No Credit Whatsoever: Yesterday’s Conservatives and New Zealand Protest Votes

February 10, 2015 in General

Over four months have elapsed since the last New Zealand election and little has been heard from Colin Craig and his Conservatives. Have New Zealanders seen all this before?
Conventional political histories of the New Zealand Christian Right tend to argue that the benighted lineage of other fundamentalist parties stretches back only to Christian Heritage, which was established in 1990. Although one tends to view New Zealand conservative Christian microparties as more akin to those across the Tasman in Australia, Canada has had its impact as well.  Granted, Christian Heritage New Zealand was founded after its former Coalition of Concerned Citizens retinue discovered the existence of Canada’s Christian Heritage Party (which still exists, however tiny and unelectable, across the Pacific). However, I’m talking about  the Social Credit Political League.
Social Credit was based on the eccentric monetary philosophy of Major Clifford Douglas (1879-1952), a British engineer.  During World War I, Douglas noted that the gap between the final renumeration paid to workers was less than the final price of finished productive goods. Accordingly, purchasing power had to be ‘increased’ through reducing the retail prices of finished consumer goods.  In  Australia, the result was a short-lived Social Credit political party- the Douglas Credit Party in Australia was never very strong and petered out in the forties, although sporadically tries to distribute party philosophy via the Internet and its own party bookshop.  It has never had political representation.
As for New Zealand, events took a different turn here. Before Social Credit proper was established in 1953, the party had previously attempted to influence the New Zealand political process through appeals to the duopoly that ran New Zealand’s Parliament- Labour and National.   Initially, it did reasonably well, securing 11.54% of total voter share at the 1954 New Zealand General Election, although given that First Past the Post still governed New Zealand elections, it went unrepresented in Parliament.  For the next twelve years, Social Credit continued to be unrepresented within the New Zealand Parliament, until 1966. In that year, Vern Cracknell won Hobson, a Northland seat, from National MP Logan Sloane. Unfortunately, Cracknell proved to be a mediocre practical politician, and Sloane won Hobson back after Cracknell served only a single term as the first New Zealand Social Credit MP.
After a period of leadership instability, Bruce Beetham took over in 1972. In 1978, he won Social Credit’s second parliamentary seat, Rangitikei, in the rural Manawatu, after its sitting National MP Roy Jack passed away.   Beetham retained Rangitikei at 1978′s New Zealand election, later joined by Gary Knapp, who defeated National candidate Don Brash when a by-election was held in East Coast Bays in 1980. Both Beetham and Knapp held their seats in 1980, but this was no breakthrough, as Social Credit was tainted through its confidence and supply agreement with the terminally ailing Muldoon era National Party during the early eighties.   In 1984, Beetham lost his electorate to National’s Denis Marshall, while Knapp retained East Coast Bays and Neil Morrison won Pakuranga for Social Credit off right-wing Muldoon sycophant and National MP  Pat Hunt.
At this point, events took a darker turn, as the rural, religious social conservative and populist nature of Social Credit’s constituency made it a stalking horse for the New Zealand Christian Right.  Outside Parliament, Beetham opposed homosexual law reform, as did Morrison and Knapp within it.  All to no avail, as the Homosexual Law Reform Act was passed in 1986 and the consequent backlash against religious social conservatism in the late eighties destroyed Social Credit’s fragile foothold within Parliament.   In 1987, Knapp and Morrison were defeated as both of their constituencies reverted to National Party candidates- Maurice Williamson and Murray McCully, both of whom are now fixtures in Parliament.  As for Social Credit, Beetham was overthrown and the reprecussions led to the establishment of several splinter groups. One, Democrats for Social Credit, survived, and shorn of its aggressive religious social conservatism, joined the Alliance with New Labour and the Greens in the early nineties.  John Wright and Grant Gillon won representation in Parliament as a consequence in 1996, but that only lasted until the disintegration of the Alliance in 2002. While Wright and Gillon joined Jim Anderton and Matt Robson in the new Progressive Coalition, the latter party had insufficient support to retain their political support and Democrats for Social Credit ended the relationship in 2002, re-emerging as a marginal microparty as a consequence. The party still exists, but only polls about one thousand to one thousand five hundred or so votes at New Zealand elections (0.05-0.07% total voter share).
As for the Christian Right, they felt frustrated at events such as Social Credit’s political marginality, feeble electorate hold and subsequent turn to the left. They left Social Credit to form their own fundamentalist microparty, Christian Heritage, in 1990, as well as its rival, the Christian Democrats, in 1995.
In Canada, however, Social Credit was more powerful as a political movement, largely due to the federal nature of provincial politics in that nation and difficulties in forming an effective unified centre-right political party.   In British Columbia, its leadership tended to be more pragmatic and it rapidly jettisoned its unorthodox monetary policies, resulting in successful rebranding as a right-wing populist party, which even succeeded as a viable majority provincial government for almost three decades, apart from an interval when the centre-left New Democrat Party replaced them as provincial government.   The party tried to restrain provincial welfare programmes and trade unionism, but was effectively dominated by fiscal conservative corporate interests until the retirement of long-term leader Bill Bennett.  While Social Credit British Columbia had always included religious social conservatives, they took control of the party in the late eighties after Bill Van Der Zelm became Premier (1986-1991).  His anti-abortion extremism led to alienation from the party brand until he fell as a result of a financial scandal in 1991.  Thereafter, the party was decimated and faded from the British Columbian legislature.
As for federal representation, the party never had a marked presence, with only one to five federal constituency MPs ever intermittently represented in mainstream Canada. It did better in Quebec, surprisingly enough, but even there, decline set in during the late seventies and early eighties. By 1981, the party had no elected representatives outside British Columbia, which did not favour the party’s unorthodox  monetary policies in any case.  In that year,  an ugly power struggle broke out between the Alberta factions that now dominated the party, consisting of  fundamentalist Christians on the one hand, and neofascists, Holocaust revisionists, anti-Semites and anti-immigrant racists on the other.
In Alberta, Social Credit won power in 1935 and thereafter governed until 1967. The party was noted for its fiscal and religious social conservatism and was the beneficiary of the discovery of considerable petrochemical reserves within the province, which enriched its coffers and led to Social Credit’s thirty year dominance over provincial government and indeed, politics.  While long-term Premier Ernest Manning tried to purge the party of its anti-Semitic elements, which had appeared at the federal level and contributed to the party’s marginality outside Alberta itself, they crept back in after his death in 1968.  After 1968,  Alberta began to seriously industrialise and urbanise and Calgary and Edmonton gained more influence over the province’s affairs, resulting in the increasing prominence of the Progressive Conservatives within the province.  In 1971, Social Credit was finally defeated and in 1975, the party was decimated, falling to only four MPs within the provincial legislature.
Out of all Canada’s federal and most provincial legislatures by the early eighties, Social Credit was then torn apart by bitter factional feuds between fundamentalist Christians on the one hand and white supremacists, neofascists and Holocaust revisionists on the other.  Alberta’s Jim Weigand, Ontario’s Harvey Lainson and British Columbia’s Ken Campbell served as a string of fundamentalist Christian leaders of the party, alienating mainstream Canadian voters through their shrill and vocal campaigning against women’s reproductive freedom, LGBT rights, comprehensive sex education and other obsessions of religious social conservatives.  Whatever their other vices, though, their internal opponents were even worse.   One particularly nauseating individual was Jim Keegstra, a wilful anti-Semite and Holocaust revisionist teacher who poisoned the minds of Albertan children through trying to indoctrinate them with his sinister ideology. Finally, in 1984, he was dismissed from his position under Canada’s hate propaganda laws.  Crying “free speech”, he pursued the case all the way to the Canadian Supreme Court in 1991, but happily lost.  Unbelievably, Keegstra served as a Social Credit political candidate during the seventies and eighties, in 1972, 1974 and 1984. In 1986, he even stood for the party leadership.   He lost, 67-38 and was finally expelled from the party in 1987. However, by then, the damage was done.  Social Credit Canada was effectively dead by the early nineties. It must be asked why its fundamentalist members tolerated the co-membership of neofascists, Holocaust revisionists and anti-Semites until that point, however.
All of which raises some interesting questions about possible parallels between Social Credit and today’s New Zealand Conservative Party, however. While it cannot be accused of anti-Semitism, the Conservative Party’s anti-Treaty political antics have historically been the province of New Zealand’s right-wing extremists such as the New Zealand League of Rights, denying the legitimacy of Maori political participation within the Waitangi Tribunal, Maori Land Court and Maori electorates, although the New Zealand League of Rights thankfully ceased to exist in 2005, before Colin Craig founded the Conservatives in 2011.   However, there is a more profound match at the social constituency level- the Conservatives are, and Social Credit was, primarily a religious social conservative, populist and rural party; and in September 2014, the Conservatives polled far better in New Zealand rural electorates than within urban and metropolitan constituencies.
Given what happened to Social Credit in the end, however, one can only hope Colin Craig and his cohorts have filtration systems available to remove potentially troublesome entryists and extremists, given the final, sorry fate of Social Credit Canada.  Here endeth the lesson?
Spiros Zavos: Crusade: Social Credit’s Drive for Power: Lower Hutt: INL Press: 1981
George Taylor: Beetham: Palmerston North: Dumore Press: 1981.
John Barr: The Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of Social Credit in Alberta: Toronto: McLelland-Stewart: 1974.
David Bercuson and Douglas Wertheimer: A Trust Betrayed: The Keegstra Affair: Toronto:Doub

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