans and the liberal approach it took to countering the far right. Calling out the mixed-ethnicity FRC for fascism and racism, as the banners did, was inappropriate. Although it is true that FRC is against Asian immigration, racism has not been central to the FRC’s campaigning. It would have been better if PAFC’s slogans focussed more specifically on gender-related bigotry and counter-posing that bigotry to solidarity of the working-class and oppressed.

Fun, love, music and dance are not the weapons for pushing back the far right. Anger and hostility, and most importantly size, are more appropriate for demoralising and driving off the far right’s softer support.

I would argue that PAFC’s organising for the 23 August counter-rally was not broad enough. While PAFC’s material signalled an appeal to rainbow communities, which was absolutely the right thing to do, it did not pick up on what the FRC’s campaign was all about: an attack on the Labour government, which was accused of ‘socialism’, ‘communism’ and various conspiracies. As noted above, in the weeks before the 23 August, the FRC had been calling for forcing out the Labour government.

In my opinion, PAFC’s organising agenda should have extended, to a much greater extent than was accomplished, to calling on the leaders, members and sympathisers of Labour, the Greens and the trade unions to join PAFC’s action against the far-right attack, which was in essence an attack on the progressive leanings of the Labour government. Such organising would include making personal contact with Labour and Green MPs, with invitations to speak at the rally; contacting Labour’s electorate offices in the region; direct contact with union leaders, with invitations to speak; asking unions if PAFC could be invited to speak at any upcoming union meetings; and mass leafletting of Central Wellington’s public sector workplaces where workers are in unions.

I am not claiming that had PAFC paid more attention the unions and parties of the left the result would have been thousands more at the counter-rally. The building of a mass campaign of the broad left and trade unionists to counter the menace of far right is a long-term project that will take time to come to fruition, but a start should not be delayed. As it was, on 23 August a Tertiary Education Union banner was at the counter-rally and some of the Greens’ MPs attended.

The resistance to the far right is not a question of love versus hate. Seen through the lens of the class struggle, the rise of the far right, if it develops, is a deadly serious threat to all workers and the oppressed. Given the opportunity, the far right would attack the unions, attack democracy and institute repressive, authoritarian government.

A class lens is also needed to understand the far right groups in Aotearoa. White supremacism and male dominance does not define what far right politics is about. As the review of the far right provided above demonstrates, the leaders and following of the far right in Aotearoa today can be women, Māori, Samoan. What they have in common, and what explains their nature, is a petit-bourgeois resentment of the working class and the parties and groups of the left. Their cause célèbre has been the anti-COVID-19 public health measures that the Ardern government rightly imposed, but which impacted on profits of some small businesses. The position in the class structure determines the far rightists’ politics.

In Te Whanganui-a-Tara PAFC has made a good start to fighting back against the far right. However, there are lessons to be drawn from its experience so far. The onus is on socialist supporters of PAFC to draw out those lessons in a patient and comradely way.