A fringe political party in New Zealand that has not featured in pre-election polling, and whose co-leader has been decried for spreading conspiracy theories about Covid-19, has been included in the roster for a televised debate on TVNZ, a state-owned broadcaster.
The invitation to Advance NZ has prompted concerns the debate could legitimise conspiracy theories in a country where online misinformation has not gained the same traction as overseas.
It normalises questions that are not really questions, or ideas that have no traction, said Kate Hannah, a cultural historian and research fellow in the physics department at the University of Auckland.
Advance NZ was invited because one of its co-leaders, Jami-Lee Ross, is a current MP one of TVNZs criteria for the event. Ross, who entered parliament as a lawmaker for the centre-right National party, one of the two major parties, has been an independent since a bitter split with National in 2018.
He joined forces with a new fringe group, the New Zealand Public party led by Billy Te Kahika, a businessman and blues musician to form Advance NZ in July. The group has become known for Te Kahikas views on Covid-19, 5G, the United Nations, and conspiracy theories about New Zealand and global leadership.
New Zealands electoral system means the party would either have to win at least 5% of the vote, or a constituency seat, to be represented in parliament. Analysts told the Guardian that neither outcome was likely.
Their political prospects are terrible, said David Cormack, the co-founder of a public relations firm and a former head of policy and communications for the left-leaning Green party. I dont think they have any chance of getting in, debate or not.
But concerns went beyond politics. The inclusion of Advance NZ and its conspiracy theory-driven views in the debate creates this idea that if the medias talking about it, they probably know more about it than I do, therefore its real, said Hannah.
In New Zealand, conspiracy theorist views such as so-called QAnon beliefs have not gained the traction that they have in countries such as Australia where researchers recently found such views had a growing following.
It was not known how many people held such views in New Zealand, said M Dentith, a teaching fellow at the University of Waikato who studies conspiracy theories. But its never really emerged into our political scene until very recently, they said.
It might be the case that these conspiracy theories arent a big threat, they added, referring to Te Kahikas views on Covid-19. Except that if only a few people believe them, there are quite drastic health consequences.
Research conducted by Hannah, Dentith and their colleagues, published this month, found that social media mentions of conspiracy theories had not increased since the Covid-19 pandemic arrived in New Zealand. But mentions of conspiracies in the mainstream media had grown, Hannah said, giving the impression that the views were more widespread than they are.
The framing of the TVNZ debate, she added, has to be really, really profoundly careful to acknowledge those things.
Commentators said it would set a poor precedent to exclude the leaders of sitting political parties from debates based on their views. Cormack, the political analyst, said the countrys political debate had been small-c conservative and extremist parties had not gained political footholds as One Nation has done in Australia.
While Advance NZ has not featured in pre-election polls, it has an online following; the partys Facebook page has 30,000 likes. Te Kahika makes regular, at times rambling, video updates on the platform; with his mild manner, reference to te ao Mori the worldview of New Zealands Indigenous people and anti-colonial views, the party has a distinctly New Zealand flavour.
In June, David Icke, the British conspiracy theorist, praised Te Kahika and his party on his Twitter account and website.
A video the party posted on Facebook in July in which it falsely claimed that the military would enter homes to enforce New Zealands Covid-19 rules was shared more than 1,000 times.
New Zealands speaker ordered Ross to remove another video in August because it contained footage from parliament, which cannot be used in political advertising without permission from those depicted. The clip took a government minister out of context to falsely claim Covid-19 vaccinations would be compulsory for all New Zealanders.
The video remains online and has more than 200,000 views.
The other party that has been the beneficiary of TVNZs debate rules is the Mori party, an Indigenous rights group that did not win any seats at the 2017 election following four terms in parliament. It has been included because it had lawmakers in office during the last two parliamentary terms, after its leaders challenged an earlier ruling excluding them.
The debate will be held on 8 October, ahead of the election on 17 October.