As the birth of Jacinda Ardern’s baby paints New Zealand as a truly progressive country, James Borrowdale meets the young Kiwis unimpressed by today’s socially liberal attitudes.
“If you’re not a socialist at age 20,” runs the maxim, attributed to a variety of historical figures, “you have no heart; if you’re not a conservative by middle age, you have no brains.” Without casting judgement on the verity of that sentiment, its assumption of political transformation holds true: certainly — and statistically — in New Zealand, the older we get, the more rightwards we lurch.
In our later years, globally, we probably still sit on the liberal end of the spectrum — even New Zealand’s political right wing generally have socially progressive attitudes. As a country we never tire of touting our progressive credentials: the first country with universal female suffrage; relatively early adoption of marriage equality; three women prime ministers to date.
Abortion-law reform is a current political talking point, and the End of Life Choice Bill, which aims to legalise euthanasia, is with the Select Committee. Perhaps even the general good will directed towards the birth of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's baby may be considered evidence of a largely progressive attitude — Ardern is, after all, an unmarried, working mother whose male partner will be a stay-at-home dad.
Yet, within this landscape, there are young people — whose peers are progressivism’s vanguard — who find liberalism repressive, and perhaps even dangerous.
Blake Monk, chair of the Young Nats at Auckland University, argues that progress for its own sake can be damaging, “that society sometimes benefits from keeping what it has had in the past”, even if that past might have fallen outside the margins of your own lifetime.
We met in a bar on Auckland’s ‘K’ Road, the street outside climbing through the low gears of an early Friday evening. Monk, 20, studies law and politics at Auckland University. Already nominally a conservative, starting university and watching overseas occurrences — the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump — pushed him further rightward. “By logical process of elimination I found that’s what I agreed with most.”
Fiscally, this includes the belief that healthcare and education should be privatised, a position he acknowledges pushes him to the right of his own party. And socially, that classically progressive causes like the gay rights movement have nothing left to achieve.
Although he's bisexual, he speaks about marriage equality with ambivalence, professing more admiration for those who voted against it, like National’s former and current leaders. “In a way, I’m glad it passed — sure, great, it happened. I don’t think it’s going to have a major impact either way, but I am very proud of people like Simon Bridges, Bill English who stood up for what they believed in and argued the opposite viewpoint.”
He is similarly dismissive of feminism. “I don’t really understand what the feminist movement is advocating for. They seem to have their equal rights intact, all the rights and freedoms of everyone else and I think identity politics is just another unhelpful way to divide the population.” He maintains there is no wage gap between the sexes. I asked, then, whether in his view feminism was a destructive or constructive force: “So-called third-wave feminism I think is just unhelpful and divisive”.
Conservatism, he says, is society’s devil’s advocate. Within a wider political culture he expects will become increasingly liberal, the role of the conservative, as he sees it, is to offer “cultural resistance”, to act as a brake on what he might describe as progressive excess.
The shadow of Donald Trump — ample of belly, confusing of hair — fell over these conversations, just as his spectre haunts global modern conservatism. Monk, for instance, is a fan. So too — though much less unreservedly — is Kiraan Chetty. Chetty at 18 is the leader of the New Conservatives' (formerly the Conservatives) youth wing. He was born in South Africa, moving to Gisborne with his family when he was 8, and now lives in Auckland, where he is in the first year of a law and politics degree.
He defines his conservatism, with the precise wording of all his statements, as “the conservation of traditional values, or values that have been perceived to have worked in the past”. He came to the New Conservatives in the wake of former leader Colin Craig’s indiscretions, finding that the behaviour of Craig didn’t reflect the party itself and that he agreed with the policies he found on its website. He began an email conversation with the party, and three years later became its youth leader.
That same website, if you check it now, is heavy on social policy: the belief that marriage is between one man and one woman, opposition to abortion reform, and even a pornography policy: the New Conservatives, the website reads, would “ultimately like to see the supply of pornography cut off”. Its page on economic policy, by contrast, is less forthcoming, offering only “This page is under construction”.
As Chetty articulates it, the party’s opposition to gay marriage is both a preservation of traditional values, and an information-led policy. “I can only speak for the party, and in saying that we try to maintain an objective view and look at some of the data that shows that, say, a child whose parents are biologically theirs… that they tend to be less incarcerated when they grow up.”
On abortion, Chetty first framed the issue in personal-responsibility rhetoric, that it is people’s job to “have been responsible … and then responsible for the outcomes. Sometimes pleasures in life aren’t always consequence-free, and that is one of them.” I asked if that meant, ideologically speaking, a private abortion that didn’t involve the state in any capacity would be permissible. “It definitely depends who you are asking. And in this case, myself personally, I certainly believe that the baby in the womb is of human life and has the need to be protected as a child.”
Chetty takes issue with what he derides as “identity politics”. I asked if he ever feels like his conservatism, with its emphasis on what has come before, narrows the scope for what is possible. No, he said. Indeed, he continued, that was what progressives are guilty of, forcing people into boxes and limiting their free speech. “In identity politics, I’ve got a lot of boxes which I can tick for being oppressed. For example, Indians brought to South Africa were brought as slaves, well and truly, properly and undoubtedly, as slaves. So I could be angry for that and be oppressed by that.”
He says he chooses not to be. He sees affirmative action as the natural outcome of identity politics — something, he says, the New Conservatives take great issue with. “That is the phrase we use: ‘one law for all’. I think it’s a fantastic phrase, because another pillar of conservatism is that we believe all humans, regardless of race, gender, sexuality have an innate and intrinsic human value.”
Recognising that, he says, means: “One law, one objective law, which doesn’t tend to the differences amongst people but rather their similarities and this particular innate human value and this rational human mind, is the only way to objectively and equally determine what is just for everybody.”
Sonya Wilson, 24, is a born-and-bred South Aucklander. A conservative, for her, is someone who doesn’t trust the government. “We want less government intervention in our lives, we want more freedom — small government is a very popular conservative ideal, one that I’m definitely for … We tend to espouse policies we think work, rather than policies that feel good.”
She is a Messianic Jew and cites Thomas Sowell and Jordan Peterson as intellectual influences. Her parents are conservatives, too, but during the 2016 American presidential election she came to realise she sat to the right of them — political arguments between her and her father swirl around whether the financial deregulation and privatisation of the fourth Labour government were for the greater good, which she wholeheartedly believes. She voted National in last year’s election.
To her, feminism “doesn’t mean to my generation what it meant to my grandmother’s” and is no longer useful: she even helped organise a New Zealand screening of The Red Pill, a controversial documentary that paints a flattering picture of so-called men’s rights activists. She resents what she feels is modern feminism’s tendency to portray women who prefer not to pursue careers as somehow disloyal. “Modern feminism has not done itself any credit by considering women who want to stay home with their kids as traitors. I’ve seen a little bit of that going on. If a woman says, ‘I want to stay home with my kids and I don’t really want to have a high-powered, high-paying career,’ it’s like, ‘Well, you’re not living up to your full potential.’”
Wilson largely looks to the US for examples to illustrate her political philosophy. For instance, she was happy with the recent Supreme Court decision that ruled in favour of the Colorado baker who refused to supply a wedding cake for a marriage between two men. She has what she says are “religious beliefs on homosexual behaviour” but believes what consenting adults do is no business of the government. That Colorado ruling, however, was important for free speech and freedom of religion: the government, she believes, shouldn’t be able to “force people to condone it, or force people to be involved”.
And if that were applied to a biracial couple and a baker diametrically opposed to miscegenation? “[The baker] should still have the choice, but I would hope that everyone would agree with me that it is horrible and evil and they would go out of business.”
A similar absolutism informs her views on abortion. “I believe abortion is murder and that it is a child. And if it had been born we would fight tooth and nail for it.” Currently, as the law stands, an abortion obtained through illegal means — i.e. not having two doctors sign off that the patient’s physical or mental health is in jeopardy — is punishable by 14 years in prison, the same maximum sentence for attempted murder. Is that not a little excessive, I asked? “Is it murder or not, that’s the question… If it’s murder, then 14 years seems appropriate.”
Felix Poole wants to reclaim the phrase “neo-liberal” from the almost exclusively pejorative manner in which it is used. The 19-year-old politics and communications student is the son of two Greens-voting public servants; he moved rightward upon entering university, when Brexit and Trump caused him to re-examine his formerly left-wing beliefs.
He is a disciple of the small-government ideal, but not socially conservative: ACT under the leadership of David Seymour has largely dispensed with the right-wing social rhetoric the former leaders espoused: John Banks on abortion, Don Brash on race relations. The End of Life Choice Bill, for example, started life as a private member’s bill introduced by Seymour. “Fiscally conservative, socially liberal,” Poole says. “We’re like National but we don’t care if you smoke pot.”
Poole reduces politics to a kind of accounting. In his analysis, left-wing students vote largely out of monetary self-interest. “Students are under pressure financially and people for the most part look to vote in advantage of their personal material possessions. If the Greens say they’re going to increase the allowance, of course they are going to vote for the Greens — that’s ultimately why there is a divide.”
Indeed, Poole believes everyone votes primarily in line with their pecuniary interest; hence the rightward drift as people start to earn more money. “When people vote — and maybe this is a fairly optimistic view — they reflect on their situation, they reflect on their finances and they reflect on how their life is going and their material circumstances.”
I asked whether he was neglecting to account for the idealism of youth. That his answer jumped straight into a discussion of superannuation seemed to illustrate that he didn’t. Did his view of politics ever isolate him, in a university setting where you are very much a minority, I asked. “When you go to university and you have your views called neo-liberal, giving it more of a negative kind of connotation, I don’t appreciate that and I was annoyed by the use of language of a lot of professors.”
A similar sentiment was expressed by all four of the young conservatives I talked to, as I bounced between a selection of cafes over several days. Chetty, for instance, when he first revealed his views told me he “became a pariah very easily, very quickly”. Wilson, too, feels pressure to conform to the tenets of social progressivism: “As a young woman there’s this pressure to have to believe some of these things about what’s good for women and what’s good for reproductive rights and choices.”
But there is a kind of pride, too, in falling outside what society expects of its young, in rebelling against an entrenched narrative. Poole, with a grin, raised the possibility that he was in some sense merely rebelling against his parents’ left-wing politics. Monk followed that sentiment to a wider conclusion, positing his rebellion as against society’s strictures. “Conservatism is a counterculture. Our parents had punk and our grandparents were hippies and we’re social conservatives.”