14 Sep 2020

The Outliers: Fears about Te Kahika's controversial Covid-19 views

8:36 pm on 14 September 2020

There are fears the sharing and promoting of Covid-19 misinformation by political party leaders will have disastrous consequences for Māori.

Advance Party co-leader Billy Te Kahika addresses the crowd demonstrating against the government's use of lockdowns and other Covid-19 restrictions on 12 September, 2020.

Billy Te Kahika addresses a rally in Aotea Square in Auckland on Saturday. Photo: RNZ / Jane Patterson

Billy Te Kahika, leader of the NZ Public Party, Advance NZ co-leader and Te Tai Tokerau candidate, has a growing following - gaining traction through the sharing of conspiracy theory videos online.

He caused even more controversy over the weekend after he and Jami-Lee Ross organised a large rally in Auckland; at least a few thousand people packed into Aotea Square with no social distancing and few wearing masks.

The police chose not to intervene and enforce alert level two rules saying that would have risked raising tensions in an otherwise peaceful protest.

But Te Kahika's style and message are attracting many Māori voters - one researcher believes he is taking advantage of their distrust of the government for his own political gain.

RNZ political reporter Katie Scotcher hit the road to meet The Outliers and spoke to the controversial candidate.

It's a sunny morning in Whangārei and a large crowd is gathering at a small cafe in the town's centre. Word quickly spread on social media Billy Te Kahika would be here - an opportunity for supporters to meet him and his family.

Soon a large, predominantly Māori, crowd is crammed inside and spills out to the pavement - social distancing non-existent and not a mask in sight.

Te Kahika is hospitable; offering hugs and cups of tea to his supporters before addressing them.

Billy Te Kahika, leader of the NZ public party.

Word spreads quickly on social media when Billy Te Kahika is in town. Photo: RNZ

His followers seem entranced by the charismatic leader's every word. Many livestream the casual gathering on social media and Te Kahika takes advantage of the opportunity to spread his message.

"I've had pneumonia, I've had a collapsed lung, and I had pleurisy all at once. That's a respiratory illness as you know, it could've killed me.

"I would be frightened of Covid-19 if I followed the data this government is sharing, I should be deadly worried about this, but I'm not. Why? Because I know that I'm fit.

"My immune system is based of many things that keep me healthy and I'm not afraid of this disease. Why? Because the leading health organisations on the planet are saying that Covid-19 is a winter flu equivalent virus," Te Kahika told the crowd.

But it's not - the scientific consensus is that Covid-19 is far more severe than the flu and incredibly contagious. It's a reality the government has been stressing.

"Just look at what's happening internationally, you can see that this is very, very real. The virus is very, very deadly and there is no vaccine," Health Minister Chris Hipkins said.

But this is all background noise to Te Kahika's supporters.

One supporter, who asked not to be named, told RNZ he has never voted before, but will be supporting Te Kahika in the Te Tai Tokerau electorate.

He described Te Kahika as an honest guy with integrity, qualities he said most politicians don't have.

"They seem to be making a rad hysteria about a virus that doesn't seem to be causing that much of an effect on the health of people, no more different than the common winter flu ... do we believe the health officials?" he said.

Another supporter, who also asked not to be named, is a long-time Labour supporter, but this year she's voting for Te Kahika.

"He's here for not just one culture, but for all cultures, especially for the Te Tai Tokerau people ... he is right. We do need someone for us here," she said.

Some Māori feel let down by governments

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Tina Ngata. Photo: Supplied

Tina Ngata, a researcher and indigenous rights advocate, said it was not uncommon for Māori to support all minor parties, as they've been let down by successive governments.

But Te Kahika is capitalising on this support for political gain and to spread his agenda, she said.

"We have a history of being disenfranchised, we have a history of maltreatment and that's why people are feeling that they need to go for something different and that's why people feel suspicious as well," Ngata said.

As Te Kahika continues to spread misinformation about Covid-19, Ngata is worried about what the consequences will be for Māori.

Recent research shows the virus is far more likely to kill and hospitalise Māori if it isn't controlled.

"I think it's easy to dismiss people who you don't personally take seriously, but if they do wind up having any kind of political influence the ramifications in this climate and in this context, with Covid-19 in particular, are disastrous," she said.

It's extremely unlikely Te Kahika will make it to Parliament, but his partnership with former National MP Jami Lee Ross, increases the possibility ever so slightly.

Ross' chances of retaining his staunchly National seat of Botany are also low, but his incumbency offers the alliance a miniscule opportunity - under the rules one seat in Parliament is enough.

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