Newshub Nation: Politicians' safety in the spotlight as abuse surges during 2023 election

From harmless heckling to home invasion allegations, 2023's election campaign has been different.   

Police Commissioner Andrew Coster said "things are edgier, I think, than they've been in the past".  

While Kiwi politicians are no strangers to a little argy-bargy, with one of the most famous examples being a dildo thrown at Steven Joyce in 2016, in the leadup to this year's election, there has been a more sinister undercurrent.  

Cmmr Coster said "people are more anxious, more angry", and he in part blames social media for part of the increase.  

"I do believe that the trends we're seeing now in terms of polarization are a lasting feature of the way we're engaging with information on social media particularly," he said.   

The commissioner said he was concerned more New Zealanders were developing extreme views, and were willing to act on those beliefs - in the form of unlawful protest activity, and in some cases physical threats.  

The Disinformation Project's director, Kate Hannah, said social media is transforming discontent into something more dangerous.  

"We enter into an election cycle now where that very vulgar violence and violent expression is normalised and is now being used to conduct part of our election discourse."  

Hannah described the relative lawlessness of social media - both niche sites and mainstream platforms like X (formerly Twitter) - as well as Kiwis' increased ability to physically show up to protests during the pandemic period, as "tipping points" that pushed people towards the extremes.  

Aotearoa is seeing the expression of these extreme views during this election campaign.  

An elderly National Party member has been trespassed after allegations surrounding an incident at the home of Te Pāti Māori candidate Hana-Rāwhiti Maipi-Clarke. The man denies any wrongdoing. In unrelated incidents, the 21-year-old said her fence was vandalised, her home burgled and someone went through her rubbish.  

Te Pāti Māori condemned the alleged incidents, with president John Tamihere releasing a statement, calling the actions "politically motivated" and criticising the police response.  

Co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer said: "There's a whole group - a really small cohort of our society - who are really scared that as Māori, as our culture gets stronger, they are going to lose something."

Meanwhile, police are investigating claims from last week that Labour MP Angela Roberts was slapped following a candidates' meeting.   

"He leaned in and slapped my cheeks, and said: 'enjoy being in Opposition'," she said.   

Senior wāhine Māori have spoken out about the racism they are experiencing.  

"I'm still standing, and I'm still there because I will not be dehumanised, I will not be minoritised, and I will not be otherised," Labour's Nanaia Mahuta said on The Hui.  

After a decade in politics, Northland Labour candidate Willow-Jean Prime told Newshub Nation this election has delivered some of the worst racist abuse she's ever seen.  

"What I have experienced and what I have seen is people who feel unhinged and emboldened by what I believe is dog whistling and whipping up by political parties," Prime said.   

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins has levied these allegations against the Opposition, asking Luxon in Newshub's Leaders Debate whether he thought a speech from an NZ First candidate was racist.  

Prime detailed being yelled at while her six-year-old daughter was getting into the car; jeered at during candidate meetings; and how an elderly Labour Party volunteer felt at-risk after being yelled at while wearing a branded T-shirt.   

She said she's scared for her family.

"My husband said, 'Can we please take two cars? I do not want the children in your Willow-Jean Prime car because I'm worried about what people might do with the children around'," she said, adding "there is no filter anymore".

"There is no care in the way that we are conducting ourselves in our community, and I think that that's not good for social cohesion, that's not good for our society, it's not good for politics, it's not good for democracy."    

National candidates have also been threatened and intimidated, and campaign chair Chris Bishop said "we have been the victim of gang violence and intimidation, and it's outrageous".     

National said one of its candidates even moved house after one such threat.   

Another was filmed at a restaurant, with another having beer poured over them.   

They claim volunteers for the party have received death threats, been abused and followed, and one has even had a dog set on them.   

Hannah from The Disinformation Project said "this is not a party political issue".   

"It's an issue around high-profile people, and particularly women and people of colour."  

Social cohesion, the glue that holds society together, has been under stress in years prior. In 2019, Green Party co-leader James Shaw was assaulted on his way to work.   

Shaw said the physical damage faded but he now had a heightened awareness in public. The attack took a toll on his family and staff, he said, adding that the party was taking additional security precautions this election, including requiring RSVPs for events.  

But COVID-19 has exacerbated these tensions.   

"I guess what we're seeing is, I believe, part of a long-term trend that would be occurring, but for COVID," Cmmr Coster said.   

"What I think COVID did was pour real fuel on the fire."  

Cmmr Coster identified social media as a key driver of heightened tensions and events like the Parliament protests make clear that New Zealand is following in the footsteps of other countries.   

Those with knowledge of the dark discourse bubbling below the surface fear things will get worse before they get better.  

"I've held that idea of what happened to Jo Cox and the UK and my head since I started doing this work in 2020," Hannah said.

Cox was a British politician murdered in broad daylight by a white supremacist obsessed with Nazis and apartheid-era South Africa.  

"Since we started studying the kind of invective and hate and personalized targeting that has been directed towards politicians, particularly at that time, the Prime Minister - and I have been convinced that we will at some point have some kind of Jo Cox-like moment."  

When Jacinda Ardern resigned, New Zealand got a hint of the toll on public figures when she said "I know what this job takes. And I know I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice".   

Earlier this year, an online hate tracker found Ardern was the target of 93 percent of all toxic posts screened as part of a study by the University of Auckland.  

More than 5000 intensely abusive messages were levelled at Ardern, with the former Prime Minister facing online vitriol at a rate between 50 and 90 times higher than any other high-profile.  

As the threats towards politicians have ramped up, so has security.  

$14 million was set aside in 2023's Budget to boost MPs' security at their homes, electorate offices and at community events.   

Parliamentary Service chief executive Rafael Gonzalez-Montero said some of the funding would be used to increase the number of security guards at Parliament. This means security numbers can be quickly scaled up, in an event like a protest.  

Gonzalez-Montero said the occupation of Parliament has had an impact on the risk profile at Parliament but changes to security measures were underway before the protests. The Parliamentary Service works closely with Police intelligence teams who have noted an increase in anti-authority rhetoric in New Zealand and around the world, he said, adding that physical threats of violence made online via social media have been on the rise for several years.  

Parliamentary Service and the Electoral Commission are also offering candidates and staff extra security advice. This includes training on de-escalation and how to host a safe event, as well as advice on how to stay physically safe during the campaign, how to protect their online safety, and guard themselves against foreign interference.  

This election campaign, candidates and volunteers are door-knocking in pairs and politicians have been directed not to walk home at night.  

Parties have formalised their health and safety protocols, and party leaders' campaign schedules are being tightly guarded.  

More politicians and public figures are choosing to go on the unpublished electoral roll, in an effort to protect their privacy. A total of 26,028 electors - or 0.75 percent - are currently on the unpublished roll. That's up from 0.69 percent in 2020, and 0.60 percent in 2017.  

Additional police officers - both uniformed and mufti - have been deployed across the campaign trail. Both police and political parties are paying close attention to online chatter around community events.  

In a ministerial briefing earlier this year, Police spoke about recent "environmental stressors", including COVID-19, which have had a significant impact.  

"These are considered likely to increase the potential for disruption and threats to the General Election and, in particular, to MPs, political candidates and those proximate to them," Police said in the briefing.  

In response, law enforcement established a significant Election 2023 Readiness work programme, noting that it would have a direct impact on the policing workforce and would require reallocation of resources.  

It might make the campaign safer, but there are concerns it is sanitising a pre-election experience which can be highly personal.

Mobs in malls are becoming a thing of the past, instead replaced by tightly managed meet and greets with known supporters and friendly crowds.   

Cmmr Coster said: "We've certainly heard a level of concern - across the political spectrum - about the ability to run a normal election campaign."

However, he said: "Democracies will adapt. They will respond to this because what we're seeing is a bit of a threat to our democracy, our way of organizing our country."

Bishop believes it's important to keep things in perspective.  

"We don't want to live in a democracy where leaders only speak to people that they already know that are privy to with free vetted questions and safe and secure and sanitized environments, that's not New Zealand and it's not the New Zealand we should aim to be," he said.   

Aotearoa's landscape will continue to shift beyond election day, and it's more than just politicians in harm's way.  

Hannah fears that ordinary citizens could be targeted in similar ways, particularly those with a public profile, including medical professionals, teachers and principals, journalists and academics.   

"We have to think about what kind of infrastructure, what kind of online infrastructures, social infrastructures and physical infrastructures we need to enable the preservation of our society as we want it to be," she said.  

Watch the full video for more. 

Watch Newshub Nation 9:30am Saturday/10am Sunday on Three & Three Now, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter. 

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.