FREEDOM OF MOVEMENT within the borders of one’s own country is an important human right – and not one to be revoked lightly. Erecting road-blocks on public highways, and subjecting travellers to close official scrutiny, is deemed tolerable by most citizens, but only for the purposes of preserving public safety.
Few people would object to the Police checkpoints set up to catch drunk drivers. Aware of the carnage caused by people driving while intoxicated, most of us are willing to endure a few minutes of inconvenience for the greater good. Likewise with those road-blocks set up in civil emergencies to protect travellers from fire, flood and earthquake. In such circumstances, with rescue services stretched to the limit, it is simply not rational to allow travellers to put themselves, and others, at unnecessary risk.
Why then are we hearing so many loud objections to the idea of road-blocks being erected jointly by the Police and iwi organisations to protect vulnerable Māori communities in Northland, Taranaki and Tai Rawhiti (the East Coast of the North Island)? What is it about this particular limitation of New Zealanders’ freedom to travel that generates such vociferous responses?
Apart from the depressingly obvious.
Perhaps the first point to make is that these Police/iwi roadblocks are legally mandated. Legislating under urgency in November, the Government changed Covid laws to grant iwi organisations the power to close roads and public places and stop vehicles. But only, it is important to note, with the co-operation and under the supervision of a Police officer or officers.
Clearly, the arguments put forward by Māori communities found attentive ears among New Zealand’s parliamentarians. With the awful precedent of the 1918-19 Influenza Epidemic before them, how could it be otherwise? The two thousand Māori fatalities attributed to the deadly “Spanish Flu” were out of all proportion to the indigenous population. Is it so surprising that, in the midst of another global pandemic, Māori are determined to avoid a similar catastrophe?
Why, then, are so many Pakeha so angry? Why, in particular, has the Act Party felt entitled to inflame matters? As someone who was in Parliament when the legislation was being passed, what has prompted the Act Party leader, David Seymour, to declare:
“Labour has snuck a law through Parliament letting iwi run checkpoints. Our weak PM has surrendered basic rights. The Police Commissioner, rather than upholding the law, has given into demands of iwi. Kiwis have a right to move around the country without being stopped by thugs.”
Let’s pick apart this extraordinary statement. Because, astonishingly, just about everything Seymour alleges is false. No basic rights have been surrendered by the Prime Minister. On the contrary, the right of Māori New Zealanders to be protected from possible infection by visitors to their isolated communities has been upheld. Nor is it the case that the Police Commissioner, Andrew Coster, has failed in his duty to uphold the law. As we have already established, these Police/iwi roadblocks, erected for the preservation of public safety, are entirely legal. And while it is perfectly true that “Kiwis have a right to move around the country without being stopped by thugs”, set in the context of the Act leader’s entire statement, that sentence can only be described as racially inflammatory.
Is it really the case that Parliament and the Police have “given in to iwi demands”? Doesn’t the Third Article of the Treaty of Waitangi confer upon Māori the same rights and privileges as all other “British subjects”. In the face of Covid’s dangers, Pakeha New Zealanders have readily conceded the need to surrender many of the civil rights they would otherwise defend with vigour. They have done this to keep themselves and others safe. For iwi organisations to ask that their people be equally protected is, surely, not an unreasonable “demand”?
To describe those operating these roadblocks as “thugs” is the final insult. As if any group of Māori daring to stop the driver of a monstrous SUV and question him concerning his intentions in their traditional tribal territories – their “rohe” – must ipso facto be common criminals – “thugs”.
Just pause for a moment and contemplate the extraordinary sense of racial entitlement behind such indignation: the brutal assumption of superiority; the shameless assertion of privilege.
Erecting roadblocks against all such intrusions of unabashed Pakeha racism is, surely, long overdue?
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 10 December 2021.