Former National MP Matt King is the voice for unvaccinated military and police personnel, embracing views at odds with the weight of medical and scientific research, writes David Fisher.
There came a point for former National Party MP Matt King where he knew that speaking out on Covid-19 would well and truly bring to an end his chances of returning to Parliament.
It was the vaccine mandate, broadly, and then National's support of it. "I was dismayed when I saw they were going to support mandates.
"For me, mandates are a line in the sand because it's my fundamental right … to choose what goes in my body. I don't accept the 'greater good' argument."
Beyond the "greater good" is the Bill of Rights, he says, and New Zealand's laws on human rights. The legal frameworks underpin the principle of a freedom to choose, and are supported by the National Party's constitution and philosophy, he says.
"I said to the National Party guys, 'I can't support that. This is my position I can't go against'. I'm still hoping they will change their tack, regardless of what happens to me. (If they don't) they'll be on the wrong side of history."
And the personal political cost? "What will be, will be. I'm very comfortable looking in the mirror with the man looking back. I know I've taken a principled decision."
King describes becoming an MP as his proudest achievement. "It's a job I loved and do love. I could have kept my mouth shut and I'd probably still be looking at being the Northland MP. I would have had to sell my soul to the devil."
King was a one-term MP in Northland, elected in 2017 then out in 2020. His position could serve as a salutary warning for local body politicians seeking election this year - or those eyeing up national politics in next year's general election.
"If I was all about a political career and being an MP for National, I should have kept my mouth shut," he says. That's not just in the National Party, he says, but any party where questioning the "Covid story", as he calls it, "is not going to be conducive to a long political career".
"Being an MP is not as important to me as doing the right thing."
Candidate selections for next year's election have yet to begin. Those in National quizzed on King reckon his belief he will be overlooked is right, doubting he'll make it through a process said to be more stringent after a series of high-profile missteps.
As former Speaker and long-time National MP David Carter explains - speaking generally and not about King - views out of step with the public health response would be views at odds with the vast majority of New Zealanders who have been vaccinated.
That makes for a strong political headwind. It remains the case in the National Party, he says, where championing personal choice runs into "an international pandemic where the evidence around the value of vaccination is overwhelming".
As an MP, King styled himself "King of the North", buoyed by beating political maestro Winston Peters for the role. With the arrival of the pandemic he flirted with controversy, posting a photograph of himself and his parents with Paihia restaurant staff in an apparent breach of social distancing advice.
In the 2020 election, King lost to Labour's Willow-Jean Prime by 163 votes. He went home and stayed there, building a house, running a beef farm and growing a beard. Then, about halfway through 2021, he became increasingly vocal over New Zealand's approach to Covid-19.
That included a post in August that said the vaccine was dangerous (data shows confirmed adverse effects are incredibly low), while downplaying the severity of Covid-19. Then King's interview with epidemiologist Simon Thornley of the "Plan B" group saw the disease falsely equated with the flu, along with other claims that struggle against evidence.
Since then, King has been hailed as a champion for airing views on Covid-19 popular among the small minority of those opposed to the public health approach taken in New Zealand and around the world. Most recently, he has become spokesman for police officers and NZ Defence Force personnel pushing back against mandated vaccination.
It's difficult organising an interview with King. He won't meet anywhere that uses a vaccine pass. He refuses to say if he is vaccinated. "It's my personal information and I don't want to be part of a two-tiered system. I don't go into places that require vaccination passes."
SuperBowl cafe, about 200 metres down the road from his old electorate office, advertises: "We do not discriminate against any customers." King perches outside, waving to the odd car that toots as it passes.
There's no doubting King's sincerity. He spent 14 years as a police officer and three years as an MP - a total of 17 years of service to the community and country.
"The phone hasn't stopped ringing," he says. And he's right. It goes during the interview. Some callers need reminding he's not an MP anymore.
"You step out of that role (as an MP), which is a shock, but still get all of the responsibility without the support and backup and funding."
One of the most striking aspects of interviewing King is his lack of faith in New Zealand's democratic framework. "I don't have any faith," he says. This lack of faith extends to media and his expectation this story will be an "assassination".
King complains of the media, primarily talking of a lack of balance. It's a common refrain from those holding views at odds with the public health approach - seeking to have fringe positions or research given equivalent space and status to those supported by the weight of research and science.
When questioned about the weight of evidence against the position he has taken, King rolls out an anecdote from his policing days. Crime scenes aren't always as straightforward as they appear, he says, relaying a yarn about a sudden death he attended which appeared violent, yet turned out to be an unusual medical event.
His point is that things aren't always as they first appear. "You have a wide net. You keep an open mind. The lead that can crack the case can come from an obscure piece of information."
There's so much information coming in, he says. There's the internet, and social media, and those who "work with (government) behind-the-scenes". "I'm an investigator and I've been investigating. I've been looking into stuff and talking to people who are telling me real stories that are the truth.
"I think we're being given a story and Kiwis have believed it in good faith."
King has been seen as teetering on the edge of the rabbit hole for some time. There is a point in the interview where he seems to leap straight down it.
"One of the reasons I realised this wasn't about health was that proven, safe, effective treatments that have worked around the world have been suppressed here."
Among those, King lists hydroxychloroquine (HCQ), ivermectin and monoclonal antibodies. Neither HCQ or ivermectin have any support from public health officials across the world. The US Federal Drug Administration authorised use of monoclonal antibodies then withdrew it when it was found to be ineffective against the omicron variant.
And this could be why King closes with the statement: "Whenever you bring that up, you get called conspiracy theorists and anti-vax. Conspiracy theorist and anti-vax is thrown at someone to stop debate. I say, let's have that debate."
Put to King that the debate has been had with 94 per cent of people double-vaccinated and he scoffs at the numbers.
"I do not believe for a second 90 per cent of people have been vaccinated. That's the big lie. We all know it's bullshit, this vaccination just is not supported by the science. This is one of those things that's about controlling people."
If it is for "control", and not about health, then why? "I don't know what their motives are. I just know some of this stuff is staring us in the face and we're ignoring it. I'm just asking questions."
King again turns to anecdote and tells a story of someone who returned to India where, he claims, Covid-19 is successfully treated with Ivermectin across "thousands of villages" and people "completely recovered" as a result. It's a story at odds with facts - multiple reports have debunked Ivermectin or HCQ as effective against Covid-19 or impacting on India's rates of infection or seriousness of disease.
"Why is vaccination being considered the only tool in the toolbox?" he asks. He's wrong - it's not. Mask-wearing, a focus on hygiene, social distancing and good ventilation are among the tools used effectively here and across the world, along with a range of new therapeutics with evidence showing they work.
King says vaccination has benefits but should be targeted to avoid what he claims are a large number of vaccine injuries or side effects. Public reporting of vaccine data shows few have suffered such.
"It might be rare. It's still a risk. Where there's risk, there has to be choice."
Among the most extreme of those - and one of a few fatalities confirmed - was the case of Dunedin plumber Rory Nairn, 26, who experienced regular heart flutters after being vaccinated. Twelve days later he collapsed and died.
"I didn't think it would play out that way. I thought it would be covered up like the other ones."
On the vaccine, he raises questions over pharmaceutical authorising bodies such as New Zealand's Medsafe. "Kiwis believe this authorising body is okay and they trust them. They said smoking was okay for years and they let thalidomide through."
It's a debunked claim cited by many opposing widespread vaccination and overlooks the extraordinary overhaul in medical and pharmaceutical regimes in the 40-60 years since evidence exposed the dangers of both.
King raises the mental health toll, another debunked straw man. When it's pointed out that the Chief Coroner's statistics show no increase in suicides, King says he's heard they are being "recoded" as accidental deaths.
Other statistical gameplay is at work in the fatality rates, he says. The actual rate is much lower than it was believed to be, he says, and there's the question of whether someone "died of" or "died with" Covid. It's another Covid-19 fallacy, spurred by an anecdote about a road accident victim's death being recorded as a virus-linked death.
On masks, too, he is dismissive. "Rubbish," he calls it, and about "government control" and "compliance". "I don't know why and I don't want to speculate. I don't look at the big picture.
"I don't know what's going on but it's not about the virus. If you question the narrative you get slammed as some sort of nut job."
Kate Hannah, principal investigator at Centre of Research Excellence unit Te Pūnaha Matatini, has studied disinformation and misinformation since the pandemic truly took hold.
With King, she speaks of the concept of "biographical availability" - someone able to pursue a cause because of a lack of constraints and or risk. It was this freedom that allowed him to pursue a role as an MP.
"He's potentially switched his biographical availability that he was prepared to give to something he strongly believes in."
Hannah says there's been an increase in people doing so and believes it is less about a belief in the cause and more about the feeling of risk.
"It's sort of a war-time response. Someone like him is the public face of a lot of other people but we're not seeing them writ quite as large."
National: 'Not views shared by the party or a vast majority of the public'
National Party President Peter Goodfellow said King was "entitled to his personal views, but they are not views shared by the National Party or a vast majority of the public.
"I am strongly supportive of vaccination, as is the National Party. I encourage everyone to take that step as the best protection, for themselves and their family, against Covid."
Goodfellow said selection was up to local delegates with the national board vetting potential candidates under improved processes identified in its 2020 Campaign Review.
"Our focus is on finding people who live up to our values and are of the highest quality, honesty, and integrity, that our members can be proud to select as their local National candidate for the next election."
If King was to run in Northland next year, he would have again faced NZ First's Shane Jones, as determined a political campaigner as his party leader. He - like others across politics - has watched as King has embraced views at odds with the weight of medical and scientific research.
Jones has empathy for the "fear and outrage" among those concerned over the "autocracy of the state". Contrast this though, he says, with the many urupa across Northland that are testament to the impact of the Spanish Flu.
And, he says, contrary voices that argue against the approach taken by the Government will be heard ahead of the election next year. Those views - like Jones' position "we have to learn to live with it" - set within defined medical and scientific parameters.
"The position Matt King has taken is a treacherous political rabbit hole. The rabbit hole Matt seems to have disappeared into is not a Parliamentary burrow. It's a dead end."