The New Zealand Junta.

Some readers will remember that I spent 25 years in academia researching, writing and teaching about authoritarianism, among other things, and that I was a foreign policy practitioner in/for the US government for a decade, a fair bit of which was dealing with authoritarian regimes and working to promote liberalisation within and eventual democratization from them. Readers also will recall that I have written here about “constitutional coups,” which unlike military coups do not involve the threat of or acts of violence to remove a sitting government. Instead, legal mechanisms and institutional procedures are used to achieve the same end–the removal of a duly elected government, from office most often but not always before its constitutionally-defined term is completed.

It may seem like a stretch, but New Zealand has had a constitutional coup of sorts. In October an election was held in which the major rightwing party (National) did not reveal its true policy intentions, preferring to instead focus on the usual canards of lower taxes, high crimes rates and too many regulations and bureaucratic red tape on property owners. They were assisted by a compliant corporate media interested in generating clickbait material rather than dealing deeper into party policy platforms, and who supported the “change for change sake” attitude of the NZ public by focusing on personal scandals within the (then) Labour-led government ranks. It mattered little that, in public at least, the major rightwing party had virtually nothing to offer. What mattered was that it win, be it in coalition or outright. As it turns out, it needed coalition partners in order to do so.

The more extreme rightwing parties, ACT and NZ First, were a bit more honest in their campaigns about their reactionary intent, but the corporate media chose to ignore the extent of their connections to extremist groups and foreign donors/patrons such as anti-vaccination conspiracy theorists and Atlas Institute seed-funded astroturf groups such as the overlapping Free Speech Coalition/Taxpayer’s Union that contributed to their campaigns. Nor did the political press seriously look into the worrisome backgrounds of candidates in these parties, instead preferring to focus on the leaders and their immediate subordinates.

What that made for was the instrumental use of the October election by the NZ rightwing in order to gain enough votes to cobble together an authoritarian-minded government coalition that would impose regressive policy prescriptions without full public scrutiny or consultation. It did not matter that the two extremist parties received less than 15 percent of the popular vote, or that National received just 38 percent. What mattered was the win, which was the instrument by which the coalition could impose its political will on the +45 percent that did not vote for them.

Sure enough, the new government has gone about imposing policy reforms that basically amount to dismantling much of the social legislation enacted over the last decade, including that of previous right-leaning governments. Smokefree legislation, diesel and petrol taxes, EV purchase rebates, commitment to rail and cycleway building projects (some already underway), rationalisation of water provision services via three-tier regional management–these and many more forward-thinking policies were repealed, and more backtracks (such as eliminating excise taxes on cigarettes) are on the way. It also proposes to implement wholesale redundancies in the public sector, especially in agencies that are focused on Pacifika and other minority group service provision. More existentially in terms of New Zealand/Aotearoa’s self-identity as a nation, the elected authoritarians are proposing to review and repeal sections of NZ’s foundational charter, the Treaty of Waitangi/Te Tiriti, because they supposedly give “too many” rights to Maori, thereby effectively disenfranchising the non-Maori (mostly Pakeha) majority (or so they say).

However, as political scientist Kate Nicholls pointed out to me, the assault on Te Tiriti has the potential to be an own goal of epic scale. The Waitangi Tribunal was instituted to peacefully settle disputes emerging from different interpretations of the Treaty’s clauses. it was created in 1975 in the wake of numerous protests in the late 1960s and early 1970s stemming from disputes about interpretation of rights and responsibilities conferred by the Treaty, especially about land ownership and access rights, some of which, to quote the Waiting Tribunal History page, took place “outside the law.”

That is the crux of the matter. The Tribunal calls itself a “standing commission of inquiry” but in fact is a means to peacefully settle disputes about the Treaty that could otherwise turn violent or be subject to direct action by aggrieved and often competing interests. Seen less charitably, the Tribunal is way to buy off or divide-and-conquer Maori, or at least Maori elites, so as to give them a slice of the NZ economic resource pie, stop extra-judicial protests (since the Tribunal is in effect a court with legally-binding authority) and thereby achieve social peace. In other words, the Tribunal is a co-optive device, not an instrument of revolution, reform or comprehensive redress. It is designed to preserve a (Pakeha dominated ) social status quo, not undermine it.

The direct attack on Te Tiriti, be it by putting a review of the Treaty to a referendum or by some other means (say, by legal challenges to Tribunal authority and decisions), has already occasioned Maori-led backlash, something that promises to intensify the more the elected authoritarians push their racially-motivated project. That could well mean that rather than the peaceful and legally binding settlement process overseen by the Tribunal, we could see things settled in the streets via direct action. Given how fundamental the Treaty is to NZ self-identity, at that point it is an open question whether the repressive apparatuses of the State–the police, the courts, the intelligence services, even the military–will side with the elected authoritarians. Stay tuned.

Another thing about the new government is its utter disdain for the public. Polls only mattered in the election campaign but now are ignored. Fighting crime was a priority before the election, then it was not. It did not reveal its full coalition agenda during the campaign and did not consult with other parties or the public in the implementation of its first 100 day plan of action. Instead, the coalition has rewarded its donors and supporters in (among others) the fossil fuel and tobacco industries even though their repeal policies are unpopular and in some instances detrimental to public health, environmental and other social outcomes. This is truly a government for and by the few, even if it was able to claim an electoral victory as its legitimating mantle.

For this reason I prefer not to call them something silly like the “coalition of chaos.” They are that, to be sure, because to put it kindly the talent pool in the coalition parties runs very thin while the egos of their leaders and lieutenants run very deep. This could eventually lead to their collapse and downfall, but for the moment what strikes me is their despotic dispositions. In other words, it is their way or the highway, minus the resort to repression that we see in military dictatorships.

For this reason I choose to refer to the National-ACT-NZ First triumvirate as New Zealand’s junta. In the broadest and original sense, junta refers to a military or political group ruling the country after it has been taken over. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as “a council or committee for political or governmental purposes.” What is important is that it does not always have to have a military component and it does not always involve a violent accession to power and usurpation of previous authority. A junta, as it turns out, can be installed constitutionally, peacefully and via normal political institutions and procedures.

It is the way how these mechanisms of political succession are manipulated that determines whether a constitutional coup has occurred. If that indeed has been the case, and I believe that in NZ it has, then the recently installed coalition government is in fact a junta. This NZ junta is comprised of the three authoritarian party leaders followed by their fawning acolytes and lesser supplicants, cheered on by rightwing media and corporate and ideological interest groups as well as revanchist voters reacting to what they see as challenges to their privileges by an assortment of “woke” and uppity usurpers. But at its core, the junta represents a coordinating committee of elite capitalist and ethnographic chauvanist (f not supremacist) interests, not the public at large.

To reprise: given the circumstances surrounding it, the October election in NZ was a type of “soft” or constitutional coup in which an authoritarian coalition gained a majority of votes without revealing its full policy agenda. It is now implementing that policy agenda by rewarding its allies and ignoring the public good. That approach–working solely for the benefit of allied groups while claiming that it is doing so in the public interest–is precisely how juntas govern.

Perhaps we should start addressing Mr. Luxon. Mr. Peters and Mr. Seymour each as “mi Comandante” or “mi Jefe” because 1) those Spanish phrases for “my Commander” or “my Boss” seem more suited to their personalities and politics than the term “Honourable;” and 2) they nicely fit with their junta-style approach to governing. In any event, the proper approach when greeting the junta members is to bend at the waist and make sure that one’s nose is pointed squarely at their footwear. Also, following established authoritarian protocol, Luxon can be called the Comandante Supremo or Jefe Supremo because he is supposedly the first amongst equals in the NZ junta, but that will likely increase the intrigue, scheming, plotting and knife sharpening within the coup coalition. If so, things could get pretty chaotic, indeed.

From somewhere in Hades, Pinochet and countless other authoritarians must be having a good chuckle at NZ’s expense.

24 thoughts on “The New Zealand Junta.

  1. The test surely will be the next election. If a majority vote for these people with three years’ knowledge behind them I would have problems with your thesis. As it is, the policy agenda seems to be supported by many.
    I also have problems with your description of authoritarian for this government. Many consider the last government to have been authoritarian. Whether one agrees with the policies or not should not affect the descriptor used. Are you perhaps falling into that trap?

  2. Thanks Jim,

    As usual. The difference is that the last govt used non-consultative measures under urgency powers due to national emergencies while engaging in much consultation otherwise–and compromising with opposition groups on many issues. This crowd started by engaging in “policy-by-fiat,” as you will. There is no way in this world that the approach of Ardern and co. is remotely comparable to the authoritarian mindset of these wanna-be dictators. Surely you can see the difference? On one side Ardern and Robinson, etc. On the other, Luxon, Collins, Bishop, Peters and Jones (and various lunatics) and Seymour (plus the Afrikaner and various lunatics). No fair comparison whatsoever. This junta is “soft” but real.

  3. Strong words, Pablo, but you could be right. Only time will tell – but I don’t think we’ll need to wait too long to know the answer to that. What is happening with this new government is incredibly worrying, that’s for sure.

    I’ve been disturbed by much of what this coalition is doing & especially by what’s happening with te Tiriti. I read the other day that the Atlas Network was strongly involved in The Voice campaign in Oz and that apparently we are seeing similar methods of undermining te Tiriti by that organisation being used here. The author of that article claimed that because of that, the referendum will happen. I doubt that Maori & other supportive people will allow for that – we will see protests like of which we have never seen if that should come to pass, I have no doubt about that. The sad things is that many people who voted for this lot didn’t bother to look too hard behind the smokescreen of election promises to see exactly what we could be facing. Some are even writing columns in the press about that. This one by Verity Johnson is an example: I’d have thought people in the 4th estate should be well qualified to do their homework before an election but apparently not. There were a handful of journalists & commentators who did warn us but they were few & far between. Waitangi on Tuesday will give us an indication of where we’re heading.

  4. Thanks Di,

    Tuesday could bring some fireworks into the political arena, and quite frankly I believe that is needed. The era of complacency and passivity in the face of growing rightwing extremism being mainstreamed into politics must come to an end. It will be interesting to see if the junta show their faces at Waitangi.

    I wrote this post as a polemic in order to provoke some thought about the core orientation of the new government and its approach to policy-making. It may not be quite full dictatorship in nature, but it is on the authoritarian spectrum.

  5. I agree, Pablo, (especially about Waitangi) although I hadn’t quite considered the full import of the direction the Govt. is headed in until I read your piece. Much food for thought! And of course, if they can implement much or all of their policies, they’ll be emboldened to go further to the right.

    It behoves all of us who are worried about the erosion of democracy to be aware and to be prepared to stand up & be counted if we want it to continue. Professor Timothy Snyder, in his excellent little book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, says in chapter 2 (Defend Institutions),
    “It is institutions that help us to preserve decency. They need our help as well. Do not speak of “our institutions” unless you make them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions do not protect themselves. They fall one after the other unless each is defended from the beginning. So choose an institution you care about – a court, a newspaper, a law, a labour union, and take its side.”

    Written for the US after Trump’s election, but almost everything he has to say in his book could apply to Ao/NZ too. Such a good little ‘bible’ to have as a reminder of our obligations as citizens in a democratic country.

  6. I’m not sure if i can agree with calling it a junta, but i doubt there are very many people who could disagree that the implicit public covenant established by the election campaigns was entirely broken by the hard-right policies in the coalition agreement. These Party’s proposed a can of worms the public bought, and they gave us a Pandora’s Box.

    After the election, the only thing shocking to me was this appalling consensus that ACT are a Party of liberty and equality. No, they are a Party selling a particular kind of neo-liberal white-conformity. Their Treaty principles bill possibly passing in the House with NZF support, after NZF’s bid to do much the same thing in 2006 failed.,Waitangi%E2%80%9D%20was%20included%20in%20legislation.

  7. Just to add – that the persistence in calling this the ‘new government’ and claiming fiascos like Costello are just teething “problems sounds like their supporters are making allowances for policy by fiat. They are not just ‘spreading their wings’ or ‘getting used to the complexity of Parliament’s rules. This government is not a garage band; it’s fully sprung from the heads of its donors and the philosophies of the hard right and it will feed off any stereotype or the pet hate of anyone who will support them to stay there.

  8. I suspect this whole thing will have blown over in 2 to 3 months time. People are just mad they lost the election, they will get over it eventually. And if they don’t they’ll lose the next one even harder, their demands are too unreasonable for the majority.

  9. This is perhaps an inevitable consequence of the constitutional structures that currently operate, especially the adversarial debating chamber and two party system, and the responsible government principle which allows the party of government to control the operation of the House. Added to this, the absence of our original Legislative Council, which could provide a real check upon the actions of both the lower house and the executive.
    These structures facilitate the inadequate processes and vote-buying behaviour that you identify, whereby the regime can claim that they have a ‘mandate.’ This was exactly the same argument that Muldoon used against Fitzgerald’s complaint in 1975.
    If we were to change these aspects of the constitution, then we would tend to get better behaviour and a better overall result, IMHO

  10. As I read your piece, I kept on thinking, ‘Is Pablo writing about 2024 or 1984?’ Er… that’s when the biggest coup in NZ political history occurred with a hidden agenda that turned the country upside down. The current ‘junta’ may well turn out to be hissing pussy-cats compared to Labour’s Roger Douglas and Co.

  11. Philip,

    That is an interesting comparison. And you could well be right because the rightward turn under Douglas and co. was an ideological betrayal of the first order, done at the behest of the class enemies of working people. Here it is the class enemies of (especially brown) working people who are implementing an agenda crafted by their corporate and ideological patrons and sponsors, so no betrayal was necessary. I used the analogy of a junta to describe this government not only because of how they came to power and the way in which they impose their policy agenda, but specifically because of the three-headed hydra nature of the coalition leadership. The idea was to use a policy in order to generate discussion about the authoritarian ethos/nature of this government. Judging from viewer numbers of and some on-line commentary about the post, that has succeeded.

  12. After Mahuta and greens entrenchment treachery on 3 Waters and T Morgan’s appointment to northern 3 waters board when he represents the waikato (river) area, it had all the hallmarks of a Tainui hegemony. He Puapua has absolutely no explaination how co governance operates on the Māori side of the fence like how representives will be voted or oppointed and who they are accountable to or is it a life time peerage of tribal leaders?

  13. Concerning his stance on the Treaty of Waitangi, Seymour is trying to extract orange juice from a pineapple. The ideas he espouses aren’t necessarily present in the treaty.

    Also, Historically, his attempt to separate his views from historical settings is strange.

    For instance, Lincoln’s support for abolishing slavery was driven by maintaining public support for fighting the Confederacy in the U.S. Civil War. Moreover, the British Empire remained in force after slavery was abolished in those regions.

    Extracting ideas from the treaty, including a partnership between the crown and Māori and present-day Kiwi values, is a dubious exercise.

  14. This article is complete bollocks. Labour instigated a soft coup by introducing cogovernance without a mandate, being dishonest about its extent, and permeating every area of administration with it. National was very clear on its policies, and then it reached a coalition deal as expected. 60% of people voted against the last govt, despite the media, public service and academia being in the left’s pocket. The last election was a reasertion of democracy by the people against a small group of incompetent elites.

  15. Geoff:
    You need to lay off the pipe. Go have a lie down and embrace reality when you wake up. Ta.

  16. Hello Pablo, I think you ascribe too much … political intelligence, and power, to the existing govt.
    When I see them in action, as at Waitangi recently, they appear gutless, almost moronic. ‘Vacuous’ was a word I heard applied to Luxon and it is apt. OK , so I know they are in ‘gummint’ – but the opposition (in the most general terms) is strong (an understatement) and growing … and as long as Luxflakes holds to this Treaty Bill, the opposition to it, as both I and Di have said, even amongst pakeha, will not go away; but only increase; and will only serve as a distraction to any other policy ‘reforms’ and rollbacks the govt tries to bring in. The Treaty Bill will surpass everything else in the adverse and ongoing publicity it will bring. It will preoccupy the press and the nation’s consciousness (…are the press the nation’s consciousness?) … for as long as it remains on the table – and amen, to that preoccupation, I say.
    I am continually amazed at the headlines that daily come out, as to the ongoing negative effects of any policy ‘reform’ (?) this govt tries to do. Whether its smokes, water woes, decrease in ev sales, worries about interest rates, unemployment even (today’s news). And unbelievably they seem to have have no answers. They have been in since the end of last year – the chickens are already starting to roost. I repeat – they will not last. Luxflakes is ill-equipped for the role he has taken on. Do not take them so seriously! (Though I agree with the Maori lawyer/speaker Dayle Takitimu, at Ngaruawaahia who said, “An illiterate white supremacist is a nuisance, and a hōhā, but an illiterate white supremacist in power is dangerous.” She also described the current govt as ‘Treaty illiterate.’
    I am pleased to see you call out the press for not being more thorough and in-depth in their research before the last election. They remain fairly superficial in their reporting, at best. Lightweight. Surely we deserve better. Also the way the votes fell at the last election, the small percentages who voted for the 2 minor (govt) parties now wagging this dog of a govt.
    The one thing I enjoy and very much appreciate is the live streaming of events like Ratana and Waitangi. I do not speak Maori (it makes me wish I did), but was impressed by speakers at Ratana – true orators. I also enjoyed Annette Sykes korero (is that the right word) at Waitangi – very moving. (If only the majority of NZers would watch these events. We can learn so much. Some are on youtube.) The speeches in reply by the manuhiri at both events were lacklustre by comparison. And Luxon has been criticised for that too today. (Like others there at Waitangi, I walked away ….)

    It is depressing to see the twists and turns this govt is taking.
    But I say again, Luxon is a businessman (and is this the type of candidate the Nats want now?) – completely inexperienced; and I sincerely doubt he will be able to walk the walk and the talk and the tightrope between Peters, Seymour, and the tangata whenua; of which I include myself – for the next 3 years. They have not the money, he has not the statesmanship, and nor I suspect the balls, to see all their silly neo-liberal nuisance policies through.

    I am resolved. The gummint will fall. And we will all be happier and the wiser for it!!

    Thank you for your most considered opinions; and the opportunity to reply :-)

    Now, I am off back gardening. Where else would I bury myself in these disconcerting times lol

  17. What blows my mind is that National squeaked in by lying, gaslighting, and cobbling together three parties to just make it over the line.

    If they were a “Government” they would have been respectful of the fact that they needed to prove themselves to the public with careful management and consultation.

    Instead they’ve acted like they won with 80% of the vote and have a mandate to reshape New Zealand to suit themselves simply by winning.

    It’s insanity if they expect to stay in power past one term… which makes me VERY worried about why they don’t seem to be worried about that…

    A Junta indeed.

  18. I won’t critique your judgement of National/Act/NZF but I will critique your overly rose tinted evaluation of Labour.

    1. The centralisation of all DHBs into a single body (regardless of its benefits) was far more radical than anything suggested in H2’s review and was pushed through without any consultation.
    2. The centralisation of all polytechnics was, again, exceedingly radical, wasn’t well signposted, and was pushed through without consultation.
    3. Three Waters was inherently undemocratic (and this is important – if legitimately elected councils don’t wish to pay for pipes, that’s their right. We wouldn’t demand Parliament be stripped of its rights to run corrections if it refused to fund prisons). And, again, it was done with little listening to the almost entirely negative feedback.

    I am not judging the rights or wrongs of these specific policies but rather noting that in those examples LAbour acted very “junta-like”

  19. M9CRK:

    I think that you exaggerate the “authoritarian” nature of Labour’s reforms. They were done after receiving recommendations made by consulting experts and were designed to promote universal efficiency in the provision of public services. Moreover, if local councils do not wish to engage in infrastructure upgrades that will clean up dirty water supplies, for example, then it is the duty of the central government to step in and over-rule the short-sighted local decision-makers. In each of the instances you mention consultations with stakeholders were undertaken–nothing they did came out of thin air or by unilateral executive fiat–even if not comprehensive in reach. That is called (and is a type of) “delegative democracy”–designated entities are delegated the responsibility to provide feedback and inputs to central government decision-makers. Again, that was done.

    I will allow your comment to stand but must warn you about a problematic aspect of your comment since this is your first one. Your use of a Russian email address when you are located in Tauranga is not acceptable due to the risk it poses in terms of site cybersecurity. Please do not use it again and instead use a verifiable address. That is one of this site’s basic rules for commentators.

  20. In relation to Three Waters, you are correct. There was significant consultation, however, it was not meaningful in that at no times did the government actually engage in any meaningful compromise.

    In relation to the health reforms – your supposition is not right. There was a significant review undertaken by experts (and well signposted) but even its most radical recommendations fell well short of a centralised model. Perhaps I am being uncharitable here but when we have an existing situation X, and the consultants suggest something as radical as Y, but then the chosen solution is an even more radical Z, it looks rather like Z was the preference all along.

    And, for the polytechnics, even less. The centralisation of them was not signposted in any way nor was there any significant review of them. The policy was clearly one of Hipkins’ favourites. They had a majority. They imposed it.

    I might be engaging with counterfactuals here, but let’s say that on Three Waters, central government had said “reorganisation is a blunt tool and we’ve heard that from most of the people consulted; let’s simply regulate local bodies and require them to meet specific standards and punish them if they don’t.” then that would prove their non-junta attitudes. Instead despite hearing endless opposition they still drove their preferred policy through – which is inherently anti-democratic despite its technocratic benefits.

    In fact, all three of these proposals have one common theme: a reduction in local / regional autonomy. I might be delving into philosophical waters I am ill equipped to enter here, but surely a government that *reduces* the amount of choice available to its subjects is displaying at least some elements of junta-ism?

    In the interests of transparency, since 2002 I have voted L, L, L, L, L, L, N, N.

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