Racism to the Rescue: The NZ Right’s Pathway to Power

The Tour. Political advantage, by Eric Heath, August 3, 1981.

The Tour. Political advantage, by Eric Heath, August 3, 1981.
The Tour. Political advantage, by Eric Heath, August 3, 1981.

MORGAN GODFERY makes an excellent point in his recent Daily Blog posting on Simon Lusk (“What the Left can learn from Lusk”). While admiring Lusk’s willingness to “think big”, Godfery also adds a cautionary footnote: “I think much of Lusk’s strategy won’t work. He’s trying to bring movement conservatism to New Zealand and I doubt that that will gel with New Zealand’s political culture. He’s thinking big picture, but when you examine how his strategies would work in practice it seems flimsy (at best).”  

Godfrey’s shrewd observation highlights a major flaw in Lusk’s vision – one which I missed in my own analysis of this latest push from National’s far-right. (See my Daily Blog posting “What Rough Beast?”)  

I’d simply assumed that Lusk and his ilk were inheritors of Rob Muldoon’s populist mantle, and that their strategy involved sucking-up disgruntled and/or alienated white working-class males.  

Vulgar Marxist theorizing, notwithstanding, this is neither as bizarre nor as difficult as it may sound. As Gauleiter of “Red Berlin” in the early 1930s, Joseph Goebbels found to his amazement that many of his most militant stormtroopers had, just months before, been equally militant members of “Rot Front” (Red Front) – the Communist Party militia. A sense of belonging and the promise of action recruited many more disgruntled, alienated and unemployed young men than did either party’s turgid ideological offerings.  

Godfrey’s insight lies precisely in identifying the absence of this sort of “movement” sensibility from Lusk’s strategy papers. If the “fiscal conservatives’” ultimate objective is a radically down-sized government; and their principal opponents the defenders of “big government”; then what kind of “movement” is available to them?  

Goebbels was able to recruit former communists to the ranks of the Nazi Party because the latter’s enemies were often the same as the former’s: a delinquent and uncaring capitalism; a decadent ruling-class; reactionary religiosity. When the Berlin tram-workers went on strike in 1932, Goebbels’ stormtroopers joined them – and the Communists! – on the picket-lines.  

None of these tactics are available to Lusk and his followers who, it is now clear, owe as much to Ludwig von Mises and Ayn Rand as they do to Rob Muldoon.  

It was only in the dying months of his prime-ministership that Muldoon finally bowed to National’s traditional anti-unionism and allowed Jim Bolger to make union membership voluntary. He understood, as Bolger did not, that the Right’s winning margins, from 1951 to 1981, owed a huge debt to those “working-class Tories” whose support for National did not extend to its anti-union prejudices.  

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The failure of Lusk and his followers to transform the Ports of Auckland industrial stand-off into a “movement-building” event should have alerted them to how little traction such direct attacks on the defence organisations of the working class actually end up delivering to the New Zealand Right. Lusk clearly failed to register that the only “movement-building” the Right’s attacks on the POAL workers had generated was on the Left. Similarly, once Richard Taylor’s noisy and Hobbit-dependent workforce was removed from the 2010 equation, the actual level of popular support for breaking Actors’ Equity was minimal.  

The sad fact (at least from a left-wing perspective) is that trade unionism is now a busted bogeyman. The middle classes can be mobilized around an anti-union agenda (old-timers will recall the infamous “Kiwis Care!” demonstration, ostensibly organised by Tania Harris, in 1981) but such mobilisations tend to follow equally spectacular demonstrations of union strength. CTU President, Helen Kelly’s, success in rallying support behind the Maritime Union was built, at least partially, on her understanding that, with the right sort of PR, the middle classes could be persuaded to see the workers as underdogs to be defended!  

But, if the tried and tested bogeymen of the Cold War era: communists, trade union militants, student radicals; are no longer available to the New Zealand Right, there remains one force in New Zealand society with an enormous and (temporarily?) untapped potential for “movement-building”: racism.  

Like the United States: New Zealand’s poorest citizens; the most exploited members of its working class; and a disproportionate number of its welfare beneficiaries; tend to have brown faces. The issues of race, class and welfare are thus combined in an extremely volatile political mixture. The explosive potential of this mixture was demonstrated at Orewa in January 2004 where Don Brash was able to boost National’s poll rating by an unprecedented 17 percentage points with a single speech targeting Maori “privilege”.  

John Key’s outreach to Maori since 2008 has persuaded many voters that Brash’s race-based appeal is now passé in National’s ranks. What they fail to understand is that the racism that nearly won National the 2005 General Election has simply been displaced and diverted into the Government’s campaign for “welfare reform”.  

If the general reaction to Al Nisbert’s cartoons is any guide, there’s a huge number of Kiwis out there who see Maori, Pasifika, the unemployed, solo mums, and “dole-bludgers” generally, as interchangeable components in a single, vast, social-welfare machine. A self-perpetuating, dependency-creating piece of social-engineering, designed by bleeding-heart liberals, and fuelled by the hard-earned dollars of hard-working, self-reliant (i.e. white) Kiwis.

  It is here, in the racialised debate over welfare, that Lusk and his followers will find it easiest to replicate the “movement conservatism” that has transformed the Republican Right into such a potent electoral force. What the issues of big government, selfish unions, abortion, gay rights and marriage equality continue to deliver to conservatives in the United States, the historically fraught and dangerously polarizing issue of Maori-Pakeha relations could so easily impart to a similarly ruthless and well-funded “fiscally-conservative” movement in New Zealand.

  If this is the path that Lusk and his supporters ultimately decide to follow, then my intuition that, in them, we are dealing with some variant of Muldoonist populism may not be so very wide of the mark. When the electoral chips were down, Muldoon realised that the racism so fundamental to this country’s understanding of itself could readily be summoned to the rescue of the Right. Not just Orewa, but the Springbok Tour of 1981, bears witness to the truth of his insight.  

America’s “movement conservatism” may not be present in New Zealand for Lusk to tap into, but that does not preclude him from building his own.


  1. The Southern Strategy is one export from the States that nobody needs.

    Shearer and Norman, though, have managed to slice political counter-wedges of their own to a certain extent with KiwiBuild and NZ Power. Now they just need to sharpen those wedges a bit further.

  2. A self-perpetuating, dependency-creating piece of social-engineering, designed by bleeding-heart liberals, and fuelled by the hard-earned dollars of hard-working, self-reliant (i.e. white) Kiwis.

    I see on right-wing US based forums these folks are generally referred to as the “Free Shit Army”, abbreviated to FSA. Remarkably this term hasn’t caught on here… yet (at least not that I’ve seen). The FSA is basically anyone who doesn’t pay NETT taxes, i.e. anyone whose income is derived from the Government (so this includes teachers, police, doctors, nurses, firefighters, politicians etc) and of course beneficiaries of any variety, are all members of “the FSA”. The unreserved hatred for “the FSA” on many political and financial blogs is rapidly reaching critical levels imo.

  3. Hmmmm, I agree, Chris, in one respect; generally speaking the Middle Classes and disaffected Working Classes can be mugs for Brash/Muldoon-style playing of the race-card.

    But two other factors are also involved;

    1. The Maori Party. They seem to be the only viable MMP partner for the Nats. Do the Tory’s dare alienate their only potential coalition partner? (Assuming the Maori Party survives the next election, of course.)

    2. The de-politicisation of NZ politics by Key. Can the Middle Classes be re-politicised, especially on a race-card basis, when Dear Leader has practically put the electorate into Deep Sleep hibernation with his cheerful smile and “I’m totally relaxed” attitude?

    That’s the irony about Key’s approach to politics – it can also work against the Tories.

    No doubt, there is a massive racist under-current in this country. About 70-75% according to most responses (scientific or not) supported the Nisbet cartoons.

    Question is – can that casual racism be grown and manipulated by a small cabal of right wing nutters? Especially when Lusk and his cronies are now under the glare of media and public attention?

    • I agree, Frank.

      New Zealanders like their racism casual. Contrast that with, say, the United States where racism is a political ideology (on that note see “Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago 1940-1960” by Arnold Hirsch). With that in mind I agree that the best way to redirect (or amplify) racism is to mesh it with anti-welfare, anti-worker and anti-every-other-marginalised-group ideologies.

      However, the Prime Minister has – to use a term borrowed from the Hollow Men – innoculated himself against Maori issues. Take the water rights case. Key demonstrated remarkable restraint. Aside from a handful of gentle dog whistles, he let the issues resolve itself. In the end the Supreme Court took the heat out of the issue and left Key to implement his pragmatic solution (i.e. negotiations with iwi). Even at its height the issue came no where close to being foreshore and seabed act II.

      Racial politics is trading below the political dollar. New Zealand is becoming increasingly multicultural and increasingly plurastic. In other words, racial combustion is less likely than.

    • Not sure I agree Frank – I think the group he appeals to most by his cheerful smile and “ I’m totally relaxed” attitude – will see it as there civic duty to vote. And in all probability vote for the man with the nice smile.

      Key reminds me to much of the evil smiling president in Transmetropolitan.


      I wonder if Key would kill off his family to hold onto power?

  4. The longer the Fed and the BoJ persist with hyper-money-printing the more disconnected the global economic system become from reality and the more unstable it becomes. The moment the Fed and the BoJ stop hyper-money-printing the global eco9nomic system collapses.

    In other words, it soon won’t matter what Key or Lusk say or do.

      • Or labour, greens and mana depending on the timing. Have you been noticing that the republicans always just and only just find enough supporters of Obamas fiscal policy. They’re playing it both ways. If it tanks they were against it, if it succeeds bipartisan blah blah…
        If the industrial cycle stays true to form (10 year cycle) this could be disasterous for the next government, as the crisis would be due for kickoff 2017.

  5. What kind of success is it that the Maritime Union still does not have a new collective with POAL and has lost up to a third of its membership? Any new collective will contain concessions as well so it seems more like a defeat to me. After all the media fireworks have died out we’re left with what?

  6. Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich (of “orgon accumulater fame and with a strong emphasis on sexuality in his philosophies) believe what gave the Nazis an advantage over the Communists was that they organised social get-together for young Germans

    • Certainly racism would’ve played a role, after all a popular belief was Communism is part of the international Jewish conspiracy. Anti-Semitism was/is a popular prejudice throughout Europe.

      Doubt the Communists could’ve succeeded as the church, business and aristocracy opposed it. The Nazi’s courted industrialists and the aristocracy, with money comes power. After all the Bolshevik’s swelled in numbers after backing by Imperial Germany and financiers during the revolution in Russia.

  7. Frank, the Māori Party is only in parliament this term because a handful of star MPs managed to hold onto their electorate seats. After three more years of propping up an economically far-right Nat/ACT government, one which is starting to show those true colours in its second term, I think it’s unlikely they will survive the next election.

    There’s a chance Sharples or Flavell might hold onto their seats on the strength of their personal popularity, as did Harawira, but it seems to me that the Māori Party is a spent force. It remains to be seen where the grassroots support that formed and sustained it will regroup. Most of the Māori seats will be a contest between Labour, Mana, and perhaps NZ First.

    Dunne wil join the whatever government if he’s allowed, as he has since leaving Labour. So unless the Nats can get a clear majority, they will have a choice between NZ First, and the Conservatives if they can top 5%, or as I’ve suggested before, do a deal for Epsom.

    BTW It seems to me this ability to give safe electorates to proxy parties breaks the proportionality that MMP is meant to reflect, and I’m suprised the Electoral Commission hasn’t addressed that, or the ability of list MPs to take a vote belonging to one party to another party with them. I have often wondered if it would be better to abolish list MPs altogether, give the party leader or whip the power to cast list votes, and allow list seats to be used by any member of the party to participate in parliamentary debates in their areas of expertise, with the permission of the party caucus (and I guess the Speaker’s Office).

  8. There are other historical factors you have ignored in regards to the communist party, and the support of fascism, which I feel we should be extremely careful not to confuse with racism.
    The first was the massive betrayal of the major German Labour Party the SPD which during the workers revolution of 1918-1919 betrayed the workers, the communist were especially affected due to their militant role. Organising the friekorps (fascist military units) to kill workers and their revolution, whole buildings full of unionists were emptied and summarily executed. The biggest opponents to fascism were also executed at this time under the order of the SPD, Karl liebknect and Rosa Luxemberg. Who between them headed the Spartacus league, the most militant opponent of fascism.
    Thus was a scene set were the most militant unionist and communists as well as their most promising leadership was annihilated by their ‘supposed’ alies.
    Is it then so surprising that under orders from Moscow, no different from the line Churchill was taking at the time. Many communist, not all though. Supported or failed to interfere with hitler? Remember that those remaining within the Spartacus league were his most militant opponents, but it had been decimated as Eugene Levine said to the court “We Communists are all dead men on leave” shows the despair of the workers movement at this time.
    It was in the historical context of this smashed and ideologically smashed left that the festival of reaction necessary for the rise of fascism was complete.

    On the second point, that fascism and racism are not the same thing. Firstly I am not denying that fascism is racist, racism has been a very consistent part of fascist ideology for, well, as long as fascism has existed. But the reason fascism is racist is because of its opportunist ideology. The goal of fascism is the accumulation of power for a tiny minority at all costs, if racism will win them a point or two they will beat minorities to death I the streets, but It fulfills an additional function of cowering their opponents and critics, after all who wants to be beaten to death? Racism allows fascists to avoid creating any actual solutions to capitalist crisis because they may use pseudo-scientific/metaphysical excuses for the current state of affairs. Actual solutions would endanger the capitalist system, (thus empowering their opponents) the very means to power the fascist wish to seize.
    This means that the behaviour of fascists is often contradictory, e.g going to workers strikes, but then once in power executing workers for striking. This can be seen later when the nazis implemented all the things they supposedly stood against e.g a more uncaring and delinquent capitalism, reactionary religious cults and incredible party decadence.
    Racist conversely hold on to socially harmful generalisations but will not be ideologically driven for imperial domination.
    National may be racist in my opinion but they are not prepared to go to the opportunist lengths of parties like golden dawn who hand out food only if your Greek. Athens mayor aptly coined them ‘soup kitchens of evil’ here we see a form of twisted socialism, socialism for Greeks but starvation for the rest. Capitalism behaves in an identical manner but along lines of socialism for the rich, privatisation for the poor.

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