Comment: By giving in to the bullies on Parliament’s lawn, the police have ensured the occupation won’t end anytime soon, Marc Daalder writes
In Wellington, you can now break the law with impunity, so long as you and a bunch of friends threaten to fight the cops who come to enforce it.
This is the unfortunate message sent by the police decision not to take any enforcement action against the occupiers on Parliament grounds, who have abused Wellingtonians, threatened politicians, illegally set up tents on the lawn and clogged the streets of the central city with parked vehicles.
Anecdotes of harassment and squatting are rampant, with one Thorndon family reportedly waking up on Friday morning to find protesters camped in their driveway. The police were unable to handle that situation too.
Instead of arresting protesters or even towing illegally-parked cars, the police now hope to bring an end to the occupation through “engagement” with the supposed leaders of the divided rabble.
But more than a week of these negotiations have come to nothing. On two occasions, police have celebrated the voluntary moving of vehicles blocking Wellington’s roads before conceding that more new vehicles arrived each day than had left.
More protesters and more vehicles are expected this weekend too. While the police say they have a traffic management plan to redirect newcomers to Sky Stadium, plenty of Wellingtonians will be doubting this will be heeded any more than police’s previous light-touch measures.
None of this is to say the police should storm in with tear gas, batons and rubber bullets, as has happened to end similar occupations overseas. There are no easy answers here. The only thing that’s certain is that this stalemate will be here for weeks, if not months, to come.
The protesters are bedding in for the long haul. A miniature village has sprouted up on the muddy or dusty (depending on the weather) remains of Parliament’s lawn, with makeshift street signs, food and medical facilities, hairdressers and an entertainment venue with live music. Three layers of barriers – metal fencing, plastic barricades filled with water and massive concrete blocks – separate the protesters from the handful of officers who patrol the forecourt, day and night.
With enforcement action ruled out, political compromise appears to be the only near-term solution, but that too is untenable.
The protesters themselves can’t agree on what they want. The demands range from an end to vaccine mandates to all politicians and many journalists and academics turning themselves over to be sentenced to death in show trials for the supposed crime of supporting the vaccine rollout. Many demands have nothing to do with vaccines or even Covid-19 whatsoever – protesters calling for a halt to the Government’s Three Waters reform programme or the prohibition of 1080 drops have turned up on Parliament grounds.
Even the moderate original organisers of the protest have a list of demands that would make the average New Zealander balk. They are not truly moderate – they are just less radical than their associates who brought nooses and baseball bats. And they are getting more and more radical by the day, steeping in the conspiracy milieu on Parliament grounds, to the extent that the original organisers are now sharing memes comparing Speaker Trevor Mallard to Adolf Hitler and videos stating that all politicians are criminals for supposedly lying about the safety of the vaccine.
Those organisers – who have less and less control of the actual events on the ground each day – came to Wellington with five stated demands that they have since reiterated with the support of a range of other supposedly less-extreme groups.
The first of these is to end all vaccine mandates. That’s already unpopular on its face – a recent poll found that nearly two-thirds of the New Zealand public support the mandates – and for understandable reasons. With more than 96 percent of those over the age of 12 having had at least one dose of vaccine, how many people would really like the nurse in charge of their chemotherapy or the teacher in charge of their unvaccinated children to themselves be unvaccinated?
Of course, this demand appears to go further than calling for an end to the Government’s mandates. A large number of the protesters on Parliament grounds who have spoken to media in recent days have lost jobs that aren’t subject to the Government mandate. Although they don’t realise it, these individuals want the Government to legislate to bar private companies from making their own Covid-19-related health and safety policies, in addition to ending the Government mandate on the health, education and hospitality sectors.
The second demand is even less likely to happen, with the occupiers calling for the repeal of all Covid-19-related legislation and regulations. This would immediately open the borders to tens of thousands of daily foreign tourists, who could be unvaccinated. It would bring an end to contact tracing, mandatory masking, free Covid-19 testing and vaccination and every other part of the Government’s Covid-19 response, even as New Zealand stares down the barrel of our worst outbreak of the virus.
This shows that the concerns of even the bulk of the so-called moderate occupiers go well beyond the principle of vaccine mandates. There are certainly vaccinated people who don’t think the mandates are justified in a democratic society and some of them are even camped out on Parliament grounds. But the vast majority of the occupiers don’t believe in mandates because they don’t believe in the science of vaccination – in some cases, they don’t even believe in the coronavirus at all.
That’s why there are so many incidents of people wearing masks facing harassment – in one case, egging – from the protesters. By and large, this is not a protest about freedom of choice, because the choice of others to wear a mask outdoors isn’t respected. It’s an angry backlash against all Covid-19 restrictions, rooted in misinformation about the virus and the vaccine, as deluded and undeserving of respect or attention as the anti-lockdown rallies of 2020 and 2021. When politicians declined to meet those protesters, there was no handwringing in the media about the right to be heard.
The remainder of the demands are equally ill-informed. The convoy organisers want all doctors suspended by the Medical Council for spreading vaccine misinformation to be reinstated. This would involve the Government meddling in statutorily-appointed authorities which are meant to make independent decisions. They also imply that doctors who support vaccination should be suspended instead – which would leave the vast majority of the country with no doctors.
The fourth demand – that the Bill of Rights Act from 1688 be incorporated into New Zealand’s constitution – falls short on two fronts. To start with, that act is already considered to be constitutional law in New Zealand. What the protesters truly want is an American-style written constitution which would override Parliament’s law-making in certain instances, but this has never existed in New Zealand.
Finally, they also call for media to be free of censorship. It’s unclear what this refers to as media are not generally censored in New Zealand, which was ranked eighth out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ 2021 Press Freedom Index.
All five of the convoy’s core demands are either misinformed and therefore nonsensical or would threaten the public health of the country and be deeply unpopular if enacted. There is no world in which the Government gives in to these demands and even the moderates in the occupation have made clear that these are bottom lines for them before they would clear out.
As long as the political and policing solutions remain untenable, the stalemate will continue. It will only grow more tense and the questions only more difficult if Covid-19 begins to spread in the camp.
With one in 22 tests returning a positive result and more than 10,000 daily cases expected at the peak of the outbreak, the virus making its way into a gathering of unvaccinated individuals in the centre of Wellington seems more a matter of when, not if.
While most with symptoms won’t get tested – in Australia, protesters with sore throats are claiming the government is using radiation weapons rather than accepting it might be Covid-19 – someone could well get sick enough to need hospitalisation. The discovery of Covid-19 in the encampment won’t make a police operation to clear the occupiers out any more viable, but the Government couldn’t just leave them there to get ill and spread the virus either.
There’s no easy or right answer here. But it seems a near certainty that we’ll have plenty of time to work through these debates, as the protesters bed in for weeks or months of occupation.