The issues around vaccination were but the catalyst for the expression of a deeper sense of grievance and anger that has been building up over recent years. That is what needs to be addressed to prevent similar events breaking out in the future.
In the aftermath of the prolonged occupation of Parliament grounds there has been great soul-searching about how similar events could be prevented. Suggested responses have included a wall around Parliament to keep protesters out and better education to ensure wrong-headed notions about contentious issues do not take hold in the community and fuel such reactions.
Few of the proposed responses go anywhere near addressing the real issues, or what needs to be done to prevent a repetition of recent events. The idea of a wall around Parliament is probably the most bizarre. What logic there is behind it is Trumpist at best, and its construction would simply provoke the same antagonism that most of history’s previous walls have caused. At the other end of the scale the idea that better information about conspiracy theories and vaccination would have prevented the occupation verges on the ludicrous and simply insults the mentality of the protesters.
The problem lies with a much more basic level of polarisation and alienation in our society that needs to understood and addressed with care and respect. That polarisation is not just about vaccination and runs so deep that even just discussing it and what to do risks having one labelled as partisan and biased.
For the record, while I will always uphold the right of people to protest peacefully in a free and open society about the causes that matter to them (and indeed, have done so on many occasions myself), I do not agree with anti-vaccination and anti-vaccine protests, nor with the violence that accompanied them. I believe the science behind the merits of vaccination and mandates is compelling and hard to argue against. I am certainly no apologist for the occupation of Parliament grounds we have just endured.
Indeed, I abhor violence, and the civil and public health disorder that accompanied the occupation. Like many New Zealanders, I was frustrated at the length of time it took the police to respond effectively. I do not accept the police delay was some clever tactical masterstroke, although I acknowledge the courage, bravery, determination, and skill of the police officers on the ground when it came to ending the occupation.
What concerns me deeply though about most of the post-event analysis has been the inability and unwillingness to separate the protesters’ cause from the protest itself. The emerging assumption that if only the protesters had been better informed about the issues they were protesting against, they would not have behaved as they did, misses the point and is utterly patronising. For better or worse, many of the protesters, although misguided perhaps, were well-intentioned and decent New Zealanders worked up by their feeling about a particular issue to take the stand they did. They were led by people with an extreme agenda who were the ones responsible for the appalling behaviour the day the occupation came to an end. Those extremists deserve to be held accountable and face the full sanction of the law for their outrageous conduct.
It is clear now that the issues around vaccination were but the catalyst for the expression of a deeper sense of grievance and anger that has been building up over recent years. That is what needs to be addressed to prevent similar events breaking out in the future. But that argument will not be won by telling those who oppose vaccination and mandates that they are part of an ill-informed minority rabble, any more than putting a wall around Parliament will stop other protests in the future.
The deeper problem lies with the polarisation of political debate that has been occurring in western liberal democracies since the mid-1960s. Frustration then that the differences between the left and right wings of politics were being blurred as both sides were becoming increasingly complacent about their places in the political spectrum led to calls for clearer definitions of what right and left meant.
In the US, this was reflected in the “Choice not an Echo” call within the Republican Party that presaged a more right-wing move and more sharply defined policy as a result. But the blame does not lie with the Republican Party alone. Similar moves also occurred in parties of the left over the next two decades in other countries (the electorally spectacularly unsuccessful attempts at rebranding the British Labour Party, first by Michael Foot and later Jeremy Corbyn, come to mind). Similar moves happened in both our two major parties in the 1980s and early 1990s.
At the same time, there was the emergence of the “conviction” politician – political leaders defined not by their general party brand but by their belief in and commitment to specific policies they were determined to implement. Economic policy and reform of the welfare state were often the prime examples. During the 1980s and 1990s, governments of the right and the left, in the US, Britain and New Zealand, driven by conviction politicians, changed the way their countries worked for ever.
Whether they were right to do so, or whether their policies were successful, is not the point here. The point is that the determined way in which the policies proceeded left little room for alternative viewpoints to be considered, evaluated, and debated, which led to a decline in political tolerance that still afflicts us. Many people went along with what was happening, even if they did not agree with it, and simply waited for the political pendulum to swing back once more, as it tends to do every few years or so.
For others, though, the situation was different. A deeper sense of alienation occurred, either because they were directly adversely affected by the policy changes (Hillbilly Elegy provides a powerful account of how this developed in the US) or because they were uncertain about what the differing sides of politics stood for any more. They just knew no one seemed to be speaking for them.
The more their doubts were dismissed by the conviction politicians as wrong or plain muddle-headed and ill-informed, the greater their resentment became. In the US it boiled over completely in 2016 and saw the election of the ultimate anti-politician – Donald Trump – as President. And it was the fervour of belief in Trump as the saviour of the alienated and ignored that spilled over into events such as the storming of the Capitol Building when he was so unceremoniously dumped after just one term in favour of the ultimate career politician Joe Biden.
The seeds of that alienation have now spread to New Zealand. So too have all the familiar signs of how to misread and foster it. There is a significant group of people who feel left out, and increasingly shut out, of what is happening in our country. This runs deeper than just those politically opposed to the present government. Rather, it is a group that feels out of step with all governments, whatever their political complexion.
We need urgently to depolarise politics. That does not mean diminishing the strength of political convictions, but rather, softening the intolerant fervour that increasingly seems to accompany them. After all, there are not inherently right or wrong answers to issues, but informed conclusions based on evidence and debate, which may change as circumstances change. We should never shut the door on the possibility there may be merit in someone else’s argument. Nor should we seek to demean those who disagree with us for having a different view.
Telling people that their views are crackpot and ill-informed, not shared by the mainstream of the population, and refusing to engage with the protest leaders merely fuels their discontent. Likewise, dismissing those who called for a more reasoned approach as basically supporters of the protesters was as incendiary as the petrol and gas heaped on Parliament’s playground last week.
It should be no surprise at all that people who think their backs are being pushed unreasonably against a wall eventually react. And the greater the perceived pressure, the greater the reaction. What is surprising is the belief that telling them they are plain wrong and should therefore go home, will lead to their meekly doing so. Such moral sanctity in a society that likes to parade its diversity when it suits is just humbug.
I do not want to see a repeat of the virtual rebellion that occurred last week. Neither do I want any repetition of the violence suffered by protesters and police alike, nor of the vandalism that desecrated Parliament grounds and surrounding streets. But I am far from certain this will be that case if current attitudes on both sides remain as entrenched and polarised as they are. The right to dissent must always be upheld in a free society, and, alongside that, the right to promote minority viewpoints protected, as long they are not in defiance of the law or encouraging lawlessness. That should be an absolute given, not the contestable debating point it is seen to be today.
When I was at school a valuable principle was ingrained in me – I have the right to be right, and the right to be wrong. It seems to me that until that principle is more universally applied and accepted, whatever the issue, or however strongly it may be felt, we have no guarantee that the abhorrent events that came to a head last week in Wellington will not occur again.