Thomas Coughlan: Questions over how protest grew so large, and on misinformation, loom over the future


Parliament’s gone up in smoke before – many times in fact. Most recently in 1992, when coincidentally, no one of the current Parliament was an MP (Trevor Mallard, he of the sprinklers, has sat since 1984 but was briefly unseated in the 1990 National landslide).

People have even used fire in protest – in 2017, a man set himself alight on the forecourt, apparently in response to an injustice at the family court.

It’s far to say no one expected Parliament’s slide to burn in anger, but the sight of a burning playground is a worthy parting symbol of a protest that has spent 23 days veering between menace and self-parody.

As they fled the Parliament precinct, the protesters’ parting words were reportedly to the effect of “if we can’t have the slide, then neither can you” – more primary school bully, than Martin Luther King.

Indeed, if you’re young enough to care about who’s using the slide, you’re probably young enough to miss out on almost all vaccine mandates, and that’s sort of the point: this protest was only ever partly about mandates.

The slide is powerful in other ways too.

While Mallard is likely to have to reckon with his heavy-handed decision to douse protesters with sprinklers and troll them with music, the slide is symbolic of a cultural shift at Parliament which he led and championed. Under his watch Parliament had become significantly more open, particularly to people with children. It’s grown its digital presence, allowing greater participation in select committees.

Indeed, one of the reasons people who work at Parliament are subject to frustratingly strict Covid protocols is that Parliament has been consistent in being open to both vaccinated and unvaccinated people, when it is open. People’s access to democracy should not, and will not, depend on vaccination status.

But of course, this polymorphous, hydra-like protest is never about precisely what it claimed.

It’s not just smoke that lours over Wellington tonight, but a pressing political question, which is whether this protest, profoundly more violent than any since the 1981 Springbok tour, is a natural expression following two difficult years of pandemic politics, or whether it’s the beginning of something more malign: the darkest reaches of the internet spilling into the real world.

No one can draw a firm conclusion just yet.

I have not been on Parliament grounds for a week now – like many workplaces, ours has split itself for pandemic reasons. But in my walks through the protest, I found people who were not insurrectionists, not far-righters, and not Nazis. These people did not, it’s fair to say, share the same factual universe that many of us, but as anyone who spent the 1990s holidaying in the more remote parts of Golden Bay can attest to, these people and their outlook on life are neither new, nor malevolent.

Their presence on the Parliament lawn would attest to the argument put forward by Christopher Luxon and David Seymour: the sooner we begin relaxing mandates, the sooner Wellington bureaucrats and Golden Bay hippies can retreat to their respective moral and factual universes.

But that’s not all of it – or even half of it.

Amidst the organic milk and inane drum circles, were strewn nooses, swastikas, and threats of violence that went entirely unremarked upon and unpunished by the more peaceful wing of the protest.

A significant number of occupiers were not misguided naturopaths, but severely, and violently upset people, who were openly intent on doing harm.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern accurately diagnosed this problem while speaking on the protest on Wednesday afternoon. She said she wanted to assess what had allowed the growth of misinformation, which had fuelled the protest. This is likely to be one of the problems of our age, and it’s one which is showing itself in any country with an internet connection.

Vaccination coverage is not a perfect referendum on the penetration of misinformation in a society. There are perfectly adequate reasons to avoid getting the jab. But it’s fair to say that almost everyone I spoke to at the protest believed the Government was involved in some dark plot or another against them or others. Not getting vaccinated because you’re seriously into health food is one thing, not getting it because of microchips is something else.

The Government is already hiring people to address the growth in this sort of misinformation, but looking overseas, it would appear they face an uphill battle to stop it.

New Zealand is a divided country – but New Zealand’s division is a healthy one. Pretending otherwise would be to misdiagnose the problem the protest represents, and, in so doing, prescribe the wrong medicine to the problem.

This division is evidence of a very different sort of division to the toxicity evinced in the American politics. There, backers of the Republicans are so divided from Democrats, that even when they elect a presidential candidate as manifestly unfit for offices as Donald Trump, barely anyone could bring themselves to back the blue team to block him from office.

Here is quite the opposite. The party vote share of our two major parties can swing wildly depending on what’s on offer at any particular election. So un-divided is New Zealand, that the most successful political tactic in recent times has been to abandon a party’s radical fringe for the political centre to great reward. Indeed, Luxon himself showed the efficacy of this tactic in the last three months, boosting his vote markedly thanks to little more than a commitment to centrist managerialism.

While US Republicans have spent the week tearing themselves apart over whether Vladimir Putin is or isn’t all that awful, each party in the New Zealand Parliament quickly condemned him before moving on to a splendidly technocratic discussion over the most appropriate way to apply sanctions.

Democracy here is not perfect, but it is healthy. There has not been a single election, or even a single poll that would suggest the conspiracist fringe has so much as a toehold on a seat in Parliament – perhaps that’s why they fought so hard for the slide.

The vexed question over online misinformation will burn on for some years. In the more immediate term, the Government and police will want to move fast to ensure Wellington can never again be locked down like this, while protecting people’s right to protest.

Commissioner Andrew Coster will unquestionably face severe criticism in any review of this demonstration for his inability to stop the protest from growing and embedding itself at Parliament. He has, however, probably saved his job and reputation by moving quickly in the past fortnight to contain the occupation before moving to disperse it.

Questions should also be asked about why it is so difficult for police to control the streets around Parliament. Overseas capitals are able to use pedestrianisation and networks of bollards to shut down key routes and protect their capitals from blockade. Molesworth St, and Lambton Quay should not be that easy to lock down.

Those questions are for the future, immediate and distant. For now, Wellingtonians will simply note the kitsch logic of seeing the occupation so easily beaten – as everything can be – on a good day.

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