Using racism and prejudice as a political tool has become almost routine in election campaigns, but many believe this election year has been particularly nasty. That includes 17 Māori leaders who called for “an end to race-baiting and racist comments in our country’s election campaigns”. They pointed to New Zealand First, Act and National. Here investigative journalist Nicky Hager looks at the party he believes is the worst offender.
The ups and downs of the polls are diverting attention from a vitally important issue of this election: the peril of ending up with a dominant and destabilising Act party in a National-led government.
Act leader David Seymour is following in the footsteps of hard-right populist politicians around the world: anti-welfare, anti-climate action, anti-Covid rules, pro-big business, pro-guns and always racist. Basically, the toxic politics pulling apart the US.
This dangerous situation is the fault, in part, of a lack of attention on Act. The party has got away with being big enough to get loads of publicity, but small enough to avoid scrutiny of itself. This has allowed Seymour a mostly free run to repeat and repeat simple but deceptive messages about human rights and fairness while using racism and prejudice as a political tool.
David Seymour and Act know exactly what they’re doing. The countryside is dotted with Act billboards saying “End Division by Race”, and the same issue is top of the list of policies on Act’s website. Act leader David Seymour smiles and claims he’s engaging in “honest healthy debate” as he whips up anti-Māori prejudice everywhere he goes. And the election won’t be the end. Seymour intends to pour petrol on race issues once in government with a referendum on the Treaty of Waitangi.
Like right-wing populist politicians around the world, David Seymour starts the “honest healthy debate” and then leaves it to other people to do the vicious attacks. Social media are full of it, like an anonymous tweeter called “Equally Human” who said “Stop the Maori propaganda forced Te Reo & Billions in handouts to Maori”. Seymour’s words have helped to unleash and legitimise this.
Waatea News reported Labour’s Northland candidate, Willow-Jean Prime, who is Māori, saying she’s been experiencing the worst racism this election of her two decades in politics. Many people now seem to feel they can say the most racist things without fear of being held accountable, she said.
Seventeen Māori leaders spoke up a week ago “calling for an end to race-baiting and racist comments in our country’s election campaigns”. They pointed at New Zealand First, Act and National, but, in my opinion, Act is by far the worst.
This wouldn’t matter so much if Act had stayed on the fringes of politics. But, with the National Party’s relatively mediocre performance (except for its massive finances), there’s a risk that David Seymour and his Trumpian policies will strongly influence a National-led government.
Let’s scrutinise one of his pieces of “honest healthy debate”.
Seymour says repeatedly that people (he means Māori, of course) shouldn’t have “different rights based on ancestry”. This is typically simple, clever and deceptive. Having different rights based on ancestry doesn’t sound right, and therefore nor does having a special Māori health agency. Isn’t this “Billions in handouts to Māori”? Shouldn’t we all have an equal right to healthcare? Seymour says loftily that all human rights must be universal.
The answer is that there is a crucial difference between rights, which are universal, and tools to fulfil rights, which are always based on varying circumstances. The International Declaration of Human Rights states in Article 25 that everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and wellbeing of themself and of their family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care.
But this doesn’t say everyone has to have the same food, clothing, housing and medical care, just “adequate”. Human rights should be fulfilled according to circumstances. It is, therefore, perfectly consistent with human rights that Māori have targeted medical care to bring them up to an adequate standard of health and wellbeing (which isn’t the case now).
He could sound intelligent. But he’s talking nonsense.
It’s important to remember where Act came from. The party was formed in 1994 from the political leftovers of Rogernomics who wanted to continue their purist revolution of cutting public services and privatising public infrastructure. Roger Douglas, Richard Prebble, Ruth Richardson: the public had turned strongly against their policies but they kept going anyway.
The Act Party stood first in the 1996 election. That year it spent more on the election than any other party, compliments of the wealthy beneficiaries of deregulation and privatisation who underwrote the party. But right from that first 1996 election, guess what its yellow election billboards focused on? The same snide attacks on Māori that continue today.
Then, as now, it seems they’ve used attacks on Māori in part to disguise their real agendas. The billboards say “End Division by Race”, but it is actually more like “Defend Division by Wealth”. Act is the make-the-rich-richer party and, at the same time, the attack-the-poor party. Both harm the country.
Why isn’t this being talked about more? As already said, mainly because smaller parties don’t get enough scrutiny and can write their own spin.
Meanwhile, attacking Māori is as old as European settlement. Here is James Richmond, a future member of parliament, writing in 1851. He looked forward to the day, he said, “when the preposterous Treaty of Waitangi will be overruled” and the “ridiculous claims of the natives to thousands of acres of untrodden bush and fern will no longer be able to damp[en] the ardour and cramp the energies of the industrious white man”.
Act isn’t alone in perpetuating this. We watched the big-business-aligned Taxpayers Union turn a water infrastructure plan (Three Waters) into an anti-Māori campaign, claiming Māori wanted to steal “our” water. The National Party saw votes in it, put Stop Three Waters signs around rural New Zealand, and climbed aboard the anti-Māori campaign. New Zealand First has done the same.
But Act is the worst. It’s not just doing cynical three-yearly vote-chasing like National and New Zealand First.
Trying to fix the multi-generational problems caused by the mass loss of Māori land needs slow, considered action. Doing it through inflammatory speeches and by a hugely divisive referendum shows a politician who wants to blow up, not build.
What does this all mean for the 2023 election? First, voters need to be warned against voting for Act. The smooth talker has a forked tongue. But also, voters must be aware that National has declared its willingness to have Act in a National-led government. Vote for National, get Act.
Nicky Hager works as an author and investigative journalist. He has written seven books about New Zealand politics, intelligence, public relations and war. His book The Hollow Men exposed in detail the machinations behind the National Party’s 2005 Iwi-Kiwi election campaign.
Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.
If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.