I'll start with a few disclaimers: I have been critical of the various political factions that came out of the "freedom movement" of NZ's COVID policies, and I am of course a card-carrying member and the secretary-general of the New Conservatives. If I sound a bit salty here, apologies in advance.
There is one glorious success story from the saga: Voices for Freedom and its extension into Reality Check Radio. This was a very effective grassroots movement that has kept its cool, its focus, and its impact in the wind-down of the lockdowns, mandates, protests, and so on. Their success was contingent on declining to seek direct political power. Instead, VFF and RCR function as a far more powerful entity: a broadcaster of political ideas.
The political pivot of the freedom movement however, was a disaster, and the chaos that ensued paved the way for NZ's oldest and slickest political operator: Winston Peters. Several factions with their own figureheads tried and failed to take advantage of the discontent: Brian Tamaki, Matt King, Leighton Baker, Sue Grey, Liz Gunn, and now even Alfred Ngaro. Ngaro was overseas at the time, but he recently mentioned this as a turning point that's led him to leave National and has just announced he has taken over the Christian "ONE Party" and rebranded it as "New Zeal" 8 weeks out from an election. I doubt that any of these figures will ever be taken seriously again after this election.
All of this is ultimately irrelevant, because "freedom" can't be the unifying basis of any political movement. Everybody wants freedom, but contextualised to their overarching worldview.
Two existing parties courted the "freedom movement" from a safe distance: New Conservatives and NZ First. As my own NC unfortunately doesn't have the patronage or political talent of the latter, we were never able to capitalise on the chaos in the way that Winston Peters has.
In a masterstroke, he waited until the last minute to capture a key "freedom movement" star from DemoNZ and also decapitate its leader with a well-timed poll in Northland. NZ First has always had a solid base of 2-3% who will vote for Winston no matter what, and so its path to victory only requires it to pick up an additional 2-3% of the votes. His malleability allows him to become anything to anyone looking for a "safe" vote out of the existing uniparty options. He functions as a pressure release-value for the system.
The entire "mop up" and consolidation of the online energy of this freedom movement has been remarkable to watch. Who doesn't want to be on a winning team? These noisy voters have no loyalty, but Winston only needs them for the next two months.
At this point in the election, the annihilation of the current Labour government is all but assured. Disaffected voters can either support the other arm of the uniparty or they can look for short-term revenge.
The reason David Seymour's "don't get fooled again" attack ad fails completely is because it can as easily be applied to National or ACT as to NZ First.
My preferences are long-term, but I acknowledge that puts me in a small minority at this stage. I can have some empathy for those "mopped up" in this scheme even though they have zero rational reasons to believe they won't be betrayed again.
The "conservative problem" remains. The National party is incapable of producing any serious conservative political figure. Winston is the last of a dead breed, and his greatest failure remains that he has not produced any political talent who might challenge and succeed him. His former MPs are nothing but a long list of failures, and I see no reason to believe the next hypothetical set will be any better. The patronage required to support an independent bloc of socially conservative MPs in parliament does not exist, and never has in New Zealand. The social networks required to feed and grow it remain small. There is hope. I can see it. I can work on it. But as I said in my opener: sorry if I sound a bit salty. This is a lament for what we could have. What we should have. If I have my way: what we will have.
Pick your poison, as they say, although I'd be much happier if you didn't pick any poison at all.