Bryce Edwards: The Ugly stoking of a culture war in election year

Bryce Edwards: The Ugly stoking of a culture war in election year

This weekend saw a showdown between two tribes of contemporary gender politics: those in favour of progressing transgender rights versus women wishing to defend their spaces. It’s a debate with huge passion, outrage and consequences.

The figure at the centre of the clash was the British “trans-exclusionary radical feminist” Posie Parker, aka Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull, who attempted to hold a “Let Women Speak” rally at Albert Park in Auckland on Saturday. She was forced offstage by a counter-rally for trans rights and has fled back to the UK.

Saturday’s clash of cultures is a sign of where politics is heading in New Zealand – towards a fully-fledged culture war. This is something normally more associated with American politics – but also increasingly in places like the UK.

The Ugly opportunism of culture wars

There was an element of pantomime on both sides over the last week. Posie Parker thrives on controversy. She might be complaining now about her treatment in New Zealand, but by holding her rally in a public place like Albert Park she was provoking opposition and stoking tensions, hoping to become something of a martyr.

She won. She made global news, fuelling publicity in the UK and US markets where she carries out her main fundraising. She will now be even better equipped to push her particularly toxic form of gender politics.

Likewise, those opposing Parker were rather opportunistic in arguing that she is a fascist and that her beliefs were such a danger to the public that she had to be banned from the country.

They must have known they were giving the previously-unknown visitor huge amounts of free publicity and therefore helping get her views out to a wider audience. As broadcaster Heather du Plessis-Allan argued yesterday, “Parker’s opponents made sure that she was in the news most of the week”, and “They helped her spread her message. They played right into her hands.”

The Greens represent one side of the polarised divide. MP Golriz Ghahraman tweeted on her way to the rally: “So ready to fight Nazis”. Co-leader and Government Minister Marama Davidson put out a video to say that she was “so proud” of the protesters. And obviously wearing her hat of Minister for Prevention of Family and Sexual Violence she used the event to declare that “I know who causes violence in the world, and it’s white cis men”. Such messages will go down very well amongst the party’s support base, which is increasingly sensitive to the need to make progress on gender issues.

Will culture wars dominate the 2023 general election?

The New Zealand Herald’s Fran O’Sullivan wrote on Saturday that “The ‘culture wars’ are set to be a defining issue in the 2023 election.” And she bemoans the Posie Parker tour dominating politics in a week in which the Treasury and the Reserve Bank confirmed “that New Zealand will tip into a technical recession this year”.

According to O’Sullivan, the “rainbow community leaders went into overdrive” producing “an illustration of how quickly a cultural issue can consume public discourse.”

The implication is that the public is going into an election campaign in which there will be less debate and focus on addressing the cost of living crisis. And last week the Government released a major evaluation of their latest progress in eliminating child poverty – which tragically showed that no real progress had been made. This vital issue was completely overshadowed by the Posie Parker visit, providing a warning of what type of issues might dominate the public sphere in the lead-up to the general election.

Who benefits from a heightened focus on cultural issues?

The two parliamentary parties stoking the culture wars are Act and the Greens. Those parties will gain a much higher profile if cultural issues keep rising to the fore. The Greens will pick up middle class supporters whose main focus is on social justice issues, while Act might be able to pick up more anti-woke working class supporters in provincial New Zealand.

Squeezed in the middle are the major parties of Labour and National, who are desperate to stay out of it all, aware that middle New Zealand is less enamoured by such debates and concerns. Labour, especially under new leader Chris Hipkins is trying to shuck off the woke association the party developed under Jacinda Ardern. Likewise, Christopher Luxon is trying to get rid of the reactionary image National sometimes had under Judith Collins.

On the outside is New Zealand First, with Winston Peters trying to get into the culture wars game. He’s positioned himself, along with Act, as being opposed to the woke elite’s focus on what he calls social engineering. Peters gave his State of the Nation speech on Friday in which he claimed: “There is a full-scale attack being waged on New Zealanders’ culture, identity and sense of belonging.” He complained that nowadays “there’s an awful tribalism in New Zealand politics”.

Peters pushed all the buttons on the culture war issues – claiming that the education system was the victim of “virtue signalling tinkerers”, and that government departments were more focused on relabelling themselves with Māori names than actually doing the mahi. Co-governance was also targeted as an elite agenda that would take away the “one person, one vote” Western tradition of democracy.

What are culture wars anyway?

There’s a whole new terminology that needs unpacking and defining in the new landscape of culture wars. We have been through versions associated with the “progressive” side of this debate such as political correctness, cancel culture, identity politics, and now “woke” politics. To what extent these terms are useful continues to be debated. Perhaps the better term for the milieu of more middle class progressive demands is “social justice politics”.

Much of it is associated with leftwing politics but, in reality, the left is divided over culture wars. The “cultural left” side tends to be connected with more elite, educated, and middle class activists. The more traditional, or working class orientated “old left”, is still focused on economic inequality and improving the lot of those economically disadvantaged as a whole, with a focus on universalism and civil rights.

Even the term “culture war” needs some unpacking. New Zealand lawyer Thomas Cranmer provides the following useful definition: “In essence, they are political conflicts that revolve around social and cultural issues, such as gender, race, sexuality, religion, and identity. The term was coined in the United States during the 1990s to describe the heated debates that were taking place between conservatives and progressives over issues like abortion, affirmative action, and gay rights. However, the scope of culture wars has since expanded to encompass a wide range of issues, from free speech and cancel culture to critical race theory and the role of the media in shaping public opinion.”

Problems of an escalating culture war

According to Act Party deputy leader Brooke Van Velden, New Zealand risks becoming “a divided society where cancel culture spirals out of control.” Similarly, in the weekend James Shaw pointed to the Posie Parker controversy, and said “Her arrival is the kind of risk that metastasises into broader political violence.” He told Newsroom that “There’s a real possibility we will see some form of political violence this year and someone will be injured, or worse.”

Democracy might also be harmed if the culture wars dominate this year’s election. An ugly fight over transgender politics, co-governance, or race relations would be one that alienates many voters, and reduces participation in politics. Some of the public will turn away in disgust, confusion, or fear about culture wars. The intolerance and outrage that often occurs in these debates can make ordinary voters feel unwelcome taking part in discussion and debate, or even in voting.

This doesn’t mean that the issues at the heart of culture wars are unimportant or should be suppressed. For example, there are vitally important issues and reforms that need to be progressed in terms of gender and transgender rights.

This is also a point made well by Thomas Cranmer: “it is important to note that culture wars are not inherently bad. They can provide an opportunity for different groups to engage in meaningful dialogue and debate over important issues. They can also bring attention to marginalised communities and push for greater social justice and equity.”

However, he points out that culture war debates often lack genuine, good-faith engagement: “The problem arises when culture wars become polarised and divisive, with each side demonising the other and refusing to engage in productive dialogue. This is where New Zealand currently finds itself.”

Solutions to culture wars: Critical thinking and open debate

The main problem in culture wars arise when there is no room for nuanced discussion, openness or a willingness to learn from others and opponents. Overall, there is a need for healthier debate and engagement in New Zealand politics.

This is something political columnist Janet Wilson wrote about in the weekend, arguing that we have a declining culture of critical thinking and open-mindedness: “That growing inability to think critically enables what Illinois University Ilana Redstone calls The Certainty Trap, that sense of self-righteousness that comes with having brutally judged, then condemned and dismissed, someone with whom we disagree. And when it comes to political debate, Redstone says The Certainty Trap holds us back and puts up walls.”

We need to develop our skills, Wilson says, “that includes being open-minded, having a respect for evidence and reason, being able to consider other viewpoints and perspectives, not being stuck in one position, as well as clarity and precision of thought.”

Similarly, Thomas Cranmer argues that we will deal better with culture war issues when we foster a culture of humility and tolerance: “all parties, regardless of their political affiliation, need to be willing to engage in constructive dialogue and debate over important issues. This also means that we need to be willing to listen to the perspectives and experiences of those who may hold different views from our own.”

Leftwing activist and blogger Martyn Bradbury attended Saturday’s rally and counter-rally and was appalled by both sides. He says: “Right now the entire community need to actually step back and consider how the militant cancel culture element of the debate has alienated everyone else and created the environment where Posie Parker can thrive.”

New Zealand is facing huge problems which require critical thinking and debate. We won’t be well served if such political debate and the upcoming election are highjacked by the hate and tribal opportunism we saw over the weekend.


Dr Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Government and Public Policy 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.  


Further reading on the Posie Parker rally and protest

Scott Palmer (Newshub): National, Greens, ACT, Labour clash over Posie Parker’s rally, freedom of speech
RNZ: Posie Parker protest: Christopher Luxon says right to free speech must be protected
1News: Q+A: Deputy PM says she wouldn’t have gone to Posie Parker counter-protest
Rachel Smalley (Today FM): I feel a very lonely voice at the moment in the mainstream media
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): Sooooo, is Marama Davidson right? Do white cis males cause the violence in the world?
Chris Lynch Media: “I know who causes violence in the world, and it’s white cis men” says Minister for the Prevention of Family Violence and Sexual Violence
Fran O’Sullivan (Herald): Culture wars become the new front line as election nears (paywalled)
Thomas Cranmer: Violent Suppression of free speech: Kellie-Jay Keen’s assault by transgender activists in New Zealand sparks global outrage
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): Posie Parker brawl highlights Woke Left have lost ability to persuade – the only winner is ACT
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): Toxic Trans Troll cancelled & deplatformed (literally) – Thug Veto wins battle but loses Free Speech War
Caitlin Griffin (Kiwiblog): Posie Parker and the Week the Media Lost Its Collective Mind
Gordon Campbell: On the Keen-Minshull visit
Deborah Coddington (Stuff): Posie Parker and The Battle of The Atlantic
Heather du Plessis-Allan (Herald): Posie Parker’s opponents played into her hands (paywalled)
Herald Editorial: Did Posie Parker get what she was after with Auckland visit? (paywalled)
Sasha Borissenko (Herald): Free speech too convenient a justification for thinly disguised hate speech (paywalled)
Steven Cowan: The heel of authoritarian politics stomps down on Posie Parker
Steven Cowan: Doing a hatchet job on Posie
Madeline Chapman (Spinoff): Anti-trans activism is extremely harmful. It’s also a confusingly wasteful use of time
Karl du Fresne: The battle for free speech won’t be won by hiding in the shadows
Karl du Fresne: A Day of Shame
Lee Suckling (Herald): Behind the Posie Parker row – The simple way to understand the trans experience
Anna Rawhiti-Connell (Spinoff): An alternative view of the ‘angry’ protest crowd
Liz Gordon: A very New Zealand protest
Tina Ngata: Transphobia is Settler-Colonialism
Jo Bartosch (Spiked-online): The Sheilas will not be silenced
Stuff: Hate speech or free speech? Clashes in Auckland reignite debate
RNZ: Posie Parker departs New Zealand; JK Rowling blasts protest as ‘repellent’
Isaac Davison (Herald): Activist Posie Parker seen checking in at Auckland Airport escorted by police after counter-protest shuts down NZ tour
Tess McClure (Guardian): Anti-trans activist Posie Parker ends New Zealand tour after chaotic protests at event
Matthew Scott (Newsroom): Posie Parker drowned out by thousands
Nadine Roberts and Erin Gourley (Stuff): Thousands reject anti-trans movement at rallies against Posie Parker tour
RNZ: Marama Davidson hit by motorcyclist after Posie Parker protest
Caroline Williams (Stuff): Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson knocked over by motorcyclist
Craig Cooper (Herald): Buckle up your rainbow-coloured belt, here come the Tamakis
Herald: Brian Tamaki’s Destiny Church protest collides with Posie Parker objectors in Auckland CBD
Sophie Harris (Stuff): Tomato juice thrower ‘ready to face consequences if necessary’ following Posie Parker incident
Caroline Williams (Stuff): All the weird things Kiwis have thrown at people during protests
Heather du Plessis-Allan (Newstalk ZB): Why did Posie’s opponents bother with the court case?
Karl du Fresne: In different circumstances, you could almost admire their chutzpah
Jonathan Milne (Newsroom): Posie Parker wins the beautiful freedom to make an ugly argument
Herald Editorial: Posie Parker presents an opportunity (paywalled)
Shaneel Lal (Herald): Why I’m organising a counterprotest against Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull/Posie Parker in Auckland
1News: ‘Potential’ for violence at Posie Parker rally
Herald: Posie Parker: Police concerns for welfare, Wellington security company reprisal fears
Herald: Posie Parker: Wellington security firm pulls out at 11th hour ahead of New Zealand tour


Other items of interest and importance today

Luke Malpass (Stuff): ACT declares almost $1 million in one day from big money donors
Colin Peacock (RNZ): Mediawatch: Lifting the lid on lobbying, ministers – and the media
Luke Malpass (Stuff): The week ahead in parliament: Reminders of money and some juicy select committees
Claire Trevett (Herald): How National’s Christopher Luxon and NZ First leader Winston Peter are starting the Chris Hipkins fightback (paywalled)
Glenn McConnell (Stuff): The big issues facing te ao Māori ahead of Election 2023
Grant Duncan: The Greens’ new deal
Jo Moir (Newsroom): Risk of political violence this election high – Shaw
Geraden Cann (Stuff): AI could wreak havoc on the next election – what are the parties’ policies?
1News: Inside Parliament: Bombshell in the Bay, polls, policy and demotions
Adam Pearse and Claire Trevett (Herald): Beehive Diaries: Census’ extra-marital affair, dancing queens and who won Chris of the week? (paywalled)
Victor Billot (Newsroom): An Ode for .. Poll loser Luxon
Johnny Blades (RNZ): The House: Keeping the flow: the use of te reo at Parliament

Grant Duncan: Can Winston Peters make another come-back?
Jamie Ensor (Newshub): Winston Peters claims Kiwis’ identity under ‘full-scale attack’, will ditch ‘woke virtue signalling’, takes aim at Jacinda Ardern’s resignation
Glenn McConnell (Stuff): Winston Peters starts campaign with attacks on bilingualism and ‘the cultural cabal’
Felix Desmarais (1News): Winston Peters: NZ First would remove Māori names from Govt depts
RNZ: Winston Peters rails against secret ‘woke agenda’ in campaign speech
Mark Quinlivan (Newshub): Newshub Nation host Rebecca Wright grills Winston Peters on choosing Labour in 2017 after claiming ‘we need to take the country back’
Amelia Wade (Newshub): Winston Peters says Labour hid He Puapua – but Newshub can reveal he was among those who commissioned it

Andrea Vance (Stuff): Wayne Brown just helped the Government in its grab for local power
David Farrar (Kiwiblog): Auckland Council quits LGNZ
RNZ: Auckland Local Government New Zealand exit ‘expensive and rash’, critics say
Erin Johnson (Stuff): Will the Local Government exit cost Auckland Council more than staying?
Bridie Witton, Erin Gourley and Jo Lines-MacKenzie (Stuff): Mayors push for collaboration, cooperation after Wayne Brown’s ‘disappointing’ exit from Local Government NZ
Steven Walton (Stuff): ‘Better to be in the tent’ of Local Government New Zealand, says Christchurch mayor
Bridie Witton (Stuff): ‘800 members getting pissed and dancing’? Local Government NZ says it never hosted its annual conference in the Bay of Islands
Benjamin Plummer (Herald): Auckland Council quits Local Government NZ: LGNZ chief executive refutes Wayne Brown’s claims of a ‘boozy’ conference in the Bay of Islands
Ireland Hendry-Tennent (Newshub): Local Government NZ hits back after Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown says organisation’s heavy drinking not helping ratepayers
Todd Niall (Stuff): Wayne Brown launches new review of Auckland’s port future
Oliver Lewis (BusinessDesk): Auckland council doing ‘confidential’ port review (paywalled)
Andrew Bevin (Newsroom): Airport share sales fraught with difficulty – but retaining ownership is costly
Todd Niall (Stuff): Former chief science advisor to PM wants fix for Auckland’s at-risk Southern Initiative
Joseph Los’e (Herald): Independent Māori Stat Board to Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown: Leave our putea alone – and we’re not moving
Samantha Gee (RNZ): West Coast mayors have ‘heartening conversation’ over water reform fears
David Hill (RNZ): Minor tweaks expected in Three Waters ‘reset
Julie Jacobson (Stuff): Call for lower fees, with 54% of Wellington’s on-street car parks in use
Tom Hunt (Stuff): Wellington council revokes police power to trespass on Anzac Day
Hamish McNeilly (Stuff): Accusations of ‘autocratic’ leadership and creating dissent – how karakia divided a council
Jonathan Leask (Local Democracy Reporting): Fair Go’s claims about Ashburton’s recycling efforts rubbished

Ben Moore (BusinessDesk): There’s nothing basic about the ‘basics’ of education (paywalled)
Luke Malspass (Stuff): Why Christopher Luxon’s education policy should have been launched by Labour
Katie Scotcher (RNZ): National’s policy aims to school Labour on education decline
Dileepa Fonseka (BusinessDesk): Education assumes its rightful place on the debate stage (paywalled)
Cathy Buntting (The Conversation): Teachers need a lot of things right now, but another curriculum ‘rewrite’ isn’t one of them
Ripu Bhatia (Stuff): National’s education policy puts neurodiverse at risk – Dyslexia Foundation
1News: Q+A: More prescriptive curriculum helps neurodiverse students – National
Mike Boon: It’s official: National have an education policy
Gabrielle McCulloch (Stuff): Inside the comms ‘mess’ of school closures during the Auckland floods
Lee Kenny (Stuff): Secondary and area school teachers will strike again next week
Lee Kenny (Stuff): Kindergarten and primary school teachers rule out strike action next week
Jamie Morton (Herald): Revealed: How AUT move to shut NZ’s only radio observatory sparked a top-level Govt scramble (paywalled)
Alex Penk: From uniform fonts to uniform thoughts
Jonathan Killick (Stuff): ‘Like a family’: Artists and industry say MAINZ closure bad for Kiwi music

Rachel Thomas (Stuff): ‘Not a good time to get sick’: data lays bare the burgeoning crunch points in our health system
Nicholas Jones (Herald): Waikato Hospital cardiac surgery patients caught in delays; overdue cases sent to Auckland, Wellington
Michael Neilson (Herald): ‘Significant impact’: MSD dental grants near $15m in first three months of policy (paywalled)
Fiona Ellis (ODT): DCC urges public to protest hospital cuts
Marc Daalder (Newsroom): Health advice scrubbed due to anti-trans pressure
Jem Traylen (BusinessDesk): $1 Billion of exports jeopardised by Therapeutic Products Bill(paywalled)
Stephen Forbes (Local Democracy Reporting): New unit aims to tackle south Auckland’s huge obesity problem
Lyric Waiwiri-Smith (Stuff): Ozempic in New Zealand: How could the drug affect Kiwis?
Helen Harvey (Stuff): A lifetime of health experience already behind new Tui Ora chief executive

Jenée Tibshraeny (Interest): Treasury still can’t say how much Covid money has physically been spent (paywalled)
Jamie Morton (Herald): Explained: What to know ahead of NZ’s next ‘big boost’ against Covid-19 (paywalled)
Sam Olley (RNZ): Negative excess mortality sign NZ got it right with Covid-19 response – Sir Ashley Bloomfield
Hannah Martin (Stuff): By the numbers: Three years since Aotearoa’s first Covid-19 lockdown

1News: Q+A: China’s challenge in stepping up diplomatic efforts
Thomas Manch (Stuff): New Zealand won’t ban TikTok like Australia or the US. Here’s why
Don Brash: New Zealand’s foreign policy dilemma
Jane Patterson (RNZ): Mahuta – ‘We take seriously’ NZ’s relationship with China
Reuters: China’s top diplomat: Confident about ties with New Zealand
Thomas Manch (Stuff): Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta meets top-ranking Chinese diplomats in Beijing
Kelvin McDonald (Whakaata Māori): China visit: Foreign Minister emphasises NZ’s interest in ‘peaceful and stable’ Pacific region
1News: Mahuta tells China of concerns over lethal aid to Russia
Agence France-Presse (Guardian): New Zealand foreign minister tells China of ‘deep concerns’ over rights abuses and Taiwan
AP: Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta tells China of concerns about lethal aid to Russia for its war in Ukraine

Anne Salmond (Newsroom): Greenwashing and the forestry industry in NZ
Aaron Smale (Newsroom): East Coast farm collapses after Māori Carbon group takes over
Angus Kebbell (Interest): David Norton says aspects of carbon farming with exotics are “ecologically fraudulent”
Brent Edwards (NBR): Treasury’s reservations about advice on ETS settings (paywalled)
Jamie Gray (Herald): Government review of Emissions Trading Scheme could be far-reaching – ANZ (paywalled)
RNZ: Businesses currently encouraged to offset emissions by planting trees – economist
Guy Trafford (Interest): Farmers and foresters need to take responsibility for the impacts their decisions have on the wider community

Diane Brand (Newsroom): Bring back the Ministry of Works
Hamish Cardwell (RNZ): Managed retreat: How the rest of the world handles it
Damien Venuto (Herald): The Front Page: Adaptation vs mitigation – What should NZ do about climate change?
Brent Edwards (NBR): New Zealand’s risk assessment needs to improve (paywalled)
Tom Dillane (Herald): Inside Wayne Brown’s flood review: Staff interrogated in ‘minute detail’, no call to Minister McAnulty (paywalled)
Amanda Cropp (Stuff): DIY work on flood-damaged houses could expose asbestos, putting residents, volunteer helpers and tradies at risk
RNZ: Warning of asbestos contamination in cyclone clean-ups
RNZ: Work underway on $5m stopbank upgrade to protect Dunedin Airport, farmland

Tess McClure (Guardian): ‘Like you’re in a horror movie’: pollution leaves New Zealand wetlands irreversibly damaged
Kirsty Johnson (Stuff): An environmental disaster was waiting to happen in Tolaga Bay. No one listened
Craig Ashworth (Local Democracy Reporting): Lost species, missing seaweed, dead eels: 40 years on the Taranaki coast
RNZ: 1080 drops planned for Mt Messenger for pest control

Max Rashbrooke (Stuff): How will Hipkins tackle stagnating progress on child poverty?
1News: Q+A: Benefits increasing but more investment needed, minister claims

Jenée Tibshraeny (Herald): Revealed: Finance Minister Grant Robertson sought advice from Reserve Bank on introducing a bank tax (paywalled)
Dan Brunskill (Interest): The pandemic made you poorer but public policy made you feel rich
Liam Dann (Herald): The big squeeze – RBNZ warning to Kiwis needs to include Government spending (paywalled)
Jenny Ruth (BusinessDesk): Inflation winners and breaking things (paywalled)
Shane Te Pou (Herald): Don’t cast workers on the scrapheap (paywalled)
Gordon Stuart (Stuff): Global banking crisis: we won’t escape the fallout
Hillmarè Schulze (NBR): We have a recession every 10 years – it should not be a surprise (paywalled)

Benn Bathgate (Stuff): ‘Unintended consequences’ – Ministry admits Rotorua MSD motels did spike crime
Laura Smith (Local Democracy Reporting): Rotorua emergency housing motels positive experience for many – government-commissioned report
Christine Rovoi (Stuff): Homelessness, housing insecurity remain significant for Māori – study
Duncan Greive (Spinoff): Inside the radical plan to build ‘the new state house’ and change renting forever
Susan Edmunds (Stuff): Kids versus a mortgage? Why getting into your first home is harder with children
Susan Edmunds (Stuff): How much higher are home loan rates going to go?
Erin Gourley (Stuff): Housing plan for former prison site ‘not an exclusive enclave’