Saturday 30 March 2024

Rapture and Rage.

When Push Came To Shove: If Jacinda Ardern’s government struggled to contain 3,000 angry Kiwis in 2022, how will Christopher Luxon’s cope with 300,000 in 2025?

THE OCCUPATION OF PARLIAMENT GROUNDS stands as one of the oddest moments in New Zealand political history. Not the least of its oddities was the mixture of what might best be described as rapture and rage. There were moments during the occupation when Parliament Grounds recalled the “human be-ins” of the 1960s. Others when it resembled a Mississippi lynch-mob. Day-to-day, the logistical sophistication of the protest organisers rivalled that of the NZDF – a true tour de force of Kiwi can-do. On the other hand, the apocalyptic scenes of the protest’s final day could have been directed by Francis Ford Coppola: it’s “fire and the fury” eclipsing anything seen in New Zealand for a hundred years.

Although the traumatic events of February-March 2022 are not discussed or debated with any enthusiasm in 2024, it would be most unwise for the present government to dismiss them as just another of their predecessors’ blunders. Without the political energy generated by the Occupation of Parliament Grounds, it is possible that Christopher Luxon, David Seymour, and Winston Peters (especially the latter) might have failed to amass the electoral heft needed to govern. The Occupation was the living expression of the political polarisation occasioned by the measures taken to fight the Covid-19 Pandemic. That polarisation has not ceased to exist. Indeed, it could be argued that it has gotten much worse.

The inflexible character of Christopher Luxon’s Coalition Government, his repeated assertion that its collective electoral mandate gives it the right to over-ride any and all objections to its policies, runs the risk of alienating still further an uneasy and politically volatile electorate. Understanding what led to the fire and fury of the first Occupation, may help to prevent New Zealand’s political class from igniting a second.

Perhaps the most startling effect of the original Occupation was how severely it tested the resilience and capability of the New Zealand State and its related institutions. From the moment the occupiers realised the scale of the challenge which their mere presence posed to the authorities, and the effort that would be required to reclaim Parliament Grounds, they began to develop a collective strategic confidence that left the state looking flat-footed and irresolute.

The protesters’ belief in themselves and their cause was hugely bolstered by the idiotic behaviour of Parliament’s Speaker, Trevor Mallard. Up there, on his granite balcony, looking down on the crowd, he bore a more than passing resemblance to Tolkien’s treacherous wizard, Saruman, as he surveyed the damage done to his mighty stronghold, Orthanc, by an angry army of Ents. Alas for Mallard, his spells: turning on the sprinklers; playing Barry Manilow at full volume; proved as inadequate as Saruman’s. There were plumbers and drain-layers in the crowd who made short work of the Speaker’s sprinklers, and the occupiers had a sound system of their own.

The most serious consequence of Mallard’s actions, however, was to reinforce the occupiers’ determination to go on saying “No.” Their blank refusal to be “moved-on”, placed the Police in a quandary they had not faced for years: determining the level of force required to compel the compliance of resisting protesters, without turning too much of the population against them. What is required, policing-wise, when a large number of citizens simply withdraw their cooperation from the state’s law enforcers? The answer came back forcefully when the Wellington Police Commander sent constables in their shirt-sleeves to clear the grounds: helmets, armour, shields, batons, pepper-spray, and lots more personnel!

It was only after the fires of the final day had been extinguished and the smoke had cleared, that New Zealanders discovered how terrified the Police and Parliamentary Security had been that the occupiers would attempt to storm Parliament itself. A sudden rush up the steps, the swinging of heavy battering rams, and there would have been very little to stop the crowd except the firepower of the Diplomatic Protection Squad which, if deployed, would only have made the situation worse.

But, the occupiers were not of a mind to turn their protest into a revolution. They had come to Parliament for a redress of grievances – most particularly the abandonment of their bête noir – the vaccination mandates. In spite of all the frightening rhetoric about Nuremburg Trials, and the gallows nooses carried aloft, the occupiers had come to “their house” not to hang the Government, but to make it listen to them. They had come to be heard.

That the Government and, more astonishingly, the Opposition, would not listen, or talk, to the occupiers requires careful explanation. Nothing communicated the politicians’ contempt for the people who elected them, more forcefully than Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s ban on any kind of communication with the occupiers. But, that ban, obeyed by all the members of the House, demonstrated something much more significant than contempt – it demonstrated fear.

What would have happened if the Prime Minister, flanked by her DPS bodyguards, senior ministers, and several dozen police officers, had come down the steps and invited the occupiers to parley? Would they have hurled abuse? Something more solid? Or would they have moved up to the barricades and begun to talk?

One of the reasons that never happened was because the News Media, which could have humanised the protesters and turned them into something more that scary caricatures, had, from the very beginning, declined to do so.

Partly, this was a manifestation of the media’s determination not to give an inch to those who challenged the Government’s handling of the Covid-19 Pandemic. In the eyes of many journalists (including the author of this post) those who refused the Pfizer Vaccine were – by the most generous estimation – dangerously misguided, and not to be indulged. Cast in the least favourable light, they were enemies of “The Team of Five Million”: spreaders of disinformation; weavers of absurd conspiracy theories; deserving of nothing but the unrelenting scorn of all intelligent people.

But, there’s no getting round the fact that the journalists were also petrified of the Occupiers. They were not the sort of people they were used to dealing with. Most of them came across as indefatigably ignorant and/or irrational. Undaunted, the Occupiers made no secret of the fact that they hated the journalists of the “mainstream” news media with a passion that the latter found genuinely terrifying. To make matters even worse, the Occupiers had their own media: “citizen journalists” who returned the mainstream reporters’ disdain measure-for-measure.

Christopher Luxon and his colleagues would be wise to factor into their political calculations both the electorate’s increasing polarisation, and its declining faith in the mainstream news media. If his Finance Minister, Nicola Willis, is determined to unleash the sort of austerity programme that, in the early-1990s, under Ruth Richardson, gave New Zealand MMP; and in the UK, thanks to George Osborne’s spending cuts from 2010-2015, Brexit; then she should make herself aware of just how many New Zealanders get their political information from sources quite distinct from the six o’clock news.

The occupation of Parliament Grounds happened because a significant number of New Zealanders allowed themselves to be convinced that their government was out to ruin their lives. If the Coalition Government wishes to avoid another uprising of the “deplorables”, it should consider what these folk might be prepared to attempt if their “research” confirms that their government is doing it again – except this time to a whole lot more New Zealanders.

If Jacinda Ardern’s government struggled to contain 3,000 angry Kiwis in 2022, how will Christopher Luxon’s cope with 300,000 in 2025?

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday,  25 March 2024.


Anonymous said...

The unrelenting scorn of all intelligent people?
Judge not, lest ye be judged.

Ooops. Too late.

LittleKeith said...

That protest grew from so many sources, basically everything pissing Kiwis off brought upon them by an overbearing government.

First, the straight jacket suffocating overreach of a modern progressive left government. Aucklands lockdowns ongoing on top of many other things, not the least of which was being locked inside the country. It broke many of us.

Ordinary public servants, nurses, doctors, police officers and teachers losing their jobs for daring to question Arderns government edicts. Its not like we were overrun with these skills, now was it?

Private businesses going into meltdown because of a political brand staffed by aging activist students who had no idea how to create anything postive.

The two tier society created by the pure left politics weapon of cancellation for having the audacity to differ with woke politicians.

Plus when these disjointed protesters arrived in Wellington they quickly found Andrew Costers woke policing brand at its peak and on full display, not the no nonsense police that once existed. Coster was far more afraid of breaching civil liberties to do anything, much to the dismay of many of the woke left and it's politicians who would rather the police cleaned up the embarrassing mess they'd created in wokery's ground zero of Wellington. Oh the irony was so thick.

So back to this government. It cannot be denied how bad things have become financially. How Robertson hid that is a whole other story, but it's appalling. Judith Collins admitting there's no money to fix the military, Mark Mitchell finding out likewise with police. And as for the health system. Shane Reti has the mother of all challenges and I can see partial privatisation in the offing. Thanks to Labour!

For the new government to avoid a revolt, their tax cut obsession will have to be parked. And like it or not, borrow a bit more than was planned to buy time to ease the pain, because having a Mother of All Budgets Redux is not going to be popular or tolerable. But personally, they've done enough work expunging the worst excesses of Labour Green woke ideology/identity politics that was truly angering people to have given itself some wriggle room.

Terry Coggan said...

"Shall we only threaten and be angry for an hour?
When the storm is ended shall we find
How softly but how swiftly they have sidled back to power
By the favour and contrivance of their kind?"


Terry Coggan said...

"Shall we only threaten and be angry for an hour?
When the storm is ended shall we find
How softly but how swiftly they have sidled back to power
By the favour and contrivance of their kind?"


CXH said...

There seem to be plenty of claims that this government is about to unleash an austerity program, yet little in the way of justification.

whetu star said...

Chris, I really appreciate that you are still thinking about what happened.

But I feel the need to say just this: It was never 'partisan' left-right. It just wasn't.

Like you I think, I was very concerned about the poorest, but completely disagreed with the Labour government's decision-making beyond the first lockdown. I was talking to loved-ones in Auckland during the second lock-down. Beyond the chardonnay class it was far too much for many ordinary people to bear. Just this, leaving aside plenty of other important arguments.

This messed-up saga in our political history is continuing in its contribution to the destruction of Labour as a major political force - but that's the only good news for the left - now in terrible disarray.

Left-wing commentators need to get their heads around the fact that they completely misread the room. The media does not represent everyday people and cannot be relied upon to report our feelings or attitudes. At all. Representing this as left-right was always utter nonsense. The greatest damage has been wrought by those least able to withstand it. And that damage is ongoing.

John Hurley said...

New Zealand's unpopular former prime minister impresses a bunch of misguided Italian intellectuals

The Barron said...

Can I take it CXH that you are conceding an austerity program would not be a good thing for the economy and society?

RedBeach said...

It seems rather quaint at this remove from the vaccine mandate saga Chris, that you appear to still have faith in the "safe and efficient" mantra of the Ardern govt, something incidentally Pfizer documents reveal they never had faith in themselves.
There was, and still is, an eerie smugness, about public intellectuals like yourself who embraced the government's line about the vaccine.
There was enough information about the potential health disaster this experimental vaccine was likely to precipitate, from people who had created the mechanisms that made it work, at the start of the mandate - without going down rabbit holes, to give anyone not scared by the govt campaign or guilted into doing it for the whanau , to have reservations about it.
My wife and I are in our seventies and have never had covid. We regard not taking the jab as one of the best decisions we have ever made, when we see the ongoing sickness and repeats of covid among vaccinated friends and family.
It is clear the government lied to us, the health system lied to us and the media lied to us - all of which has contributed and shaped the toxic psychic state this country is in.
One can only wish you, in your no doubt multi-boosted state good health.