PROTESTERS CALLING for the overthrow of the Government should take a deep breath and consider their strategic situation. According to the Ministry of Health’s own polling, the hardcore anti-vaxxers represent – at best – five percent of the population. Even assuming that that many again are in some degree supportive of the protesters’ aims and objectives, that would still leave them confronting the remaining 90 percent of the population – who are not.
Now, it is very easy to forget this grim arithmetic when you are in the middle of a crowd of 5,000 people, surrounded by flags and placards, and breathing in the exhaust fumes of 100 large motorcycles. In such circumstances, the protester’s mind is filled with intoxicating feelings of invincibility. That any force could successfully turn “We, the People” around seems impossible.
It is, however, an enormous mistake for protesters (let alone insurrectionists) to interpret the fact that nobody has so far attempted to stop them, as proof that they cannot be stopped. What they may see as weakness on the part of a corrupt and cowardly government, will be seen by many more as evidence of a Government doing its utmost to facilitate a tiny fraction of the population’s right to express themselves politically. For most New Zealanders this will be taken as proof of their country’s deep commitment to democratic principles.
What the so-called “Freedom & Rights Coalition” would be wise to factor into their calculations is how quickly the public’s tolerance will evaporate if its followers move beyond the energetic expression of their grievances towards violence and/or the massive disruption of daily life. At that point the forbearance of the state will cease, and the protection of life and property will begin.
The Freedom & Rights Coalition will then find itself caught up in a process of relentless escalation that it cannot win. If its followers use their fists and their boots against their fellow citizens, then the Police will don riot gear and equip themselves with pepper-spray, tasers, tear-gas and rubber bullets. If the insurrectionists then decide it is time to arm themselves with knives and firearms, the Government will call upon the armed forces to “aid the civil power” and the rebels will find themselves confronting highly trained military personnel armed with machine-guns and artillery. Anyone foolish enough to put themselves at the mercy of artillery will not be given a lot of time to regret their mistake.
This process of escalation will not be restricted to the armament deployed. Faced with violence and disruption on such a scale, it is highly likely that the Government will resort to measures not seen in this country for nearly 90 years.
Not the least of these will be the swearing-in of “Special Constables”. The last time this happened was in the immediate aftermath of the 1932 Queen Street Riot. Waikato cockies, many of them on horseback, were enrolled to ensure that the unemployed remained off the streets – by any means deemed appropriate.
Twenty years earlier there had been a similar mobilisation of conservative citizens. In the Great Strike of 1913, the Prime Minister of the day, William Massey, had unleashed hundreds of Special Constables against the militant unionists affiliated to the “Red” Federation of Labour. More than a few of these “Red Feds” were unabashed revolutionaries who, like the Freedom & Rights Coalition, believed in the right of the citizenry to overthrow a tyrannical government. “Massey’s Cossacks” reminded them, none too gently, of the resources available to a state which still commands overwhelming popular support.
Interestingly, during the Waterfront Lockout of 1951 the National Government considered, but then rejected, the use of Special Constables. The trade union militants were vastly outnumbered, not only by “ordinary Kiwis”, but even by the moderate unionists affiliated to the Not-So-Red Federation of Labour. Prime Minister Sid Holland’s notorious “Emergency Regulations” were more than enough to bring the Watersiders to heel.
The contemporary equivalent of those Emergency Regulations would, of course, be a Government decision to order a temporary shutdown of the Internet, giving the Police and the rest of the national security apparatus the opportunity to round-up what was left of the insurrection.
Most New Zealanders would likely consider it entirely fitting: if the shutting-down of social media – the prime generator of anti-vaccination militancy – turned out to be its ultimate cure.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 12 November 2021.