The “culture wars” are set to be a defining issue in the 2023 election.
Just take a look at what has dominated headlines this week. It’s not been the cost of living, the Federal Reserve’s decision to hike interest rates amid banking turmoil, nor the confirmation by the Treasury and our Reserve Bank that New Zealand will tip into a technical recession this year (it will hurt nevertheless).
Incongruously, while scientists were delivering their final warning on the climate crisis, debate in New Zealand was instead focused on the danger presented by a pint-sized female Brit coming here on her “Let Women Speak” tour.
I’m referring of course to Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull, also known by her online moniker “Posie Parker” — that is, if you had even heard of her at all before rainbow community leaders went into overdrive and tried to have her shut down before she even arrived on our shores.
The catastrophising has sometimes pushed the boundaries of common sense (from all sides). But it is an illustration of how quickly a cultural issue can consume public discourse.
The High Court yesterday turned down a joint application by Gender Minorities Aotearoa, InsideOUT Kōaro and Auckland Pride for an interim order preventing Keen-Minshull’s arrival here until a judicial review of a ministerial decision not to intervene could be heard.
Immigration NZ had already reviewed her case but found “no reason to believe that she is, or is likely to be, a threat or risk to the public order or public interest”.
Justice Gendall said it was largely for technical and procedural reasons that the application must fail. “In my view it would not be appropriate in this case for the court to substitute its own views relating to material in the public domain and placed before the minister here.
“My sympathy for the applicants’ position is grounded largely in the information provided by the applicants and the Crown, which to my eye, appears to clearly raise issues of public order,” Justice Gendall explained. But he underlined the authorities’ belief that the events would “almost certainly” continue with or without Keen-Minshull’s presence.
There is an argument that things have moved too far.
This was underlined by the decision by World Athletics that it will exclude from female competition male-to-female transgender athletes who have gone through male puberty.
World Athletics president Lord Coe said: “We have also taken decisive action to protect the female category in our sport, and to do so by restricting the participation of transgender and DSD [differences of sexual development] athletes.”
So we are entering a vexed time.
What is also notable is how the political classes staked out and differentiated their positions.
National leader Chris Luxon said he wants Kiwis to be able to express their sexuality or identity “without any persecution”. But Luxon wasn’t opposed to the visit and clearly upheld the right to free speech in a democratic liberal society.
He showed sufficient political nous not to be baited by journalists (this time) who wanted him to declare whether (and if not, why not) he would ban his MPs from attending the “Let Women Speak” rallies in Auckland and Wellington this weekend.
Act leader David Seymour effectively staked out his position on such issues last month when he said New Zealand risks turning its back on centuries of enlightenment values like reason and universal human rights. He stayed on-song on this issue.
Green Party immigration spokesman Ricardo Menéndez-March was strongly opposed to Keen-Minshull being allowed to come here. “Having someone like Posie coming here to spew violence, and attracting the kind of neo-Nazi crowd they had in Australia could actually risk the wellbeing of rainbow communities and Muslim communities as well,” he said.
Labour had a bob each way, with leading lights like Michael Wood and Finance Minister Grant Robertson expressing abhorrence bordering on vitriol at what they see as Keen-Minshull’s anti-transgender stance, but stopped short of ministerial intervention.
As Scott Rivkins wrote in the influential Washington DC digest The Hill, in the United States the culture wars have pitted conservatives against moderates and liberals and Republicans against Democrats in a struggle for dominance of beliefs, policies and laws.
That escalation is happening here too, as conflicts over gender issues — such as we have seen with the Keen-Minshull controversy — the extent of Māori co-governance; the rewriting of the history curriculum; the pushback against colonisation and the “whites”; and the recourse to Twitter pile-ons and the worst aspects of the cancel culture when some people try to rub out those with more conservative views.
Luxon provided a useful reality check by issuing a National Party education policy with a strong focus on the “three Rs” — reading, writing and arithmetic (or as he put it, maths). This back-to-basics approach provides clear differentiation from the governing party. It will resonate with many middle New Zealanders.
He did not soft-pedal his messaging by pandering to the teachers.
More pragmatic policies — instead of ideology from National — need to follow if there is to be a real contest at the election.
Importantly, his position was effectively supported by NZ First leader Winston Peters, who said in his own State of the Nation speech: “We stopped focusing on reading, writing and arithmetic, and now teach a range of sociological values to the alarm of so many parents,” claiming the education system was the victim of “virtue signalling tinkerers” and was “some sort of woke social re-engineering programme for vulnerable undeveloped minds”.
Peters threw out several more challenges yesterday by questioning why hundreds of Kiwi nurses, doctors and midwives have been unjustifiably and unconstitutionally mandated out of a job during the height of the Covid pandemic when the New Zealand health system clearly needs more professionals.
There was more besides.
The relabelling of all government departments with Māori names, which confounds many.
Peters said the crisis in health must be addressed in Budget 2023 — starting with a name for the health service that 95 per cent of New Zealanders can understand — not “Te Whatu Ora”.
“Under New Zealand First, we will change all of the woke virtue-signalling names of every government department back to English — back to what they were before the academics from university sociology departments started this madness a few years ago.
“This is not an attack on the Māori language — it is an attack on the elite virtue signallers who have hijacked the language for their own socialist means. This conceited, conniving, cultural cabal doesn’t represent hard-working ordinary Māori — they only seek to use Māori to further their own agenda.” This is vintage Peters.
The culture wars are about to be stepped up. This will be the not-so-soft underbelly of the 2023 election.