WHAT HAS HAPPENED to the conservatives and the revolutionaries of this country? How is it possible that these two groups, separated by ideology, are nevertheless equally persuaded that the occupiers of Parliament Grounds were ordinary, decent New Zealanders engaged in a political protest indistinguishable from a host of similar demonstrations scattered across New Zealand’s recent history?
The most obvious answer is that on both sides of the political spectrum there is a powerful ideological and emotional need to represent the protest as neither threatening nor unusual. Both conservatives and revolutionaries have a common interest in constructing a narrative in which the “innocence” of the protesters, and the “guilt” of the Government, is indisputable.
What could that common interest possibly be?
One possible answer is that the protest offered spectacular proof that “the people” still possessed the power of independent action. As the NZ Herald’s John Roughan put it: “I was proud that a demonstrable minority of New Zealanders have not been persuaded that lockdowns and vaccine mandates are a proportionate response to this virus.”
That not everyone was willing to follow the science, or put the interests of ordinary New Zealanders ahead of the demands of business lobbyists and pundits convinced they knew more than the experts, was clearly a comfort to Roughan. That the protesters were happy to parade their ontological certainty on Parliament Grounds was even more comforting. The protest might be ignored by the Prime Minister (and all the other party leaders) but it could not be denied.
Roughan’s column is remarkable in many ways – not least by how far its author is willing to diverge from principles usually held dear to the hearts of most conservatives. On how many other occasions, one wonders, has he congratulated the Police for ignoring the expectations of “politicians, media, and the public who think law is something to be strictly enforced at all times”? Mass defiance of the Rule of Law is not the sort of behaviour usually tolerated by conservatives!
Nor is it usual for conservatives to downplay the serious harassment (up to and including physical assault) of innocent citizens going about their lawful business. Roughan refers to the many recorded incidents of Wellingtonians being accosted in the street, by protesters visibly incensed by their attempts to protect themselves from infection, as nothing more than “scoffing at people in masks”. Such minimisation of the actual harm experienced is, sadly, essential if one’s purpose is to maintain the fiction that this was a “peaceful protest”.
It is instructive to compare the description of these same incidents offered by two Marxist revolutionaries, Daphne Whitmore and Don Franks. In an opinion-piece posted on their Redline blog, they say: “There were unpleasant scenes reported of scruffy looking individuals walking on the streets of the city shouting at them for wearing a mask.”
This description is a definite improvement on Roughan’s “scoffing”. But, although the writers concede that for some the experience was “deeply traumatising”, they also explain how “[m]any more just wandered on, ignoring the rants as you do with anyone who seems a bit unhinged.”
Crucially, they then add: “Those interactions, well away from the parliament lawns were then conflated with the occupation as a whole.” Once again, the purpose is to inoculate the occupation from charges that it was anything other than a “peaceful protest”.
The inescapable problem for both Roughan and Whitmore/Franks is how to explain the extraordinary violence of the twenty-third day of the occupation. They manage it, however, by employing the oldest explanation in politics: the minority responsible for the fires and the violence were in no way representative of the overwhelming majority of the protesters.
Roughan further refines his argument by congratulating the Police Commissioner, Andrew Coster, for the way he dealt with this alien violent element – presenting his final decision to clear Parliament Grounds as a “relief” for all the peaceful protesters, who dutifully packed-up and went home.
Whitmore/Franks are more straightforward. “After 23 days camped outside parliament the End the Mandates protest was stormed by 500 riot police. A few hundred hardcore protesters fought back all day, and around a hundred were arrested.”
It was the Cops wot done it.
At the heart of Roughan’s argument one senses a deep resentment that the views of persons like himself, powerful White conservative males, did not prove decisive in determining the Labour Government’s handling of the Covid-19 Pandemic. Such men are not used to being ignored. The inconvenient fact that the young, female Prime Minister who declined to accept their advice went on to be re-elected in a landslide victory only rubbed salt in their wounds.
It isn’t the fact that Roughan and his ilk represent a minority that galls them (the ruling-class and its explainers will always be a minority) it is that they have been required to share the fate of the minorities which, when power was in conservative hands, they were happy to ignore. The person they blame for this insupportable state of affairs is Jacinda Ardern:
“Once the grounds were cleared, the Prime Minister addressed the nation. She was not conciliatory. She said the violence had vindicated her refusal to engage with the protest for three weeks. She said the occupation would not define us.”
Roughan’s final paragraph is telling:
“As Prime Minister in a pandemic, she ultimately decides just about everything we can do. She can decide to shut shops, close schools, cancel events, keep us confined to home. She even decides what is best for our health. But she doesn’t get to decide what defines us. Not all of us.”
Seldom has a conservative writer provided his readers with such a clear view of his politics – nor one so chilling.
The clue to Whitmore’s and Franks’ uncompromising position on this issue is contained in this paragraph:
“Ostensibly pro working class groups painted the occupation as entirely negative and ‘reactionary’, with zero recognition of the social and economic deprivation which had driven many protesters to participate. Significant sections of End the Mandate protesters included trades people and health professionals who had lost their jobs. That is what drove them to arrive at parliament with their families, demanding audience with the government.”
What neither writer attempts to explain, however, is why so many other working-class New Zealanders – Māori and Pasifika working-class New Zealanders in particular – who are also the victims of “social and economic deprivation”, fought Covid by organising collective action and mutual support. These were the “essential workers” who stayed at their posts throughout the lockdowns because, if they hadn’t, thousands of their fellow citizens would have died.
The protesters on Parliament Grounds did not “lose their jobs” – they gave them up because they refused to accept the social obligation of vaccination, and then, selfishly, refused to accept the consequences of that refusal.
Had the “Freedom Village” been erected in the name of social justice, by workers determined to build a better world. Had the protesters not blocked city streets, assaulted passers-by, and prevented schools, universities, businesses and courts from functioning. Had they not swung nooses and issued death threats. Then their brutal suppression by 500 police officers would, indeed, have been shameful.
But, the hard, cold truth of the matter is that this protest was a manifestation of narcissistic, sociopathic, passive-aggressive and violent behaviour unequalled in New Zealand political history. It was a gathering of the deluded and the deranged. The only freedom sought was the freedom to ignore the obligations attached to being fully human. And that is pretty much the definition of “reactionary”.
No matter how hard Daphne Whitmore and Don Franks might wish it otherwise, a revolution by proxy just isn’t possible.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 8 March 2022.