John Roughan: Protestors show theres a limit to compliance


Like most of the great mass demonstrations in my lifetime, the one we have seen in Parliament grounds over the past two weeks has achieved more than it might yet realise.

It has put an important note of discord into the story of New Zealand’s response to Covid-19, which was in danger of becoming a celebrated tale of extraordinary epidemiological success based on a compliant population with a very high degree of trust in its leadership.

That story is mostly true but not entirely. History will record overall compliance with orders to stay home, don’t socialise, don’t go anywhere unless the Government specifically allows it and, finally, get medicated if you want to keep your job or participate in permitted social activities.

But in time, when liberal minds look back on the powers given to a government and shudder, history will probably be relieved to record that we were not quite a team of five million. Polls found around 80 per cent support for lockdowns, a team of four million if we must, leaving a democratically healthy dissent that was deprived of a voice at the time.

If anything, history might exaggerate the dissent now. Big demonstrations provide pictures that documentary-makers and book publishers cannot resist. Many of us who marched against the Vietnam War and the Springbok tour know the images inflate our impact at the time.

We also know that if organisers of those Friday night marches had suggested we go to Wellington and besiege Parliament for as long as it might take, we’d have said, “Forget it.” We had student parties to attend and assignments due. We’d done the demo, we were going to the pub.

It would be hard to overstate the dissent demonstrated over these past two weeks. Convoys of people converged on Wellington from both ends of the country, making their presence felt in the capital not just for a few hours or a day, but day after day, and nights, enduring wind and rain, even a cyclone.

As some left, more arrived. Never have we seen a protest more defiant. Its vehicles blocked the streets around Parliament and the protesters calmly refused to move them even to a covered carpark provided free nearby.

Defiance was the point. They were demonstrating there is a limit to compliance with power.

Simultaneous demonstrations were taking place in Ottawa, Canberra and other democratic capitals. They come near the end of two years of pandemic restrictions that liberal democracies, it was previously thought, would not readily accept.

Lockdowns were something that happened in China, compulsory medication was something the Nazis did.

The demonstration we have just witnessed was different from those of the past, not just in its staying power but in the type of people attending and the resources they had (food, portaloos, hay bales, ferns). Their distrust of the news media was of a different order too.

The response of those with power was familiar though. Our police were impeccable, as they nearly always have been in these situations, while the Prime Minister called the protesters lawbreakers who did not represent the majority and she clearly wished the police would remove them, just as Richard Nixon and Rob Muldoon used to say and wish in days of old.

She accused them of “harassing and intimidating” people (jeering at their masks, probably) and was appalled that children were present (as in climate protests).

Parliament’s foolish Speaker turned on the lawn sprinklers and, when that failed to dampen the campers’ spirits, he resorted to loudspeakers blaring music and propaganda as in North Korea.

He chose tunes that cultural snobs pretend to find unbearable and the protesters danced to them. When he flooded the lawns they simply dug ditches and fetched pipes to put the water to use. He succeeded only in demonstrating the practical and cultural differences between today’s political elite and resourceful people.

Jacinda Ardern and Trevor Mallard might wince one day when they watch portrayals of themselves in this drama. All five parties in Parliament should be embarrassed that nine days passed before one of them, Act, made any attempt to engage with so many people outside.

It was the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, I think, who said revolutions happen when conditions improve. This week the Government began to lighten restrictions against the latest variant of the virus, reducing isolation periods, limiting the contacts to be traced, concentrating on serious illness.

But the protest was timely. Had it not happened, a story of popular compliance would have encouraged public health campaigners and social controllers to believe today’s population will meekly surrender more liberties than previously imagined. They shouldn’t make that mistake now.

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