Political analysts are still trying to work out what the new Labour-led government means for New Zealand. There are a variety of different views on the ideological nature of the new administration, especially because it involves three very interesting political parties, all of which have recently been in a state of flux.
On Thursday, a highly controversial analysis of where this government is going was published, claiming that the new coalition government might appear to be progressive but is actually controlled by the far-right - by which the writer meant the New Zealand First party. The piece gained particular notoriety because it was published by the Washington Post - see: How the far right is poisoning New Zealand.
Author Ben Mack writes: "while Ardern may be the public face, it's the far right pulling the strings and continuing to hold the nation hostage. What's happened in New Zealand isn't just horrifying because of the long-term implications of hate-mongers controlling the country, but also because it represents a blueprint that the far right can follow to seize power elsewhere. Appealing to ethnically homogenous, overwhelmingly cisgender male voters with limited education and economic prospects who feel they're being left behind in a changing world is nothing new for the far right. But what is new is its savvy at exploiting democracy by doubling down on these voters".
The article concludes by calling for Labour to dissolve the government: "it would be best for Ardern to end her unholy alliance with New Zealand First and the far right, even if it meant she might not return as prime minister. As long as the far right has power, bigotry and hate will continue to fester in Middle-earth."
For more on Mack's view of Peters see the recent Herald column As an immigrant, I'm terrified of Winston Peters.
The dismayed reaction in New Zealand
After being painted as a far-right villain, New Zealand First leader Winston Peters hit back on TVNZ1's Breakfast: "Can I just say, I'm writing to the Washington Post to suggest that someone's escaped from a lunatic asylum about 2.30 in the morning and writing an article in the name of that person, because no sound, sane person could have written that malicious, totally false statement" - see: Winston Peters launches scathing attack on article that called NZ First a far-right party poisoning New Zealand.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was apparently more diplomatic, laughing off the report: "I'd suggest that the Washington Post probably hasn't interviewed anyone from New Zealand First, or potentially even a voter, before making those assumptions".
On social media, the reaction has been ferocious, scorning the writer's understanding of New Zealand, and asking what on earth the Washington Post was playing at publishing the piece. For example, @NZleftrightout said "I've never written anything longer than a tweet, but i now believe I could get insanely drunk & write for the @washingtonpost on NZ politics. #nzpol #thisisreallybad". For more, see my blog post, Top tweets about the Washington Post article on NZ politics.
Duncan Greive ridicules the article on The Spinoff: "New Zealand has been living a lie", and "It would be easy to brush this off as scaremongering, or a shockingly ill-informed column which mischaracterises everything it touches on. This is exactly what the far right wants you to do" - see: The shocking truth: Washington Post reveals the 'far right agenda' of the new Labour-led government.
And today David Slack also mocks the Washington Post piece - see: That's not a tiki torch, it's a tiki.
Fact checking the "fake news"
There has been widespread astonishment that any newspaper, let alone the fabled Washington Post, would publish such a bizarre and inaccurate article. Media commentator John Drinnan blogged to say "the lack of fact checks raises questions about how much the paper that broke Watergate cares about its reputation" - see: Muddled facts on Middle Earth.
Similarly, former Reserve Bank economist Michael Reddell, exclaimed, "how one of the world's major media outlets, and serious newspapers, fell for this nonsense is a rather bigger puzzle. It might be the age of 'fake news', but generally serious newspapers are supposed to be guardians against it, not the purveyors of nonsense to the world" - see his blog post, The Washington Post falls for Ben Mack.
Reddell is one of many bloggers who have valiantly attempted to "fact check" the Washington Post story. He focused in particular on Mack's arguments that New Zealand First has pushed the new government to implement immigration cuts, and the ban on foreign house buyers: "New Zealand First didn't get any of its immigration policies (such as they were) adopted at all. The new government says it is adopting the centre-left Labour Party's policy. And that ban on foreign purchases, well it was supported - going into the election - by all three parties in the government, including the rather left-wing Greens."
On New Zealand First's orientation to race issues, Reddell correctly points out that "like them or not, New Zealand First gets a larger share of its votes from Maori than many other parties. In fact, Peters himself is Maori."
For other fact checking, see Michael Daly's Washington Post contributor says in NZ 'real power lies with the far right', Pete George's Out of whack Mack on the 'far right', and Emma Gorowski's No, the Far Right is not holding power in New Zealand.
RNZ's Tim Watkin got the Washington Post to publish his own rebuttal to Mack's piece - see his excellent response: No, New Zealand is not in the 'poisonous grip' of the far right.
Here's Watkin's core point about New Zealand First: "no one with any political sense would call the party 'far right.' Indeed, many of its economic policies are quite interventionist and arguably its most surprising win in coalition talks was to get the minimum wage increased to $20 per hour by 2020. More importantly, it's simply incorrect to say Peters and his party have 'seized power'. The fact is that New Zealand First won very little in its coalition negotiations with the main parties."
He concludes: "So rest assured Post readers. New Zealand remains a liberal democracy. If we are stuck with those Middle earth analogies, let's just say that the orcs remain far from the levers of power."
How could someone get it so wrong?
So, who is the writer of the Washington Post article? Ben Mack is an American who moved to New Zealand a few years ago, and trained in journalism at the University of Canterbury. Mack's university profile states, "Since graduating, Ben has gone on to a variety of other writing roles, including with Idealog Magazine, feminist blog Villainesse, and the New Zealand Herald". Mack's main role at the moment seems to be running Lizzie Marvelly's
Villainesse blog site, which describes itself as "No filter, no bullshit media for young women" and has written extensively on gender issues, including a personal account of gender identity in this New Zealand Herald column: Misgendering in New Zealand.
Mack is quoted saying "I love journalism because of the importance of fighting for positive change, holding power to account, and empowering communities and marginalised people." And this is the key to understanding where the journalist is coming from: socially liberal, politically passionate and wanting to change the world for the better. For a sense of Mack's political worldview it's also worth reading the recent Herald column, Jacinda Ardern won't change a thing, in which they outline "the problems of misogyny, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, racism, xenophobia, bigotry, hatred and systematic oppression" in New Zealand.
Martyn Bradbury blogs about Mack's identity politics lens, joking that "In the radical fringe world of Twitter Identity Politics, binary gender and immigration controls are hate crimes, militant veganism is the only dietary option, polyamorous coupling is the only ethical sex and masculinity is a disease ranked somewhere between cancer and ebola" - see: What Duncan Greive misses and why Ben Mack is National's best chance of winning 2020.
This view of the world is one in which social conservatives are the biggest enemy of the oppressed and marginalised. Economic oppression is less of a focus than oppression on the basis of ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation.
Bradbury suggests that the leftwing programme of the new government is easily overlooked if the focus is on social conservativism: "For the Ben Mack's of NZ, paid parental leave, free education and 100 000 more new houses are pitiful facades that hides the new Government's true hatred of immigrants."
Coming from a similar perspective, one blog commenter at The Standard, says that Mack "provides us all a glimpse into the liberal identity politics mindset of the US culture wars. it is a pretty bleak, polarised and hysterical place replicated in kind from the right" - see: Can Ben Mack please make his mind up.
In this sense, liberals who are horrified at Winston Peters having political power are akin to those in Labour who tried to have Willie Jackson ejected from their party because of his "toxic" views - see my column from earlier in the year: The liberal vs left divide over Willie Jackson.
And a similar notion was advanced by the Greens a few months ago, when then co-leader Metiria Turei went on a campaign against what she called Winston Peters' racism - see my column from the time: Green anxiety about being locked out of government.
This discussion of racism led to a number of commentators pointing out how toxic they think Peters is. For example, see Hayden Donnell's Revealed: Winston Peters has never had a racist approach to anything. Such a blog post could be even used as a defence of Ben Mack's article.
Similarly, other New Zealand politicians from across the political spectrum have been charged with having reactionary views. For an examination of this, see Tess McClure's For the Record: What Have NZ Politicians Done For Race Relations?.
Finally, for a much more robust examination of the reality of the far right in this country, it's well worth reading the recent investigative report by the Herald's Kirsty Johnston - see: How NZ's growing alt-right movement plans to influence the election.