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Dr Bryce Edwards

The stars seem to be aligning in favour of the establishment of a socially conservative Christian-based political party, making it more than just a vague possibility. However, some big hurdles remain in place before the National Party can be hopeful that it has a new coalition-friendly party to help it into office at the next election.

Barry Soper broke the story on Friday, reporting that “Talk within the party’s been rife for weeks now with [Alfred] Ngaro’s plan being well received” – see: National needs friends… Is former Cabinet Minister Alfred Ngaro the answer? (paywalled).

The idea that a Christian-based conservative party might help National form a coalition government has long been discussed within National. The need for this type of party, or at least some sort of centre-right party, has become more urgent since the demise of other coalition possibilities such as the Māori Party, United Future, and the greatly-reduced Act.

Botany

There are a number of important factors that make the prospect of a Christian party led by Alfred Ngaro worth taking seriously – not least of which is a ready-made Auckland electorate available for Ngaro to launch his party from. Soper explains how Botany could be invaluable: “There’s a lot of Christian money in the electorate. It has a good number of Pacific Island churches in Otara to the west, a sizeable, conservative, Christian South African community and a significant number of Koreans and Taiwanese Christians.”

Furthermore, “There is also a strong Catholic presence with schools like Our Lady Star of the Sea School and Sancta Maria College. Ngaro, in his third term, would slip comfortably into the electorate which saw National commanding more than 20,000 party votes at the last election, well ahead of Labour with less than half that number.”

In her Friday opinion piece, the Herald’s political editor Audrey Young also details some of Botany’s demographic factors that lean in Ngaro’s favour: “His Christianity would go down well in an electorate in which 48 per cent call themselves Christian, and 50 per cent who were born overseas. And 12 per cent of the electorate is Pacific Island, disproportionately higher than the 7.4 per cent nationally in the last census, which may be attracted to a party led by a Cook Island Kiwi former pastor” – see: The ‘herculean task’ facing Alfred Ngaro (paywalled).

Of course, the fact that Botany doesn’t have a National MP at the moment – despite being a stronghold for National – is also a factor. According to rightwing political commentator Ben Thomas: “Jami-Lee Ross’s implosion in Botany gives National a unique chance to surrender a seat to a client party, and if a new party could pick up that seat then it could channel votes that have been wasted in the past on the Conservatives or Christian parties into a minor party that could support National” – see Jason Walls’ National MP Alfred Ngaro won’t comment on speculation he’s setting up a new party but Simon Bridges says Ngaro is ‘considering’ it.

Essentially, if National was to somehow facilitate a new party taking this seat at the next election it wouldn’t have to throw one of its MPs under a bus to do so. More on the problems with this later.

The ideological landscape

In 2019, the growing number of salient ideological issues favourable to a conservative party continue to multiply. By the time of the 2020 election, these could provide the sort of ideological landscape that is perfect for a nascent conservative party to capitalise on.

In her column yesterday, Heather du Plessis-Allan explained how some Christian voters might be open to a new electoral option: “Anecdotally, there seems to be a sense among some Christians that their faith is under attack. Couple that with a possible liberalisation of marijuana laws, an almost certain liberalisation of abortion laws and an – overdue – recognition of the Muslim community in this country, and you might have enough to drive conservative Christians into the arms of a new party” – see: How Nats will game the system (paywalled).

Du Plessis-Allan adds: “it helps hugely that Ngaro is Pasifika. If there were voters to steal from Labour it would be the conservative Christian Pasifika voters, who may well feel uncomfortable with Labour’s progressive policies.”

Andrey Young outlines how these issues are building up to a potential powerful election platform for a conservative party: “The issues that would galvanise the party are the three big social issues before Parliament at present and likely to be so in election year as well: making abortions easier to get, legalising euthanasia, and legalising recreational cannabis. While the first two are conscience issues and the cannabis issue will be put to a referendum next election for some socially conservative voters they are defining issues. It is possible that euthanasia will also go to a referendum next election, depending on if it is supported in the committee stages. That would mean a heavy focus at the election on two issues around which social conservatives could rally.”

And, again, these issues might help a Ngaro-led party drag votes from the left-bloc to the right: “They are issues that could take votes equally from socially conservative Labour and New Zealand First voters as much as National voters.”

Similarly, RNZ’s Craig McCulloch says “the party could feasibly court a conservative Pasifika vote increasingly uncomfortable with a more socially liberal Labour Party… Socially conservative voters might have typically found a home in New Zealand First, but many are frustrated by its decision to form a coalition with Labour over National” – see: Breakaway Christian party a gamble, gambit or godsend?.

In this sense, National leader Simon Bridges could be quite right in saying that “you would expect a Christian values party to be drawing those votes from across the spectrum.”

Alfred Ngaro’s leadership

One of the big problems for fledgling Christian-based parties has been the calibre and reliability of their leaders. This has led to a number of such parties crashing and burning. This is one of the key points made in the weekend by Duncan Garner, who recalls the likes of previous Christian party leaders such as Graham Capill, Graeme Lee, Brian Tamaki, Philip Field, and Colin Craig – see: Can a dose of divine intervention save National?.

In contrast, Alfred Ngaro appears like a much safer pair of hands. As du Plessis-Allan says, it’s hard to think of a more perfect leader for the party at the moment, and she outlines his positive factors: “He’s already in Parliament as a National Party MP. He’s hardly put a foot wrong in eight years in the place. He’s even had some experience as a minister. What’s more, he’s a likeable, friendly, good-looking guy. What more could you ask for? Well, how about someone with impeccable Christian credentials? He’s got them in spades. He’s a former pastor. He’s a proud zionist with Jewish lineage.”

She concludes, “If a weird guy like Colin Craig, who’s not even sure humans landed on the moon, can command 4 per cent of the vote at an election, imagine what a normal guy like Ngaro can do.”

Similarly, I said on Friday on the AM Show that, in contrast to other Christian politicians, Ngaro is a “respectable solid National Party former cabinet minister”, and he’s “actually someone that I think National will be able to trust as being, not going a bit crazy. So he’s a pretty mild sort of Christian politician” – see Dan Satherley’s Alfred Ngaro to set up Christian conservative party – report.

National Party aligned blogger David Farrar has also endorsed Ngaro as someone he is more comfortable with than most social conservatives: “I’m not a natural supporter of conservative or Christian parties, being socially liberal. But if there is to be in Parliament, I’d much rather someone like Alfred led it, than some of the previous contenders such as Capill, Tamaki and Craig” – see: A Christian party?.

But does Ngaro actually have the leadership potential necessary to succeed? Interestingly, Audrey Young says “Ngaro has charm and energy”, and RNZ’s Craig McCulloch, says “Alfred Ngaro is a charismatic former pastor of Cook Islands descent. He’s widely respected in Pasifika and Christian communities as a voice for moderate conservatism.”

Gap in the party system

Having new parties is good for democracy, and the need for diversity means that there is reason to welcome this development. There certainly is a lack of overt political representation at the moment for socially conservative or Christian voters. This is a point well made by long-time Christian political party activist John Stringer in his blog post, Ngaro, National & a New Christian Party.

Here’s his main point: “The conservative ‘family values’ vote is the largest unrepresented block in NZ. It’s often bigger than the Maori roll vote results and has polled strongly (4.2-3.9%) and consistently (1996-2014) when viable leadership has been in place. The ‘Christian vote’ on occasions in the past achieved 4x that of combined smaller parties who were ‘elected’ to parliament on coat-tail arrangements but remained unrepresented. The system is worked and accommodated, but so far Christians have remained unrepresented at party level (although many MPs share these values inside other parties).”

At the moment, there are no other viable Christian or quasi-Christian parties. Yes, Colin Craig’s former party, the Conservatives, have re-branded as the New Conservatives, but show no sign of being able to break through by winning a seat or breaching the five per cent MMP threshold. Their new leader, Leighton Baker, has said he’s worried about a Ngaro-led party splitting the vote, but in all likelihood those involved in existing Christian parties would probably throw their lot in with any new party that is established.

Risk of “dirty deal” backlash

The viability of a Ngaro-led party is likely to rest on whether the National Party is willing to gift them the seat of Botany, and this is far from certain. As Duncan Garner says, there could be a major credibility problem for a public that doesn’t like to see politicians manipulate them or the electoral system: “National could get three or four new MPs by playing the MMP system, which is perfectly legal. And it might be the difference on election night. Except many might see it for what it is: a stunningly cynical manoeuvre that screams desperation and lacks a single pinch of authenticity.”

Interestingly, Heather du Plessis-Allan argues that voters have got used to electorate deals: “I’m not convinced by the criticism that voters will feel icky voting for a party so clearly set up just to support National. Why? Is the problem that it’s such a blatant gaming of the system? Come on. That is a fact of MMP. Surely we’ve got used to gaming by now. Act’s had a sweetheart deal in Epsom for how long? Peter Dunne got a deal in Ohariu too. And, really, if we can accept a system that allows a party with only 7 per cent of the vote to appoint the Prime Minister, grab disproportionate power and billions of dollars to spend on their hearts’ desires, then we have accepted a system open to gaming.”

Since Friday, Simon Bridges has sent mixed signals about any support that National might afford a Ngaro-led party in Botany and nationwide. His most recent pronouncements are that National would in no way gift Botany to Ngaro, telling TVNZ’s Breakfast: “I am saying absolutely we are not going to do a deal on Botany, it is a seat that National has held … and I want to put a strong National candidate in and win that seat for National. We have had no other conversations, Alfred and I, in fact we’ve never discussed Botany for that matter” – see: Bridges making ‘absolutely’ no election deal for Botany even if Ngaro forms new Christian conservative party.

Of course, politicians’ feelings on these matters can so quickly change. And Bridges is promising to provide a more definitive statement at the start of the 2020 election year on National’s orientation to other political parties.

Risk of National tarnishing its brand

National will be highly sensitive to the possibility that their own image and reputation could suffer from being associated with a Christian party, with what some regard as backward and reactionary social stances. Already a number of opponents are highlighting the moral and religious views of Alfred Ngaro.

For example, leftwing activist John Minto argues today that “Ngaro is a Christian Zionist who, like Israel Folau, believes the Old Testament is the literal word of God and a factual account of the history of the Jewish people” – see: The fantasy world of Alfred Ngaro. He concludes that: “Whatever Ngaro may offer the country as a conservative Christian leader it won’t be compassion, tolerance, justice or truth. Instead it will be a conservative straitjacket of bigotry, arrogance and injustice.”

National won’t want to risk this association according to blogger No Right Turn, who argues “religious politics has a toxic reputation in New Zealand for all sorts of reasons: misogyny and homophobia, historic religious parties being dominated by fringe loonies” – see: A handmaid party?.

Although such a new party might be useful to National, “voters are influenced by who a party’s friends are… and if a party’s path to power is to crawl into bed with the religious right, then a fair number of people will be turned off by this, and vote accordingly.”

Finally, for a bigger picture discussion from last year about various other small-party coalition options for National, see Alex Braae’s Simon Bridges needs to make friends. But voters know bullshit when they smell it.

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