Bryce Edwards: Brian Tamaki’s Destiny Church party is nothing more than pantomime

Bryce Edwards: Brian Tamaki’s Destiny Church party is nothing more than pantomime

Far too much attention is paid to the endless political pronouncements and activities of Brian Tamaki and his Destiny Church. Last week the Bishop dominated a lot of political coverage and debate with his protest at Parliament and the announcement of yet another political party – Freedom NZ.

There is a tendency to take Tamaki and his church at face value. He and his followers are constantly painted as a bona fide threat to the established political order. The reality is nothing Tamaki does or says is particularly worth taking seriously. This is because he and his church are not the serious political movement they pretend to be. Instead, everything that they do is a charade.

Rather than taking the statements and motivations of Brian and Hannah Tamaki as based on genuinely-held beliefs – which virtually everyone seems to do – we should just assume that everything they do is simply about maintaining their own church business. The Tamakis have built up a successful church that provides a lucrative lifestyle for them as leaders. This is based on keeping the church congregation actively involved in the movement and, critically, paying their tithes.

Because the Destiny Church business model requires Tamaki to constantly keep the congregation committed to the cause and motivated to hand over their money, a series of enemies and causes have to be fomented for them to focus on. In the past, this has included everything from gay marriage, to anti-smacking, and then more recently the Covid vaccine and government mandates.

Many suspect the Tamakis don’t even personally oppose any of those things, but simply utilise them as devices to whip up emotions in the congregation. There are signs that many of the church leaders’ reactionary orientations are poses rather than genuinely held beliefs.

For example, in their personal life, the Tamakis are more than happy to spend much of their time with their close friend, flamboyant gay political activist Jevan Goulter. And although Brian Tamaki might rail against the Covid vaccine, the Bishop is extremely reluctant to discuss whether or not he’s been vaccinated.

So whenever Brian Tamaki launches a new political vehicle, it’s unlikely that he’s doing so for the stated goal of electoral success. Yes, of course Tamaki would love to gain some political power, but that would only ever be an incidental by-product of his main goal of mobilising his followers to stay active in the church.

It’s worth remembering that the newly announced Freedom NZ party is merely the latest in a long line of very unpopular parties the Tamakis have been involved with, starting with the Destiny Party (winning 0.62% of the vote in 2005), the Family Party (0.35% in 2008), and then Vision NZ (0.1% in 2020). Since then they have been running the Freedom and Rights Coalition. And now the Freedom NZ party, which is supposedly a coalition of some extremely minor parties.

Tamaki is always reluctant to actually stand as a candidate in elections. He didn’t even join the convoy to Parliament last week, preferring to fly to Wellington to join his flock.

Of course, it’s up to his followers to decide on whether he is a religious charlatan or not. It’s their business whether they fund his private activities and church. But the public should be wary of assuming that he really is a political threat worth the attention and fear he receives.

If you’re still uncertainly about whether Tamaki’s protests and political parties are largely pantomime, then have a look for any coherent political stances and policies from his new political party. There are none. Yes, they have some strident anti-government rhetoric, but not much else. Their slogan is the generic “Government must go”, but they don’t really say why.

Tamaki’s speeches don’t provide any further elaboration on the Freedom NZ party as a real political movement. For example, when he spoke at the Parliamentary protest last week, it was all about Tamaki’s own alleged persecution by authorities. The audience for all of this is his own church. Whether anyone else is listening, interested, or convinced, is probably of little concern to the Bishop.

The flakiness of the new political vehicle was soon apparent when it turned out that one of the key parties said to be involved – the Outdoors and Freedom Party – hadn’t signed up at all. This party released a statement to say they were “shocked” that Tamaki was using their name in his launch, as they had not agreed to be part of the new vehicle. This just reiterated that Tamaki isn’t serious about building a coalition, umbrella party.

Nonetheless, the announcement of yet another Tamaki party has set off all sorts of political commentary about the need for other parliamentary parties to formally reject any coalition with Freedom NZ. Matthew Hooton even urged Labour and National to consider a grand coalition in order to leave the Tamakis out of power. All such political stories are largely irrelevant, and have simply given the Tamakis much more media, public space and consideration than they deserve.

It’s about time we accepted the various Tamaki political parties and movements are as fake as his role-playing criminal trial on the grounds of Parliament last week. It’s all pathetic pantomime, rather than a real threat to the existing political order.

Unfortunately, some have a vested interest in pretending the Tamakis are real political actors. In particular, various liberals on the left seem to enjoy the pantomime of having a colourful enemy as an ever-present danger. It leads on from this to whip up counter protests and anguish about the threat that these religious figures pose.

The Destiny Church and associated fringe figures have become a very convenient “bogeyman”. After all, it’s much easier to condemn and focus on “defeating” cartoonish religious leaders like Tamaki than it is to deal with the real ongoing problems of poverty, inflation, inequality, housing, climate change, and a health system in crisis. In a sense, Tamaki is a useful distraction from the real issues. But it would be a shame if we let fringe figures like Tamaki become the central debate when we desperately need to focus on the big issues.

 

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.  

 

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