Gordon Campbell on church and state in Mt Roskill

ElectionsignthumbThe interval between election night and the formation of a new government has been restfully free of bickering and posturing, and it would be nice to think this could last until Christmas. No such luck. Come November 3, and when all the special votes (20% of the total votes cast) have been tallied, the bickering over negotiations will begin in earnest.

In the meantime, it’s been interesting to learn more about some of the new MPs. Like Carlos Cheung for instance, the National candidate who defeated Michael Wood in Mt Roskill. Cheung used to be a scientist specialising in research into diabetes. Because of the meagre, time consuming and unpredictable process involved in winning the research grants “lottery” in New Zealand, Cheung decided to diversify into property management. He was good at it. From there, he got into politics.

As Cheung told Q&A, he could have followed the example of 90% of his scientific colleagues and gone overseas. Born in Hong Kong, Cheung had moved to New Zealand as a teenager, and he likes it here. Yet after he married, the struggle to raise a family while reliant on irregular research grants caused him to re-examine his options:

Being in science is a very hard environment. At the time, it was hard to get funding from the government. I needed to think ‘what’s the best for my family?’ I want a sustainable income for my family as well. So after a long, long decision, a long discussion with my wife, I think starting up a property management company will be one of the best ways to go.”

The fact that research funding into the causes and prevention of a common disease like diabetes wasn’t sustainable – but a career in property management was – says a lot about the state of the nation in 2023. “Sometimes,” Cheung told Q&A, “I think God has a meaning for me.” That divine calling, initially at least, was into real estate.

The role of God in Cheung’s personal motivations, and in the outcome in Mt Roskill (and other Auckland electorates), could be significant. Mt Roskill also happens to be the home of the Ark Collective, a “faith based” community organisation that has been active in food relief, social support and evangelisation work in the Mt Roskill community before and after the January floods and Cyclone Gabrielle. From its Facebook page, here’s the Ark Collective message on the day before election day:

Voting call

The law and order and family discipline messaging that National promotes is very much in harmony with conservative Pasifika values. Even so, as AUT lecturer Richard Pamatautau indicated to RNZ, the National Party still appears to lack the will and/or the ability to really connect with the Pasifika community:

In spite of the heavy alignment with Labour over the years… the values of many conservative Christian Pacific families do align with National. “There is a conservatism there with the church-going families, there is a love of hierarchy, and there is a sense of duty.”

“At the same time I think there is also a sense of duty and mana that won’t be recognised in National. And to be fair to Labour, it has really recognised how it can milk the Pacific population for votes, and increasingly over time it’s got better at elevating Pacific people into Cabinet, into more important roles. Plus, there is more of a comfort with diversity in the Labour Party.”

Despite the landslide election night victory for the centre right, there is only one “new blue” Pasifika MP in the House. Even then, Cook Islands lawyer Angee Nicholas is clinging to only a 30 vote lead in Te Atatū that is unlikely to survive the special votes count. Because National won so many electorate victories, the party’s best-placed Pasifika list MP Fonoti Agnes Loheni is also unlikely to make it into Parliament. To complete this bleak picture, National’s coalition partner, Act, has pledged to scrap the Ministry of Pacific Peoples.

If the top down political smarts about Pasifika voters are still conspicuously lacking in National, the faith-based community organisations are getting a National-compatible message across at the grass roots in a variety of ways. Food aid, flood relief help, cultural and sporting events etc. The conservative personal views of National’s leader on abortion, and the centre right’s support for binary concepts of gender identity will also find a sympathetic ear in some of Pentecostal church groups in Auckland, and beyond.

More to the point, National’s so-called “social investment” approach to welfare entitlement and community need – essentially, it features a privatisation process of welfare delivery – also promises to make more funding available to religious charitable organisations like the Ark Collective, and will thus open up further fertile ground for evangelisation.

Footnote: The Ark (Acts of Roskill Kindness) Collective appears to be the product of a local partnership with the Global Hope Mission, which is a US multinational religious and charitable organisation.

Footnote Two: The likely outcome of the specials vote count? A few Labour losses will reverse, close calls will look a bit more comfortable, and Labour’s defeat will probably end up closer to a 30% drubbing than the 26.85 % disaster it looked on election night. A couple of seats will probably flip back to Labour, such as Te Atatū and Banks Peninsula.

Footnote Three: Special votes will further erode the National/Act share of the final vote. Those viewers who actually saw Winston Peters’ speech on election night would have felt nonplussed when Christopher Luxon glossed that speech as an offer of “help.” It looked far more like a pre-negotiations warning shot that, once the books had been opened, some of the promises made on the campaign trail would no longer be feasible, and some of them would actually have the half life of “confetti.”

Meaning, Peters’ “help” and co-operation will come at a price, and this price will not simply be front-loaded at the start of this new administration, absorbed, and forgotten. The concessions made to Peters will have to be political gifts that keep on giving. Instead of a cosy monogamous relationship between National and Act, there will be three parties in this marriage of convenience.

The outcome of this exercise in political polyamory may not be pretty. A party that calls itself “New Zealand First” can hardly condone foreigners being invited to buy up choice New Zealand assets. Deleting that source of revenue will make National’s vaunted – and inflationary – $4 billion tax cuts package even less affordable.