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Karl du Fresne: New Zealand’s cultural upheaval

The following piece was originally published in the Spectator Australia on April 16, 2022

My wife and I recently spent two weeks on a road trip around New Zealand’s South Island. It’s a spectacularly beautiful corner of the world that was recently exposed to an international audience via Oscar-winning director Jane Campion’s film The Power of the Dog, in which the Central Otago region stands in for the wilds of Montana.

It was a good time to be touring the island because the roads were virtually free of traffic, a state of affairs likely to come to an abrupt end now that New Zealand is reopening its doors to international tourists after two years of economically crippling isolation.

But the trip was also a therapeutic experience because in the South Island – or to give it its more poetic Maori name, Te Wai Pounamu – you’re geographically removed from Wellington and Auckland, the epicentres of the culture wars. For those two weeks it was almost possible to delude ourselves that we were back in the familiar New Zealand we knew.

Alas, it wasn’t so. Tuning in even briefly to the TV and radio news was a reminder that the country is in the grip of a cultural revolution reminiscent in tone, if not in scale, of the one that convulsed Mao’s China in the Sixties and early Seventies.

There are days when I barely recognise New Zealand as the country I was born in and where my family has lived for generations. The transformation since the re-election of Jacinda Ardern’s Labour government in 2020 has been breathtaking in both its speed and its reach.

Note that I say re-election. Ardern became Prime Minister in 2017, but for the duration of her government’s first term Labour was in coalition with the socially conservative New Zealand First party, which served as an ideological handbrake.

In the 2020 election, voters rewarded Ardern for what they thought was her competent handling of the Covid-19 crisis by giving Labour the power to govern alone. Suddenly the handbrake was released.

The resulting upheaval isn’t measurable so much by legislative change as by a profound shift in the political and cultural tone of the country. Ardern’s re-election was like an injection of steroids for the leftist cabal that now exerts control over all New Zealand’s institutions of power and influence, including the media and the craven business sector.

This university-educated and predominantly middle-class neo-Marxist cabal is distinct from New Zealand’s dwindling old-school socialist/communist Left, which ironically now finds itself aligned with conservatives on issues such as free speech and identity politics. But the New Left wields far more power than the comrades of the Old Left ever dreamed of.

How is this leftist cabal’s influence manifested? Chiefly through the divisive phenomenon known as wedge politics, and most provocatively through the promotion of 50-50 co-governance between representatives of the European majority and a minority consisting of people with Maori ancestry.

There are now effectively two levels of citizenship in New Zealand, one of which confers entitlements not available to the other. This is evident across a range of public policies that include compulsory Maori representation on local councils, the appointment of Maori activists to positions of power and the splurging of vast sums of money targetted exclusively at people who happen, by what is effectively a genetic accident, to have a proportion of Maori blood.

All this is predicated on the notion that people of part-Maori descent are entitled to redress for the baneful effects of colonisation. These deleterious effects presumably included the introduction of democratic government, the rule of law and the end of cannibalism, slavery and tribal warfare.

‘Decolonisation’ is a fashionable catch-cry among the metropolitan elites and one the government does nothing to discourage. Whether decolonisation includes rejecting such innovations as literacy and Western medicine isn’t clear, since the advocates of decolonisation are careful not to spell out exactly what they mean.

Maori co-governance is already well advanced in health and education with virtually no critical scrutiny from the media. However Ardern’s government is facing stiff resistance over an audacious ideological project known as the Three Waters plan, which would transfer control of the country’s water infrastructure from local councils to opaque new entities in which unelected Maori tribal interests would wield equal power with representatives of the wider community.

That may prove to be Labour’s undoing as opinion polls show a pronounced swing in favour of the centre-right National party and its newish leader, Christopher Luxon. It’s a measure of the country’s anxiety – or should that be desperation? – that voters now seem prepared to put their faith in a politician who has never publicly expressed an original thought and whose vision doesn’t seem to extend beyond lowering taxes.

The Three Waters plan is effectively a test run for a radical re-interpretation of the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, the country’s founding document. Under the proposed new model, people of Maori descent, representing 16.5 per cent of the population, would be given an equal say in government across the board – an idea clearly incompatible with the basic tenets of democratic government. The stark choice facing New Zealand voters at next year’s general election will be between democracy and a different form of government for which we have no name.

But the cultural upheaval goes far beyond that, stoked by state-subsidised media that have abandoned their traditional purpose of seeking to reflect the society they purport to serve, and which instead bombard the public with indoctrination promoting the interests of attention-seeking minority groups.

The result is a society more feverishly divided than at any time in living memory – a phenomenon exemplified by February’s protest camp on the lawns of Parliament, which exposed deep sociological fault lines and ended in a violent showdown with the police.

This sense of polarisation is magnified by an authoritarian intolerance of dissent and by Stalinist-style denunciations of anyone bold or foolish enough to speak out against prevailing ideological orthodoxy.

Meanwhile, Ardern floats above it all. She’s a shrewd enough politician to have remained largely aloof from the rancour her government has generated, and who avoids entanglement in any unpleasantness that might detract from her carefully crafted image as an empathetic politician. But she cannot disown responsibility for presiding over a government that is promoting the politics of division and destabilising what was previously an admirably cohesive and harmonious society.

Karl du Fresne, a freelance journalist, is the former editor of The Dominion newspaper. He blogs at

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