A former spokeswoman for Hobson’s Pledge, a Marlborough district councillor and perhaps the former Mayor of Wellington would be new MPs if New Zealand First is returned to Parliament this election.
Next in line is a life coach and author whose apparent association with an anti-vax conspiracy theory group has been questioned, though this has been dismissed by party leader Winston Peters.
They are among the party’s candidates who will become MPs if - as polls suggest - the party gains the 5 per cent of the party vote it needs without winning an electorate seat.
Peters, former Cabinet minister and Northland candidate Shane Jones, and former MPs Mark Patterson and Jenny Marcroft would return to Parliament, alongside new MPs Casey Costello, formerly with Hobson’s Pledge and the Taxpayers’ Union, Marlborough councillor Jamie Arbuckle, and former mayor of Wellington Andy Foster. Marcroft quit the party after being dropped down the party list in 2020 but has returned.
The chances of Foster becoming an MP if NZ First wins 5 per cent would depend on the size of the wasted vote.
If the party gains more than 5 per cent, next on the list are life coach Tanya Unkovich, economic development consultant David Wilson, community advocate Erika Harvey, lawyer Kirsten Murfitt, and former Shortland Street actor Lee Donoghue.
Unkovich and Murfitt have attracted media attention - which they have not responded to - for their possible association with anti-vax and conspiracy theorist groups.
The Herald has seen a screenshot that appears to show Unkovich, in February 2022, joining the Telegram channel nuremberg.nz, which is dedicated to “identifying New Zealand politicians, bureaucrats, mainstream media and academic personalities who must face military tribunals under international law for crimes against humanity”.
Murfitt appears to have made online comments that appear to question whether Covid-19 vaccines may have turned people into scannable biological robots.
Similar questions were raised about Janine Massee, whose online comments - seen by the Herald but since deleted - suggested more than 100 covered-up deaths from the Covid-19 vaccine, and called for New Zealanders to rise up because “they are coming after your children”.
Massee was attending public meetings as the party’s Whangaparāoa candidate but is no longer standing. The Herald understands she didn’t make it through the final vetting process for candidates.
The Electoral Commission confirmed Massee was not included in New Zealand First’s nominations either as a candidate or on the list, though it’s unclear whether she remains involved with the party.
Peters backs candidates
Peters has abrasively dismissed questions about Unkovich and Murfitt’s suitability as New Zealand First candidates, and rubbished media when asked about Massee.
He said he wasn’t concerned about Murfitt, and sharing a post on social media didn’t necessarily mean an endorsement. He hadn’t spoken to her but his team had, and he had confidence in his team.
“They’ve been vetted, they’ve been checked out, we’ve asked them ‘what is your personal view, right here, right now’. I saw the acerbic, false, defamatory statements made by the media about my candidate list. It turns out they’re not even on the list. Doesn’t stop them - they’re still at it,” he told reporters on Saturday.
“I didn’t ask the questions and I wasn’t there, but I know they did. I have confidence in my team’s investigative capacity to have done the job and come back and said ‘we know that’s okay, there’s nothing for us to be concerned about’. And by the way, she’s a very bright lawyer.”
He attacked the media when asked about Massee on Saturday. “Why are you asking? She’s not on our list.”
And on Unkovich’s apparent association with the nuremberg.nz group, Peters said: “This is a woman whose grandmother was murdered by the Nazis, her uncle and family were murdered by the Nazis. And you guys are saying she’s a Nazi.”
He then walked away from further questions from reporters.
Peters made headlines at the start of last year with his visit to the protesters who occupied Parliament grounds. At the time he said he supported the right to protest and, while he was vaccinated, he did not support the vaccine mandates.
This is despite a social media post in October 2021 saying “no-jab means no job and no parole” and “the country had been let down by those who refuse to get vaccinated”. On Sunday, in a combative interview with Q+A’s Jack Tame, Peters said the post had been mistakenly published by someone else and he had apologised for it - though it had not been deleted at the time this article was published.
The mandates were introduced across certain frontline workforces such as health, police, education and border workers to protect against the spread of Covid-19 while vaccination levels were low. From December 2021, based on public health advice, vaccine passes were used to put greater restrictions on the unvaccinated with the aim of slowing community transmission and preventing hospitals from being inundated.
Peters has been campaigning around the country and attracting a diverse group of people, including some who are anti-vax.
He recently announced a policy to spend hundreds of millions of dollars compensating the vax-injured and those who lost jobs, but has rejected the suggestion that he’s chasing the anti-vax vote.
“I don’t actively chase anybody. I didn’t know about the Freedom Movement when I went down to Wellington. I went down because it was the right thing to do,” Peters said in a recent interview with Reality Check Radio (RCR) host Peter Williams; RCR is backed by anti-vax advocacy group Voices for Freedom.
“The majority 99 per cent were law-abiding, protesting about mandates not just the vaccine, being mandated out of work and business.”
Asked by Williams if he believed people had died after taking the vaccine, Peters said: “I don’t believe it, I know it because it’s a scientific fact. I know people whose relations died within an hour from being vaccinated, so let’s not have this rabbit hole and conspiracy theorist stuff. I’m saying to the people who argue otherwise, you show me any empirical evidence to back up what you’re saying now. And they can’t.”
By the end of last year, there had been four deaths where a link to the Covid-19 vaccine “could not be excluded”, according to the Covid-19 Vaccine Independent Safety Monitoring Board.
“The benefits of vaccination continue to greatly outweigh the risk of such rare side effects [as myocarditis],” the board said.
Potential new MP Casey Costello
Number three on the party list, Costello is a former detective sergeant in South Auckland and vice president of the Police Association. She used to be chairwoman of the Taxpayers’ Union and spokeswoman for Hobson’s Pledge. She is standing in Port Waikato.
Of Ngāti Wai/Ngāpuhi and Anglo-Irish heritage, she has been an outspoken critic of the Waitangi Tribunal.
“The tribunal has become a mechanism by which it’s become a power play... rather than a democracy, we’re heading to an ethno-national state. We are no longer New Zealanders. We are two ethnic identities, and the division that’s occurring is sad,” she said in a recent interview with Australia’s Institute of Public Affairs.
“This self-appointed group that claimed to represent us who are unaccountable, they’re not elected, there is no consequence for failure to deliver, but instead of addressing that we just do more of it and we’ve gone further down the path of division.”
Later in the interview she talked about 5-year-old school kids who were being told they were manuhiri (visitors) or tangata whenua (people of the land).
“That’s the saddest thing you can tell a young person, that you’re depriving them of their nation, you’re telling them that they’re a visitor to this country.”
Arbuckle is a fifth-term Marlborough district councillor and has run - unsuccessfully - for mayor three times. He has stood for New Zealand First previously and is standing again in the Kaikōura electorate.
He won an impressive 10.64 per cent of the candidate vote in the Kaikōura race in 2017, and 5.15 per cent in 2020.
He has listed his priorities as keeping decision-making local by opposing Three Waters, and stopping co-governance.
He said New Zealand First would help ease the cost-of-living crisis by taking on the foreign-owned banks and the supermarkets and he has talked about the importance of investing in the storm-damaged roads in the Marlborough Sounds.
He is a member of the party’s board.
The former Wellington Mayor is running in the Mana electorate, despite saying that he wasn’t going to stand for New Zealand First this election.
Two weeks before his candidacy was announced, Foster told NZME he wasn’t standing when asked if he was running for Parliament or New Zealand First. He later said he was talking about not standing in the Remutaka electorate.
Foster won Wellington’s mayoralty in 2019 after a donation for his campaign of $30,000 through filmmaker Sir Peter Jackson’s companies. He was a loud opponent of the Shelly Bay housing development, and welcomed its scrapping.
Jackson and Dame Fran Walsh have bought the private landholdings and intend returning the land to its natural state.
Foster held the Wellington mayorality for one term, and was New Zealand First’s candidate for Wellington Central in 2017, when he won 1.88 per cent of the candidate vote.
“Clearly there’s a desire for change, but also there’s concern that that change can go too far,” he said about standing for New Zealand First.
The author and life coach who specialises in grief might become an MP if New Zealand First wins 6 per cent of the party vote. She has signalled improving mental health services for young people as one of her priorities.
In an interview on Reality Check Radio, the party’s Epsom candidate said she was against the new law on therapeutic products, which seeks to regulate medicines and natural health products.
Unkovich told RCR she was a National Party voter but the vaccine mandates made her look for a new political home.
“When I finally read everything that NZ First stood for, basically for me, the big thing is unity. Peace. What I loved about Winston was he did go and speak to the protesters.”
She said she had wanted to attend the protest at Parliament but “unfortunately I wasn’t able to go”.
In a video she published in December 2021 but which has since been disabled, she spoke out against vaccine mandates: “The fear has to stop, the separation has to stop, the segregation has to stop, the bullying, the shaming, the gaslighting. It has to stop. It’s abuse. It’s not humane.”
In her RCR interview, she said vaccine requirements were keeping people out of work.
It’s unclear which requirements she was referencing, as Covid-19 mandates were dropped a year ago. She may have been referring to non-Covid vaccines which, since before the Covid pandemic, can be required for health and safety reasons in certain frontline roles such as health and police.
“We don’t need to wait for x amount of doctors to be trained or for a new hospital to be built. We can bring thousands of health workers back in next week if we drop those silly mandates,” she said.
“[Winston Peters] is listening to the people who have been damaged with the vaccine and things like that, people who are suffering physically and mentally, people who have lost their jobs, who are still mandated out of work and are being treated like second-class citizens.”
She has not commented on her apparent membership of the nuremberg.nz Telegram channel, nor did she respond to a request for comment.
Wilson is contesting the Upper Harbour seat, having previously tried his hand in Whangārei in 2020 (he won 3.5 per cent of the candidate vote) and in Te Atatu in 2017 (he won 4.74 per cent).
With a master’s in public policy and a PhD in governance and regional economic development, he was involved in the $3 billion Provincial Growth Fund (PGF), which New Zealand First negotiated in its 2017 coalition agreement with Labour. He was on the Independent Advisory Panel for the PGF, and is a former chair of Economic Development New Zealand.
He has previously shown support for more roading connections between Auckland and Northland, and shifting Auckland’s port and navy base north, which are still included in the party’s 2023 policy platform.
Harvey won 3.15 per cent of the candidate vote in 2020 in Tauranga, and she is standing there again, despite not standing in the 2022 by-election.
Harvey had a background in corporate sales and marketing before moving into community advocacy, where she is supporting equitable access to education and wrap-around services for children and youth. But she is against the Māori Health Authority, which she says won’t improve outcomes.
She has held various positions with the Tauranga City Council and the local district health board, and recently started a community crime watch group.
Murfitt lives in Tauranga and is standing in the Bay of Plenty electorate, and could become an MP if New Zealand First wins 8 to 9 per cent of the party vote.
The principal of KM Law, she has been a lawyer for 20 years and decided to get into politics because “there is an erosion of democracy in New Zealand, so it’s like if I’m going to complain, I must be the change I want to see”.
She told Local Focus the main local issues were potholed roads and an overstretched health service.
Murfitt’s apparent comments online - under a pseudonym - have suggested that those who took the vaccine - “death-shots” - are “technically no longer ‘human’”. She has also made online comments that seemed to question whether the 9/11 attacks were real, and suggested visiting a cemetery could verify whether “dead vaxxers” were emitting Bluetooth signals.
She has also reportedly shared a video alleging that those who have had Covid-19 vaccines are connected to a centralised 5G smart grid, turning them into “biological robots” branded with a scannable code.
She was one of the first candidates for Democracy NZ - the party formed by former MP Matt King after he left National over its support for vaccine mandates - but she was part of the exodus following a dispute over the party’s senior leadership.
In her RCR interview, she was apparently aware that her candidacy could be controversial: “That was one of their concerns about me being a candidate, a potential hit piece... but that’s okay, it will be 24 hours of news. Most people can see past that.”
She has not responded to a request for comment.
The former Shortland St actor spoke at the party’s annual conference this year where he asked party members to oppose “gender, sexuality and social ideology” from the school curriculum.
He told the Herald at the time that he believed there was a “woke virus” in New Zealand’s education system that led to the “ever-increasing sexualisation of children”.
Donoghue found himself in the TV limelight again during TVNZ’s youth debate, where he was met with a strong audience response to his comments about “globalist” groups, and for a heated exchange with Green MP Chloe Swarbrick about gender diversity being taught in schools and New Zealand First’s bathroom policy.
In the former, Donoghue said he got into politics to defend New Zealand from “globalist NGOs like the UN, [the] world economic forum”.
In the latter, his defence of his party’s policies provoked Swarbrick to say that trans people were disproportionately represented in mental health and suicide statistics, “and mate, it’s driven by rhetoric from the likes of your party”.
Donoghue retorted that it was the Greens’ rhetoric that was damaging, and that “more people are transgendering, or transitioning, than ever before”.
Derek Cheng is a senior journalist who started at the Herald in 2004. He has worked several stints in the press gallery and is a former deputy political editor.