Situation Normal All Fucked Up: Already weakened by its poor handling of Delta and Omicron, this Government’s botched response to the Freedom Convoy has changed dramatically its political narrative.
IT IS DOUBTFUL whether Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Government understands just how completely it has lost control of the political narrative. Most likely, it is operating on the assumption that because most New Zealanders, like most MPs, are appalled at the behaviour of those occupying Parliament Grounds, all is well. It is a false assumption. Like the first victim of the “Freedom Convoy” weapon, Justin Trudeau, the Ardern Government’s refusal to “go hard and go early” against the protesters has created the worst of all political narratives: that it has become weak and ineffectual.
Not only has the occupation of Parliament Grounds made this government look weak, but it has also emboldened and, in the eyes of some, at least, ennobled the occupiers. Swift and decisive action to evict the occupiers was crucial, if only to forestall the creation of a David versus Goliath narrative in which every successful defiance of the forces of law and order only serves to make their movement stronger.
Those who share the occupiers frustration with the Government’s management of the Covid-19 pandemic, but who have, hitherto, not believed that successful resistance to its policies is possible, have been given cause to think again. They may represent fewer than one-in-ten New Zealanders, but one-in-ten of 5 million is 500,000. If only a tenth of that half-million citizens decided to join the Wellington protest camp, then this Government will very quickly find itself confronting a national security crisis of immense proportions.
It is a genuine mystery why neither the Government, nor the senior Police commanders, were able to grasp the nature of the challenge they were facing. It was clear to every thinking New Zealander that the protest action represented by the “Freedom Convoy” was of a new and potentially extremely dangerous kind. One didn’t have to be a master strategist to understand that once 200-300 motor vehicles converged on the centre of the capital city, the owners of those motor vehicles would, more or less immediately, control the centre of the capital city. New Zealanders knew that they had nothing to fear from protesters who gathered for a couple of hours to deliver their message and then dispersed. But, protesters who came to stay until their demands were met – this was a very different kettle of fish.
New Zealand’s senior police commanders cannot say that they weren’t warned. The Ottawa example was there before them. By failing to break the Canadian truckers’ blockade immediately, the Canadian authorities allowed the protest’s relatively limited set of demands to escalate wildly. Fatally, Prime Minister Trudeau opted to talk tough, but then refused to act tough. The latest poll out of Canada shows only 16 percent of Canadians are satisfied with his handling of the crisis. Trudeau’s failure to deal with the truckers’ protest swiftly and effectively may spell the end of his political career.
While the Policing Act 2008 makes it clear that in operational matters Ministers of the Crown are required to butt right out, there are other ways for the State to assert its duty to protect the rights of the citizenry and the rule of law. It would be interesting to know whether the Officials Committee for Domestic and External Security Coordination – commonly referred to as ODESC – was convened to address the national security implications of the Freedom Convoy. Chaired by the CEO of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, ODESC can bring together all the instruments of the state apparatus required to coordinate an effective response – including the Police and the NZDF.
From the perspective of the ordinary person in the street, however, neither the Prime Minister nor the Police Commissioner, Andrew Coster, appeared to be taking the matter very seriously. Indeed, by constantly invoking people’s right to protest, they gave the impression that they were reluctant to do anything more than politely request the protesters to behave themselves and then “move on”. Only the Deputy Prime Minister, Grant Robertson, who, as a former student leader, was familiar with the unwritten rules of the demonstration game, appeared to grasp the qualitative difference between the Freedom Convoy and the protests he had helped to organise.
And then the Speaker of the House, Trevor Mallard, stuck his oar in.
The care and protection of the Parliamentary Precinct is, indisputably, the Speaker’s responsibility. The dignity of the office, and the need to at all times conduct himself professionally, should, however, have persuaded Mallard to limit his involvement to simply declaring the occupiers to be trespassers. The strategy and tactics required for their eviction should then have been left entirely to the Police.
To describe the extraordinary decision of the Speaker’s Office to, first, order the parliamentary ground’s lawn-sprinklers turned on, and then, the following night, to blast loud music across the grounds (presumably in an effort to either dislodge or disturb the occupiers in their tents) as “unfortunate” would be a gross understatement. Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of actions more likely to convince the occupiers that they are not dealing with serious people. Mallard’s actions may have hardened the occupiers’ determination to resist. Worse, by responding so childishly, he risks convincing them they can win.
For the long-suffering citizens of Wellington, and the rest of New Zealand looking on, the manifestly inadequate policing tactics employed to move the occupiers from Parliament Grounds, coupled with the Speaker’s ludicrous interventions, have combined to produce a political narrative of weakness, incompetence and pettiness that will be very hard to dispel. The spectacle of unhelmeted constables in their summer shirts, wearing flimsy surgical masks, being sent to stand eyeball-to-eyeball with shrieking, unvaccinated occupiers, was extremely hard to watch. So, too, was the sight of those same constables wading into the flailing, spitting crowd to effect arrests. Where was the Police Association, their union, when these egregious failures of health & safety were unfolding?
More to the point, where were the force multipliers essential to any operation in which hundreds of police officers are pitted against thousands of aggressively resisting protesters? How many games would have gone ahead during the Springbok Tour of 1981 if the then Police Commissioner, Bob Walton, had confronted HART’s protesters with unhelmeted constables in their shirtsleeves? The late Tom Newnham didn’t call his photographic history of the Tour “By Batons and Barbed Wire” for nothing!
The sheer carelessness with which Ardern and her colleagues have relinquished their winning political narrative is astonishing. Already weakened by its poor handling of Delta and Omicron, this Government’s botched response to the Freedom Convoy has changed their story dramatically. Labour no longer seems willing – as it was throughout 2020 – to go in hard and early for the Team of Five Million. In fact, it seems unwilling to go in hard at all. Small wonder, then, that the enemies of reason and science are feeling vindicated and emboldened. Or that the Team of Five Million is feeling a lot let down – and not a little fearful of what happens next.
This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 14 February 2022.