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.