Home » New Zealand, once a utopia for Trump-weary exiles, turns to the right

New Zealand, once a utopia for Trump-weary exiles, turns to the right

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand — After the debate between President Biden and Donald Trump turned disastrous for the incumbent Thursday, comedian Jon Stewart quipped on “The Daily Show” that he needed to “call a real estate agent in New Zealand.”

Stewart was riffing on some American liberals’ fantasy when Trump was last in power. Many talked of moving to New Zealand, a faraway place they viewed as utopian, with a progressive leader in Jacinda Ardern and natural beauty that was second to none. A significant number actually did: Data from the 2018 Census shows a jump in American-born residents in New Zealand of nearly 30 percent, or more than 6,000 people, compared with five years earlier.

Americans, like Stewart, looking for an escape hatch will find New Zealand a very different place this time around. Ardern is gone, and so too are her policies. This country is now led by a coalition of center-right, libertarian and populist lawmakers who have formed its most conservative government in decades.

“This is the sharpest political swing in a generation, the coalition is the most conservative I have seen in 30-odd years,” said Janet Wilson, a political commentator who previously worked for the mainstream conservative National Party, which leads the coalition government, and is now sharply critical of it.

The sudden shift has caught out some American expats. Jamie Pomeroy and her husband, both in their mid-30s, moved to Queenstown from Boulder, Colo., in September, the month before the election.


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They were motivated in part by Ardern’s move to ban semiautomatic weapons following the 2019 Christchurch mosque massacre. A 2021 shooting at a Boulder supermarket with a similar weapon left 10 people dead.

“New Zealand actually did something about it,” Pomeroy said.

The country appeared to be “trending the right way” on the things they cared about, she said, including the environment and gun laws.

Less than a year later, they’re returning to North America — maybe to Canada this time. “Since the election, it seems like all the values we admired New Zealand for are going the other way,” Pomeroy said. “It doesn’t feel like the forever home we hoped it would be.”

The Ardern era is well and truly over. The National-led coalition that took office in November has set about undoing many of her government’s initiatives. It is following a playbook not unlike “Project 25,” the second-term “battle plan” promoted by pro-Trump think tanks designed to concentrate power in the executive branch and unravel efforts to slow global warming.

It is reversing a ban on oil and gas drilling, and is proposing a “fast-track” for big projects, including mines, that bypasses environmental checks. It has cut climate programs and jobs, scrapped electric vehicle subsidies, abandoned plans for one of the world’s largest marine sanctuaries and set aside a world-leading cow “burp” tax as it questions the science on methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

For years, mainstream politicians on both sides of the aisle have attempted to preserve New Zealand’s unusual fauna. The marine sanctuary was a vision of a former conservative government, which also funded climate studies and vowed to eradicate nonnative pests by 2050.

When she was prime minister, Ardern argued that her policies would help New Zealand preserve its green image globally. The new resources minister dismisses that as “green unicorn thinking.”

New Zealand’s pivot to the right was driven by the political fallout from the Ardern government’s coronavirus pandemic response. Although hailed internationally for saving lives, the lockdowns and vaccine mandates led to protests about freedoms being trampled.

The leaders of the two junior partners in the coalition government capitalized on that sentiment. They are David Seymour, the 41-year-old leader of the libertarian ACT party, and Winston Peters, who has been in Parliament since before Seymour was born and leads the populist New Zealand First party.

The two of them are pressuring Prime Minister Christopher Luxon and his National Party to veer sharp right, Wilson said, pushing through changes that were never part of National’s campaign plan, like reversing a world-leading plan to ban smoking for future generations.

“Luxon hasn’t put his imprimatur on the coalition, so you’ve got three leaders of a country trying to battle it out to see who really is the alpha dog,” she said.

ACT has boasted that it “punches above its weight” in the coalition, saying that even though it has only 11 lawmakers in the 123-seat Parliament, it is responsible for half of the government’s actions. But Seymour wants more. Asked if ACT has an outsize influence over the government, he said: “We have some but not as many as I would like of our policies being advanced.”

During coalition talks, Seymour won concessions for American-style charter schools; a “three strikes” law extending prison terms for repeat offenders; and a deal to rewrite the country’s Arms Act, revisiting a ban on military-style rifles after a 2019 mass shooting. He is pushing for a referendum on New Zealand’s founding document with Indigenous Maori that opponents warn will be divisive.

Some researchers also attribute Seymour’s rise and the recent political shift to aggressive campaigning by right-leaning interest groups with ties to the United States, where think tanks backed by conservative donors have been a brain trust for GOP administrations since the Reagan era.

They point to one neoliberal nonprofit in particular: the Atlas Network.

The Atlas Network has nearly 600 global partners — including the Heritage Foundation, which leads Project 25, and climate deniers. Its stated goal is helping “freedom-oriented idea entrepreneurs” lobby for lower taxes, smaller government and less regulation. Behind the scenes, neoliberalism scholars say Atlas Network alumni campaign against climate policies around the globe from Argentina to Australia.

“It’s like a permanent soft coup. They’re ready to go at any moment in any country as soon as the opportunity arises,” said Jeremy Walker, a political historian at the University of Technology in Sydney who studied the links between neoliberal lobbyists and fossil fuel companies in Australia. Others have charted the activities of Atlas Network partners in South America and Europe.

Atlas Network’s chairperson, Debbi Gibbs, is a New Zealander whose wealthy businessman father helped found ACT. Her mother is one of ACT’s biggest donors. Gibbs says Atlas Network is nonpolitical, and “the idea that there could be a centrally-controlled cabal” overseeing hundreds of groups in 120 countries “is just mind-blowing.”

The most prominent Atlas affiliate in New Zealand is Seymour, who will become deputy prime minister next year.

His relationship with Atlas dates back nearly two decades. He was awarded a two-week “Atlas MBA” in 2008. At the time, he worked for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, an Atlas Network partner in Canada that has disparaged climate science.

Upon his return to New Zealand, he went into politics, entering Parliament in 2014 as ACT’s sole representative. But it wasn’t until 2020 that he gained prominence, successfully campaigning for assisted dying laws. Gibbs, who has been on the Atlas Network board for a decade, got to know Seymour during this end of life campaign. She said she wasn’t officially involved, but shared research and ideas from her American advocacy with Seymour.

Then when New Zealanders bristled at pandemic-era restrictions, Seymour seized upon the mood and accused Ardern of using the coronavirus to “justify more state control.”

In a speech in February 2021, Seymour cited an Atlas survey to bolster his claim that “our commitment to freedom is being lost.”

Asked about his links with Atlas, Seymour dismissed as “conspiracy” the idea that “somehow the world is organized by the Atlas Network,” saying he has been subject to a lot of theories about secretive influence efforts.

But even commentators on the right are alarmed. “Now he’s got power. We are absolutely seeing the whites of his eyes,” Wilson said. “We’re now seeing the radicalism of some of his policies.”

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