More Than "The Usual Suspects", Mr Groser: Once a demonstration swells beyond “the usual left-wing suspects” to include the sort of ordinary Kiwis who turned out in their thousands on Saturday, 15 August 2015, a wise government will begin to ask itself some very serious questions about the wisdom of proceeding with the policy under attack. John Key's best political option, now, is to walk away from the TPPA.
ON SATURDAY, upwards of 30,000 New Zealanders protested against the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA). From the tiny village of Kohukohu in the Hokianga, where 50 people marched, to Auckland, where Queen Street was filled from top to bottom with, at the very least 15,000 protesters, New Zealanders from all walks of life expressed their opposition to the proposed agreement.
When confronted with the protest numbers, Trade Minister, Tim Groser, who, only a fortnight ago, branded his opponents “breathless children”, was quick to reach for more insults. Many of those marching, he claimed, had been “misled” by the TPPA’s opponents: people he’d earlier dismissed as “politically irrelevant”.
Well, in the light of Saturday’s turnout around the country, that’s a judgement he may wish to reconsider.
Sustained protest activity in New Zealand, after peaking during the Springbok Tour demonstrations of 1981, has fallen away steadily over subsequent decades. Occasional spikes, such as the massive protests mounted against the Employment Contracts Bill in April 1991, or the 50,000-strong Auckland march against mining in New Zealand’s national parks on 1 May 2010, have not been able to disguise the seemingly inexorable demise of public protest as an effective political tactic.
One of the obvious reasons for abandoning the street as a venue for effective politics is that, over the course of the past 30 years, increasingly derisory turnouts have only tended to alert politicians to the weakness of the organisers’ causes. A memorable article (later turned into a poster) from the anti-Vietnam War era posed the question: “Suppose they gave a war – and nobody came?” The temptation for government politicians to paraphrase that question in relation to protest demonstrations must have been very great!
Not that many of the governments of the past 30 years have been at all responsive to political pressures from below. Indeed, making a virtue out of refusing to be swayed by public opinion is a distinguishing characteristic of neoliberal governments the world over. As the newly-elected, left-leaning Greek government was curtly informed by the technocratic masters of the Eurozone earlier this year: “Elections change nothing.” That the 99 Percent must be prevented from voting themselves a better life at the expense of the 1 Percent, is a neoliberal article of faith. Keeping ignorant electorates well away from complex, technical exercises – like the negotiation of free trade agreements – is, similarly, regarded as axiomatic.
Dismissing the anti-TPPA protests as “politically irrelevant” is, therefore, the most natural top-of-the-head reaction for a confirmed neoliberal politician like Mr Groser. Unfortunately, for him and his government, however, the anti-TPPA movement is growing, not dwindling. Moreover, thanks to the extraordinary communicative power of the Internet, generally, and of social media, in particular, protesters are not only extremely well-informed, but also supremely well-equipped to increase the circulation of anti-TPPA propaganda exponentially.
On 7 March, this year, The Press estimated 1,000 Christchurch protesters had turned out for the “It’s Our Future” coalition’s nationwide, anti-TPPA, day of action. Five months on, and the numbers have increased four-fold, with the Stuff website estimating Saturday’s turnout at 4,000 demonstrators. Since the first of the “It’s Our Future” days of action, held in November 2014, the overall number of people participating has surged from 10,000 to 30,000. Mr Groser and his colleagues need to understand that, for the first time in a long time, they are confronted with a street-based, nationwide, protest movement that is growing larger – not smaller. When 50 people turn out in Kohukohu (Population: 150) “politically irrelevant” is not the right call.
Once a demonstration swells beyond “the usual left-wing suspects” to include the sort of ordinary Kiwis who turned out in their thousands on Saturday, a wise government will begin to ask itself some very serious questions about the wisdom of proceeding with the policy under attack. That is exactly what the Prime Minister, John Key, and his Cabinet did following the huge anti-mining demonstration of May-day 2010. On that occasion, and to their credit, Mr Key and his government walked away from what was, clearly, an unacceptable policy. They would be very wise to do the same in relation to the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
If they refuse to be advised by the electorate on this issue: if, like good neoliberals, they reject the very idea of the people having a say on matters fundamental to their economic well-being; and, without letting New Zealanders to know what is in it, sign the TPPA – then things will change.
Sign the TPPA, and the mood of rising frustration with the National-led Government – so evident on the streets over the weekend – will become one of outright fury. This will only intensify once the content of the TPPA becomes known, and people discover what sort of agreement their leaders have signed.
Not just a bad deal, Mr Groser, but your government’s death warrant.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 18 August 2015.