Police act against NZ protester vehicles but admit towies unwilling to help

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The anti-mandate protest camp in New Zealand's Parliament grounds and nearby streets ... "Clearly this protest has crossed the line," say police. Image: Hamish Cardwell/RNZ

RNZ News

New Zealand’s Police Commissioner admits some tow companies are reluctant to help with the removal of vehicles near Parliament but says some towing will begin today.

The anti-mandate protest on Parliament’s grounds and neighbouring streets is entering its ninth day.

Commissioner Andrew Coster told RNZ Morning Report he expected to see some of those vehicles towed today although it was unclear how many tow truck operators would take part.

The police action comes as the Ministry of Health reported 744 new community cases of covid-19 in New Zealand yesterday — a drop after consecutive record days that had seen omicron case numbers surge.

On Sunday, 981 new community cases of covid-19 were reported in the country.

A tow truck operator has told RNZ that the real reason the police have had difficulties getting towies to move vehicles was because many of them are sympathetic to the protesters’ cause.

Greg Cox, who owns Wellington’s Cox Heavy Salvage, said he has been contacted twice by police, and he has told them his vehicles are not available.

He said operators in the top half of the North Island are also refusing to help police.

Commissioner Coster agreed that there had been some reluctance by tow companies to be involved.

He said they had had some “constructive engagement” with operators and some may still be willing to play a part.

Some towies threatened
Some have said they have been threatened, while others say their vehicles are unavailable.

He said it was hard to gauge why the tow truck companies were reluctant and if they were sympathetic to the protesters.

“It’s hard for me to speak for what’s driving them but it’s clear that they are reluctant, and that’s very similar to the the treatment we saw overseas. Canada particularly has had a real problem with it.”

Police are in touch with the NZ Defence Force with a view to them helping with the removal operation.

Police Commissioner Andrew Coster
Police Commissioner Andrew Coster … “It does call for patience [dealing with the protesters]. I know how frustrating the situation is for all concerned. It’s an unacceptable impact on people in the central city but we just have to work it through.” Image: Samuel Rillstone/RNZ

“They have some capability, it won’t be the whole answer to the problem.”

Police have “some other tow capability” that they can draw on using some towing firms but he refused to discuss specifics.

“I expect you will see some tow activity today.”

Constructive dialogue
Constructive dialogue is also occurring with some of the protesters and he expects some of them will move their vehicles to a free parking area at Sky Stadium also.

“So that will be part of the answer.”

Police will hold on to the vehicles they remove and probably the courts will decide what happens in terms of them being returned to their owners.

“That’s the message to the protesters who are parked illegally — move your car to the stadium and we’ll not have any further interest in it.

“Leave it where it is and we will take it and we won’t be giving it back any time soon.”

Commissioner Coster is keen for a careful approach from police so they do not escalate the anger and resentment among protesters.

“It does call for patience. I know how frustrating the situation is for all concerned. It’s an unacceptable impact on people in the central city but we just have to work it through.”

Actions are unlawful
Commissioner Coster said while it was not the police’s aim to arrest the protesters, aspects of their actions were unlawful.

These included the extended blocking of the roads which was the biggest problem and extensive structures that have been erected on Parliament’s grounds.

Asked if Wellington police were caught out by the erection of tents at Parliament, where camping overnight is not allowed, Coster said the law around protest did not allow police many options early on to shut it down.

It was a balancing act, he said.

“Clearly this protest has crossed the line but the problem we have in the early stages is it might not have crossed the line but by then you have got a big problem on your hands.”

Morning Report invited protest organisers on to the programme to discuss their intentions for moving their vehicles but they said they were not yet ready to comment.

They have released a statement — issued on behalf of half a dozen groups including the so-called Voices for Freedom — which said they had been working with police on traffic management and were mindful of public safety and minimising disruption to those living and working in Wellington.

Towies are frightened – Wellington mayor
Wellington City Council has been engaging with towies who are under significant pressure, says mayor Andy Foster.

Some of them have been threatened over taking on the job of removing protesters’ vehicles and he was unaware of any who were sympathetic to the protesters.

“The feedback I’ve had, and I know they’ve been spoken to by our senior management, they are frightened.”

The towing of the vehicles was outside any contracts the council held with tow truck operators for vehicles parked illegally in the city.

Foster said it was unacceptable that the towies felt unsafe about accepting the work.

The mayor has visited the protest site several times and while most people seemed to be peaceful the site was “potentially intimidating”.

Offensive signs – nooses
Asked about offensive signs, such as pictures of nooses, Foster responded: “I think they would all do themselves a big favour if they stopped anybody behaving badly or they got rid of some of those signs.

“They would do everybody a favour. They would look more credible in the eyes of the public but those sorts of things will always let any movement down.”

Foster said he wanted people to be able to move freely around the streets without the fear of being threatened or abused.

“We want business to be back operating. We want all those the day before yesterday so as quickly as it can be done is good.

“But we’re working closely with police, supporting the police in the way they want.”

‘Impinging on others’ freedoms’ – Luxon
Protesters are calling for freedom but their actions are impacting on the freedom of others, opposition National Party leader Christopher Luxon says.

He told Morning Report he was pleased there were plans to move protesters’ vehicles because of the inconvenience to residents trying to get to schools and work and emergency services needing to move freely around the city.

He did not want to comment on the reluctance of tow truck operators to get involved because they were sympathetic to the protesters’ cause.

He preferred to leave it to the police who he trusted would sort it out.

Luxon, like the government, had no intention of engaging with protesters because they had no defined leadership and they were difficult to deal with because their issues covered such a wide range.

“They range from white supremacists to separatists and everything in between,” he said.

“There’s a wide range of issues from what we can gather from signage and things that range from anti-authority to anti-vaccination to anti-mandates…

‘Really anti-social and abusive’
“It’s tough when you come here and want to protest about freedoms and you actually end up impinging on others’ freedoms and the tone has been really anti-social and abusive.”

Luxon said the protesters should follow the rule of law and be respectful of others.

They did not seem to be taking into consideration that as a result of the occupation small businesses in the area were suffering.

Regarding his call for a timeline on the vaccine mandate, he said as omicron became endemic in a community the effectiveness of vaccine passes and mandates diminishes.

He believed there needed to be a discussion on the criteria and triggers for when the timeline could be put in place for their removal.

“There’s lots of other countries in the world who fundamentally as they’ve gone through this have had to say how they step out of it as well.”

The country was “in for quite a ride over the coming weeks and months” as omicron became endemic which was the pattern overseas so there should be clarity on the criteria for removing restrictions.

He said National did not want to see hospitality and tourism businesses fall over after two years of the pandemic and called on the government to defer spending on light rail and health restructuring and instead support the hardest hit sectors.

In response to rightwing blogger Cameron Slater’s criticism that Luxon was “hiding behind [Prime Minister] Jacinda Ardern’s skirts” regarding the protest, he said he did not know Slater and the National Party had been clear about its views on the protest from the start.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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