THE PLATFORM has made an invaluable contribution to the increasingly fraught “debate” about the Anti-Vaccination Mandate Protest in Parliament Grounds. By commissioning Curia Research to create a rough profile of the protesters, the new website has facilitated the substitution of reliable poll-data for journalistic reckons. Now, at last, the public has at least some of the information needed to render an informed judgement. That the mainstream news media saw no merit in commissioning such an exercise testifies to its steady retreat from the principles of independent journalism.
The picture painted by Curia Research is of a protest crowd drawn overwhelmingly from rural and provincial New Zealand: Fully 67.6 percent of the persons questioned came from somewhere other than Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. Rural dwellers made up 7.7 percent of the crowd; those living in provincial towns 18.9 percent; and provincial city-dwellers the remaining 41 percent. The latter figure is almost double the actual number of New Zealanders living in provincial cities.
This skewed provincial representation is significant. What it tells us is that the people participating in this protest have a great deal in common with the Americans who supported Donald Trump. They, too, hailed from places seldom visited by the metropolitan elites. Cities and towns that once boasted thriving industries and buoyant economies, but which, over the past 35 years, have seen far too many factories – along with the small businesses that serviced them – shut down and fail. Communities that once boasted public hospitals, polytechnics, post-offices and banks – not to mention their own proudly independent newspapers – have been stripped of key infrastructure and left to rot.
For many years, however, the primary victims of this neglect continued to vote for the parties of change: Labour, the Alliance, the Greens and NZ First; in hopes that their lives would be made better. Curia Research reveals that very close to 50 percent of the protesters occupying Parliament Grounds voted for one of Labour, the Greens and NZ First in 2020. This finding is powerfully reminiscent of the significant number of 2016 Trump voters who had backed Barack Obama in both the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. Hell hath no fury, it would seem, like a voter scorned, disappointed and betrayed.
That nearly 30 percent of the protesters voted for Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party in 2020 also suggests that at some point the Prime Minister said or did something that shattered their allegiance to her and the Team of Five Million she purported to lead. Given that the dominant reason/s for their presence outside Parliament is their strong opposition to Vaccine Mandates, one might reasonably speculate that it was Ardern’s reneging on her promise not to introduce vaccination mandates and passes that provoked these protesters into deserting the Labour Party.
That the consequences of refusing to be vaccinated appear to have fallen most heavily on occupations dominated by women: retail, hospitality, teaching, nursing, aged-care, midwifery; would also explain why Curia Research reports women making up 55 percent of the protest crowd.
Another factor relevant to the number of women participating in the protest could well be that in the rural and provincial communities ravaged by the economic impacts of neoliberalism it has, overwhelmingly, been women who have held together the threads of community and mutuality. Mothers, daughters and wives who had once been encouraged to look upon the State as their friend, have – decade after decade – been given every cause to see “the government” as their enemy.
The explanation for 27.2 percent of the protest crowd identifying as Māori is, almost certainly, much the same.
Throughout the 1980s and 90s, in Māori communities scattered across the provincial landscapes of the North Island, jobs, and the social cohesion that came with them, were laid waste by the neoliberal revolution. Without the industries that paid for it, key infrastructure has similarly decayed and disappeared.
Māori families left behind had two choices: depart for the big cities; or, stay put and work out another way to survive. The same Pakeha state that had stripped their iwi and hapu of their land, was now guilty of stripping them of their jobs, their incomes, and their dignity. What loyalty could they possibly owe to such a state? What reason could they possibly have to trust it – or its political representatives?
It is here that the other dominant theme recorded by Curia Research’s pollsters – Freedom – weighs-in so heavily. Abandoned, overlooked, ignored and despised, the people on the receiving-end of neoliberalism’s cold indifference had tragically – but unsurprisingly – internalised its ruthless individualistic ethos. Devalued and declassed, driven to the margins, they had nevertheless contrived to survive on their own terms and according to their own lights. If the state had no need for them, then they were happy to return the compliment. Theirs may have been a lean freedom – but it was hard-won, and would not be surrendered without a fight.
And then came Covid, and in its wake a state that would no longer leave them to their own devices. Suddenly, they were included in the “Team Of Five Million”. Suddenly, the state which had turned its back on its obligations to look after the people’s welfare was demanding that the people honour their obligation to keep it safe. Suspicious, but also secretly thrilled to once again be counted among the just, the outsiders and outcasts of the provincial lumpenproletariat did as Jacinda asked.
But the requirement to vaccinate – or be turned into a second-class citizen – turned out to be a bridge too far. The state which, just months before, had pronounced itself their friend was reverting to type. Now it was “No Jab, No Job”. Now they were being turned away from the pub. Now the state was coming for their hard-won, hard-scrabble freedom. The only thing of real value left in their downsized lives, seemed at imminent risk of being ripped from their hands.
The people in the big cities didn’t get it. Why were “these people” so anti-social? Why had they so little inclination to serve the “collective good”? It never occurred to the well-heeled, well-housed and well-educated beneficiaries of neoliberal capitalism that while it was giving them everything, it seldom showed “these people” anything other than its anti-social face. As for the collective good, well, what was that?
“These people”, whom the big city-dwellers struggle so hard to understand, are the people they have made. If they don’t care about their fellow citizens’ rights and freedoms, it’s because their “fellow citizens” never taught them how.
Did the algorithms of the social media giants have a role to play in this protest? Yes, of course. Are the dangerous inhabitants of the darkest corners of the Internet feeding the protesters’ anger? They are. But people are only made ready to swallow Big Lies by too few attempts to feed them Big Truths.
Who is it who gathers at the seat of our democracy? They are the feral children of our greed and indifference. Who is it who pounds upon Parliament’s doors? Our own dark shadow that, no matter how hard we try to break free of it, refuses to be left behind.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 22 February 2022.