Political parties condemn Parliament protesters, praise police actions

Wall graffiti chalked up by anti-mandates protesters
Wall graffiti chalked up by anti-mandates protesters outside the parliamentary Beehive in Wellington during the 23-day occupation. Image: Samuel Rillstone/RNZ

By Russell Palmer, RNZ News digital political journalist

All political parties have supported a motion in Parliament to recognise the “safe restoration of Parliament’s grounds” and the selfless service of emergency services.

Yesterday, riot police moved in and dispersed the protest against covid-19 restrictions, which had occupied the Parliament grounds for 23 days.

In response, protesters set fire to tents, scrub and other structures including a children’s playground. Police in turn used pepper spray and sponge bullets as protesters lobbed cobblestones, metal poles and other debris.

The police operation resulted in 89 arrests yesterday — 40 of the 600 officers involved were injured, with eight admitted to hospital.

Parliament’s regular question time was cancelled today with party leaders instead delivering speeches on yesterday’s chaos, before adjourning early. This is standard procedure after major events, such as the Christchurch terror attacks in 2019.

‘Acts of violence cannot stand’ – Ardern
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern began proceedings with the motion that the House recognise the safe restoration of Parliament’s grounds and the selfless service of our Police, Fire and Emergency Services, Wellington Free Ambulance, Parliament Security, and many others, in returning Parliament to the people.

The support of Māori wardens was also recognised in an amendment, at the suggestion of Te Pāti Māori.

“You were there throughout these events at a great risk to yourselves. Many of you were abused, some were injured, but you put your personal safety aside in order to look after others and for that we are very grateful,” Ardern said.

She expressed sorrow at what Wellingtonians endured, and the trampling of the mana of Taranaki Whānui. She said it was clear to her this protest was different from others as soon as it arrived.

Prime Minister Jacinda Arderns’s speech.

“There was an immediate focus on occupying the space. The rhetoric that came from the speakers they installed swung between benign to sometimes threatening. Many media who walked the grounds were either abused or in some cases chased away. It was a form of protest I did not recognise and I found it hard to reconcile it with the reality of what all New Zealanders had faced in this pandemic, and yet quietly got on with it.”

She said the demands of the protesters were hard to square with what others had suffered during the pandemic, including Labour MP Barbara Edmonds’ six-week-old niece who was recovering after a trip to hospital, having struggled to breathe after being infected with covid-19.

“And so my message today is simple, Mr Speaker, it is to condemn what happened here. Acts of violence cannot stand. It is to reinforce that this will always be a place where difference can be expressed and where that will be welcomed, but that should always be done with dignity and respect for the place upon which we stand.”

She said the pandemic felt hard right now, but it would pass; and vaccine passes, mandates and restrictions would also change.

“There is reason to feel hopeful, but for now, the smell of smoke has faded, the playground will be restored, and the people, our people, will return to their place.”

Protesters’ behaviour ‘was thuggery’ – Luxon
Opposition National Party leader Christopher Luxon also thanked emergency services and others who responded, particularly the “immense bravery and selflessness of our frontline police officers”.

He said National condemned the protesters’ behaviour, saying it was “not peaceful protest or activism, it was thuggery“.

“Those scenes were the culmination of weeks of intimidation and aggression toward Wellingtonians. We will always respect people’s right to protest, it is quite rightly a basic tenet of our democracy … but something was off in this protest from the get-go. There was real animus in the atmosphere.”

Opposition National Party leader Christopher Luxon’s speech.

He said he visited officers last night to thank them, and heard how they had all manner of things thrown at them, resulting in broken bones for some. About 80 had only recently graduated, he said, and for one he spoke to it was only her second day on the job.

“Their tenacity in withstanding the protesters provocations and remaining calm, patient and restrained is a testament to their incredible skill and professionalism and we all owe them our sincere and heartfelt thanks.”

He called for a review of the relationships between police and Parliamentary authorities, including the Speaker, as well looking for practical measures to ensure the security of Parliament while not cloistering politicians away from electors.

And while it was not appropriate for lawmakers to have a conversation with lawbreakers on the forecourt of Parliament, they could not risk writing off the concerns of other New Zealanders, he said.

“It is reasonable to expect that Aucklanders who spent 15 weeks in lockdown last year, or business owners who have lost the ability to pay their staff or put food on their family’s table will want to hold the government accountable for its decisions and promises.”

Greens: ‘There is another virus’
Green Party co-leaders Marama Davidson and James Shaw each spoke. Davidson drew particular attention to health workers who had supported the pandemic response, including social workers and community leaders who would play a role in supporting social cohesion into the future.

She said it took courage for police to maintain as much of a de-escalation approach as possible while also being urged to do something to restore a peaceful environment for Wellington.

“That approach over the history of police here in Aotearoa, has unfortunately not been applied consistently and unfortunately there has been discrimination in the way that it hasn’t and has been applied. So I acknowledge yesterday as being a really positive step in the way we police in Aotearoa.”

Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson’s speech.

Seeing people come to harm yesterday had rocked her, she said, and the violence was completely unacceptable, but it had begun long before.

She urged police to investigate those who were responsible for spinning out disinformation and hold them accountable, and urged protesters to think on yesterday’s events and hold themselves accountable.

“The biggest prevention of harm would have been for the protesters to go home, that much is very clear.”

Shaw commented on disinformation and conspiracy theories by reflecting on how he was attacked in the street in 2019, “by a man who yelled at me that I had to stop what I was doing at the UN before fracturing my eye socket with his fist”.

The reasoning for that could be one of two conspiracy theories, he suggested, both with “the same root cause”.

“Twenty-nine hours later 51 people were killed and another 40 injured at the hands of a white supremacist terrorist in Christchurch. It’s apparent that the terrorist spent a great deal of his time … in the dark recesses of the internet.”

Green Party co-leader James Shaw’s speech.

He also spoke of the attack on the US Capitol last year, which he said was aimed at destabilising society and creating conditions for authoritarians like Donald Trump and Vladmir Putin. He said doubts about vaccines and mandates were “seeded by the same actors” and led to hundreds of thousands more deaths when instituted as public policy overseas.

He said New Zealand, with its “breezy, she’ll be right attitude” had almost no immunity to this other virus, misinformation, and questions like “should Parliament have a wall around it, is it ever okay to play Barry Manilow” were just addressing the symptoms.

“Yesterday the grifters and the charlatans, the political opportunists and the white supremacists who were behind the protest melted away like cowards and abandoned the field to the desperate people who they had led astray.

“I can only hope that they will be held accountable for their part in all this and that we can find a way as a country to immunise ourselves against their malign impact.”

‘Can’t talk about civil liberties when you’re threatening others’ – David Seymour
ACT leader David Seymour agreed with the motion, and used the time to criticise the protest, support the police, and to criticise the response and attitude of the government.

“There is a right to protest, but that right of protest does not extend to taking over the rights of other people around you. You can’t talk about civil liberties when you’re threatening others. You can’t talk about restrictions when you’re preventing small businesses in the area … from getting on and doing their business.”

ACT leader David Seymour’s speech.

Most protests understood that a society that observes democracy and the rule of law is worth preserving, he said, and the protest seen yesterday was different from those that had come before.

However, Ardern’s speech in response yesterday was disappointing, he said.

“So far as she’s concerned, everything is fine, the covid response is fine, it’s all because of foreign conspiracy theories driven by foreign websites. Well you know what? That sounds like a conspiracy theory in itself.

“Just to be clear, the world does have a big problem with misinformation … that doesn’t mean that everybody who has a concern is misinformed, and the problem with being unable to ‘internalise complex problems in our head’ to quote an old ad, is that we are failing to do that as politicians too.”

He also criticised the Speaker for calling the protesters ‘ferals’ and turning loud music on them.

“Where were you as the leader and custodian of this fine institution seeking a mature de-escalation. That’s what we should have seen.”

He said there were unacceptable behaviours in the protest, but also behaviours from people who felt they had been ostracised by society. A more “human response” to the pandemic from the government may not have created the seeds of “this unexpectable and despicable meltdown”, he said.

‘Colonisation … continues to divide us’ – Rawiri Waititi
Māori Party co-leader Rawiri Waititi expressed deep sadness and loss, saying the violence seen on the grounds yesterday was a manifestation of the colonial vision of those who had continuously oppressed the people through reckless laws.

“One of the key objectives of the formation of this Parliament was to kill the “beastly communism” of Māori — a quote made by a past Minister of this House: Christopher William Richmond,” he said.

Māori Party co-leader Rawiri Waititi’s kōrero.

The whakapapa of this generational trauma could only be traced back to colonisation, he said.

“Colonisation has turned our worlds upside down and has rendered parts of the culture unrecognisable. It continues to divide us today because it feasts on our trauma, thus forcing us to disregard the very essence of who we are and who we once were.”

He said when mandates did lift, we “will still be left here fighting against the racist system that is still designed to kill our ‘beastly communism’. We will still be faced with Māori health inequities, Māori education disparities, Māori being the highest incarcerated peoples in the world. Māori will still make up 50 percent of the social housing waiting list and 67 percent of the tamariki in State care.

“We will still be over half of the people in emergency and transitional housing. And the Māori unemployment rate will still double that of non-Māori. That is the true plight that we as tangata whenua have been fighting for near on 200 years, and we will continue to fight once the mandates have been lifted”.

Threats, abuse and hate towards politicians was unacceptable, he said, and it was time to heal.

“It is time for us to dig deep into our ngākau to show the world who we truly are. We are an honourable people. We are tangata whenua. We are the people of this land and it is our responsibility to ensure everyone is safe.”

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

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