OPINION: New Zealand’s parliament grounds remain occupied by protestors opposed to the on-going vaccine mandates. Thousands of supporters from around the country have now visited the site in Wellington, with many joining kitchen assembly lines, distributing food or providing other logistical support. New Zealand’s government, police, and mainstream media all seem at a loss as to how the occupation can come to a peaceful end.
Spoiler alert: it’s by ending the mandates.
This protest is one of many simultaneously occurring around the world, each led by citizens of their country who are frustrated by government restrictions and see vaccine mandates as unfair, discriminatory, and unnecessary.
This wave of protests has been inspired by the Canadian ‘Freedom Convoy’ that began on January 22, with protestors embarking on a journey to Ottawa. Truck drivers and their big rigs remain in Canada’s capital city, blocking roads and causing great consternation to Justin Trudeau and his government.
The so-called #ConvoyNZ2022 arrived at Parliament on Tuesday. Several hundred people congregated, blocking the surrounding streets with vehicles and setting up over 50 tents on the parliament lawn. No attempt was made to remove the protestors. By Wednesday morning the crowd had reduced to only around 250 people. Speaker of the House, Trevor Mallard stated he wanted the protestors gone; the police stated they wanted the protestors gone. But even after three arrests on Wednesday afternoon, police described the crowd as peaceful and did not remove them. Then on Thursday, after two days and two nights of occupation, police finally attempted to remove protestors. Police numbers swelled to over 100, yet protestors held the line. Despite 122 arrests, protestor numbers grew throughout Thursday and by late afternoon police decided to retreat, handing back all the ground they had gained throughout the day.
Whatever possibility existed of removing protestors without a major confrontation disappeared on Tuesday and Wednesday. Police say they weren’t under-prepared for what occurred, but it is obvious that both Trevor Mallard and Wellington Police completely under-estimated the intentions and resolve of the protestors. Mallard and police failed to act early and remove people, vehicles and tents. The anti-mandate protestors were able to dig-in and hold their ground, giving them a platform to demand concessions from the government.
Hearts and Minds
Soon after Thursday’s embarrassing retreat by the police it became clear a war for hearts and minds was taking place. Fearful news reports on Thursday evening were followed by comments from many politicians stating that the views of protestors were extreme and representing a very small minority.
Not one MP has met with the protestors, with many doing their best to smear the protestors. They’ve been readily enabled by a New Zealand news media that does little but parrot and agree with whatever the government says. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has described the protest as feeling “imported”, ignoring the very specific Made in New Zealand restrictions that people are protesting. Deputy Prime Minister said that the protest was “taking a toll” on politicians’ families, ignoring that New Zealand families have had their lives turned upside down for two years by the government’s authoritarianism and discrimination.
From day one, media reports from the Parliament protest were not representative of what I was seeing on social media. While journalists acknowledged that it was primarily an anti-mandate protest, they ignored the merits of this argument and focused on the radical elements.
Television news reporters presented the narrative of a hysterical mob of conspiracy theorists baying for blood, while the reports from protestors on the ground suggested a diverse group of people, strongly against mandates and with many different political views and backgrounds.
Make no bones about it - anyone threatening violence against politicians (or any other person) should be identified and charged. From comments and images I have seen on social media in the past week, most of the people who expressed any of these threats or intentions should be easily located by police.
However, when the Speaker of the House states the protest is “clearly being orchestrated by neo-Nazis”, I can’t help but think there is a government-led smear campaign taking place.
The reality is that Thursday’s events invigorated protest supporters around the country. Many headed to Wellington immediately or planned to do so over the weekend. A very diverse group of people, all ready to do something in support of the protest. At the same time, videos of rough policing from the day’s confrontation were circulating on social media. The two most prominent videos showed a naked woman being dragged by her hair and young boy have his face pressed into the ground. The Independent Police Conduct Authority says they have received hundreds of complaints. By Saturday morning protestor numbers had swelled to around 1000.
On The Ground
On Saturday I spent most of the day driving to Wellington. I needed to see this protest with my own eyes. When I arrived, whatever extremist or dangerous elements of the protest that were present earlier in the week seemed to have vanished.
What is happening at Parliament, the surrounding Wellington area and the rest of the country is a completely diverse and multi-cultural effort. I visited one of the main food distribution centres in the Wellington hills on Saturday evening, and what I found reminded me of a multi-ethnic food court you might stumble across in any city. There were people from every corner of the world working for the cause. “Welcome to the resistance”, one man only half tongue-in-cheek said as I greeted him.
The protestors come from all over. I spoke to people from Dunedin, Napier, Bay of Islands and the West Coast. Everyone has a story. Many people are unvaccinated, but just as many are vaccinated and feel a great sense of injustice about the way unvaccinated people have been treated. Many feel bitter about how they were coerced into taking their own jabs with the threat of losing their employment. Some were unemployed, but many are working – some running their own businesses. I heard stories of people “holding the line” at work, where a bunch of colleagues stood in solidarity against vaccination and their boss decided he valued them too highly to lose them.
Despite the global movement, the vibe at the protest is VERY Kiwi. To say that the protest “feels imported” is completely inaccurate. Yes, there are Canadian flags and Trump signs, but for those displaying them these represent solidarity with movements against mandates across the world. Since protests first began against government Covid-19 restrictions, a large number of Māori and Pasfika have been involved. And this continues with the Parliament occupation. They mingle with Asian, European, African, Latino and many others in a melting pot of ethnicities. A full-blown Ska concert took place on Saturday evening, with the smell of sausage sizzle in the air as people danced in the rain. It is an unmistakable New Zealand protest, demanding an end to New Zealand-based restrictions.
Out on Molesworth street, people were working shifts serving pizza, hot drinks, fruit, stir-fry and cake. A lost property tent has been set up. People have taken up roles and responsibilities to ensure that communications and logistics can be managed. There is a small community, functioning and surviving.
But what could be more quintessentially Kiwi than the cringe comedy of Trevor Mallard acting like an abusive father who hasn’t got his way? On Friday, Mallard turned the lawn sprinklers on with hopes of “adding a little to their discomfort.” Mallard achieved nothing but to cause collateral damage to both the parliament grounds and his reputation. Kiwi ingenuity was on full display as plumbers and drainlayers managed to divert the water, building an irrigation system in the space of a couple of hours.
On Saturday I was able to witness Mallard’s next impotent attempts at psychological warfare. Mallard tried to torture the occupiers into submission by having a large PA system wheeled onto the parliament forecourt, blasting bad music and repetitive Covid-19 safety messages. Unfortunately for Mallard, the people most annoyed by these Waco-style tactics were the neighbours in apartments adjacent to parliament, and police officers stationed mere metres from the amplifiers. Protestors mockingly rain danced to Macarena and Copacabana, while most of the noise was drowned out by the actual concert that was occurring under the trees near the Parliament gate.
Yesterday, police stated that Mallard’s childish antics were “not a tactic we would encourage,” but added “it is what it is, it happened”. Mallard’s big spectacle was a sideshow. And he further enhanced his reputation as a bully and a coward. Mallard is embarrassed by what is happening at Parliament, and it’s his own fault for allowing it to get to this. To see him mocking protestors and trying to be funny on social media is just another example of why Mallard is not an appropriate person to preside over New Zealand’s Parliament.
The protestors have a point, and they deserve an answer.
New Zealand has done well in keeping our case numbers and deaths to such small numbers. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has received global plaudits for leading our country through the pandemic and was re-elected in landslide victory because of it. One of Ardern’s proudest achievements has been the high level of vaccination in New Zealand. 95% of eligible New Zealanders are now double vaccinated. This makes New Zealand one of the most highly vaccinated populations in the world.
The second vaccine was seen as the panacea to stopping Delta. But two doses are deemed largely ineffective in stopping the spread of Omicron. Thankfully, on average Omicron produces much milder symptoms than Delta. Omicron is now the dominant strain of Covid-19 in New Zealand and despite thousands of active cases not one person is in ICU.
This is despite less than half of the eligible population having received their booster shot. Other than for a few essential services, the booster shot has not been mandated in New Zealand. While vaccine mandates continue to restrict the 5% of unvaccinated people, more than half of the country remains vulnerable to Omicron and yet receive no restrictions.
Add to this the fact that many stores and services allow unvaccinated people to enter. At the supermarket, you have no idea whether the person who just put their hands all over the fruit is vaccinated or not. And frankly, it doesn’t matter unless that person has Omicron.
Vaccinated or not, children are also allowed to attend school. Our smallest kids are not even required to wear masks. We know that schools are like petri-dishes for germs. What’s the point in a vaccine mandate stopping someone’s mum from going to a restaurant when your own kids are at school all day with hundreds of people from different families with different vaccine statuses and lifestyles?
What good do the mandates do now, other than to punish those who have not been vaccinated?
With Omicron, an unvaccinated person poses minimal additional risk to you compared to someone with two doses. With masks this risk is further reduced. With your own ability to be vaccinated, you have all the power in the world to protect yourself.
The mandates no longer make any sense. The damage that restrictions are causing to people’s lives do not weigh up with the benefits additional vaccines provide in what is already one of the world’s most highly vaccinated countries.
The protestors in Wellington are by and large not asking for any paradigm shifting concessions. They are simply asking for unvaccinated New Zealanders to be treated with the same dignity and respect as everyone else. To not be discriminated against and for segregation based on vaccine status to be thrown into the dustbin of history. They are asking for the rights of the unvaccinated to be returned so that they too can take part in the Team of Five Million.