Bryce Edwards: Brace yourself for ugly and intolerant politics

Bryce Edwards: Brace yourself for ugly and intolerant politics

Right-wing political commentator Matthew Hooton recently tweeted to say that his favourite New Zealand leftwing politicians of recent times have been Laila Harré and Sue Bradford. He explained: “they are highly intelligent, have a clear ideology, went into politics to do things they believed would make a positive difference for their voters & NZ generally & delivered major change (PPL [paid parental leave] & smacking) against opposition from their own side.”

This tweet was one of many where various left and right Twitter users took up the challenge from David Farrar, in which he said: “To avoid NZ politics becoming as partisan as US politics, I’d like to pose a challenge today to #nzpol – please name a politician/activist from the other side of the political aisle that you respect and/or like, and tell us why.” Farrar himself named former Green MPs Nandor Tanczos and Gareth Hughes “for their great work over many years on protecting the Internet.”

In a follow-up blog post, Farrar explained that political polarisation and intolerance was rising in the United States, and that he’d hate for it to become commonplace here. He said: “The moment you become incapable of seeing good in those you disagree with, then you become the problem.”

Increasing polarisation

There are, however, certainly many signs of rising political polarisation and intolerance in New Zealand society. For example, there have been several demonstrations and marches in the last week protesting against vaccination policies, all involving very ugly language and threats.

Broadcaster Mihingarangi Forbes wrote on Twitter last week that covering Covid protests was different to usual: “As a journo I have always felt safe at protests, most understand we have a job to do but the ‘Freedom and Choice’ protests feel different.  ‘F*ck the Media’ is the new catch phrase. It’s dangerous.”

Newstalk ZB political journalist Jason Walls wrote this week about this increasing public hatred towards journalists covering politics, listing some ugly examples and saying “these sorts of incidents not just continuing, but getting worse” – see: Attacks on the media are escalating and look like they’ll only get worse. Walls says that some comments directed at media “are violent and quite unsettling.”

Of course, all public figures are probably used to the increase in hate and threats directed at them, along with the increasing propensity to try to get certain voices “cancelled”. Even musician Dave Dobbyn recently became the target of online abuse for arguing for tolerance and kindness towards the vaccine-hesitant.

My own brush with cancel culture and violent debate was detailed on Tuesday by blogger Steven Cowan – see: The Virus of cancel culture.

This week has also seen another research survey published on disinformation and “hate speech”. This showed that since mid-August this type of nefarious communication on social media “is increasing, widening, and deepening every week”. According to the study by the Disinformation Project, the spread of such polarised content in recent months has exceeded that of the first year-and-a-half of the pandemic.

Ugliness and division rising with Delta

Clearly something has changed in New Zealand. And it’s obvious that Covid is the key driver – especially with new government policies on vaccines, and with the arrival of the Delta variant, which the Government has clearly been unable to control, especially in Auckland.

Such ugliness didn’t result when Covid first arrived in 2020. That was very different. The fact that New Zealand managed to defeat the first wave of Covid led to a sense of triumphant national unity. There was a huge consensus that the Government had performed well in the crisis, and the public “rallied around the flag” to celebrate and “unite against Covid”.

This all helped create a relatively apolitical mood in election year, leading to the historic landslide win of 50% of the vote by the Labour Party. By and large, political debate was off the agenda, and the election campaign featured very little in the way of policy debate or critique. Social and political divisions were out of fashion.

The warmth of this post-Covid unity continued into the first half of 2021. This has been reflected in a major international study just released, which shows that New Zealand is one of the least polarised nations around. Carried out by the Washington-based Pew Research Center, it asks citizens in a variety of countries about their perception of conflict and tension.

For example, while 90% of Americans believe that there are either strong or very strong conflicts between people who support different political parties, in New Zealand only 38% believe this to be the case – the third-lowest country in the survey.

Similarly, citizens were polled about the extent to which society disagrees about basic facts. New Zealand does very well in the survey having only 18%  believing that there is disagreement about basic facts. This was the lowest proportion in the seventeen advanced countries and compares to 59% in the US. You can read more about this in my article: NZ not so politically and socially polarised.

However, the survey was carried out in New Zealand in the early months of this year – before the challenge of Delta, the vaccine roll-out, and generally before other contentious elements of the Government’s Covid management turned sour.

Obviously everything has changed in the last few months. There’s been an injection of seriousness into politics, which largely reflects that a faltering and inadequate Covid response is causing debate and disagreement.

In some senses, this is possibly a good thing. Politics is by its very nature divisive – there are many winners and losers in how policies affect different people, and how resources are distributed. It’s healthy to have robust debate, and for the Government and various institutions of power to be critiqued. That’s democracy – it needs differences and debate.

But it can also be very negative and ugly. When the divisions become nasty and the debate becomes vicious and rather empty, and people form into tribal politics of reflexively opposing different ideas, then this is hardly good for democracy. And we seem to be seeing a lot of that.

Unfortunately, it’s all likely to get worse, as Delta gets worse. The Herald’s Liam Dann has written that “The next few months are going to be very tough”, and the divisions will test New Zealand society – see: We are a polarised country – the qualities we’ll need to get through (paywalled). And he laments the intolerance and lack of critical thinking involved: “the correspondence I get suggests a great deal of polarisation. Many people are completely unable to see the alternative perspective. Some aren’t even able to see that significantly large numbers of people have different views, on both sides of the divide.”

Similarly, the editor of the Sunday Star-Times, Tracy Watkins, wrote last month about her worries about the direction of intolerance towards debate and discussion in the media: “I hope we haven’t yet become so polarised as a nation that we can’t hear someone out if they have an opinion different to our own. Maybe it’s because these matters go beyond politics as usual, to matters of life and death, that so many people can’t even stomach reading a different point of view” – see: We need to listen to each other again.
Finally, in May I was asked to contribute to a panel discussion on increasing polarisation and intolerance, and I choose to talk about some crucial changes on the political left that have helped such toxicity to escalate in public life – see: The State of the political left (in the Age of Outrage).


Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.