Picture: Dawn protest around Dunedin Downhill at a mineral conference in June 2019.
By Gavin Evans, group editor, Freeman Media. Comment (originally published in Inside Resources)
There is rich irony in Wellington’s beltway community being on the receiving end of unlawful protest activity around Parliament’s grounds recently.
The great and the good – across all political hues – have been indifferent during the past decade as protestors have taken a more aggressive stance against causes and industries they oppose.
Blockades and property damage have become more common; threats of mob action have been enough to cancel some speaking events and conferences. The cost of security across the energy, extractives, dairying, poultry and fertiliser sectors has increased.
The police response has at times been good at other times woeful, dependent on resourcing and the will of regional commands. The public, politicians and the corporate leadership of other industries have been notably silent when some of the country’s biggest exporters and essential industries have had sites shut, or their conferences disrupted.
Weirdly, the mythology wrapped around the ’81 Springbok tour protests, Save Manapouri, Mururoa and Bastion Point seems to have morphed into some casual endorsement for anyone wanting to ‘stick it to the man.’
Until, that is, you are on the receiving end or caught in the middle.
I hope we use the current protest to recalibrate this country’s approach to protest.
Everyone has the right to protest, but there must be clear – and enforced – limits on how far that can affect the lawful rights of others wanting to get to work, run their businesses, host events and travel the streets safely.
Communities, schools, businesses and courts must be able to function, and public order is not a dirty word.
But rather than confront that issue, hand-wringing politicians, academics and activists have instead tried to differentiate the weird human amalgam camped out at Parliament the past two weeks from what they consider ‘proper’ protesters – ie, the ones who look like them or pursue similar causes.
Some, like author Mandy Hager, imagine “dangerous far-right” agendas at play in the occupation and say “cynically emotive misinformation” is intended to disturb our social cohesion and democracy. Proper protests, she implies, have “civic progress and inclusiveness at their heart.”
I’m not sure what civic progress Extinction Rebellion advanced in Dunedin in July when it hi-jacked an evening seminar on sustainable mining hosted by the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy.
Nor was the Stop the Minerals Forum Coalition – comprising Oil Free Wellington, Coal Action Network Aotearoa, Climate Justice Taranaki and Kiwis Against Seabed Mining – being particularly inclusive when in September 2020 they described the participating firms as “economic degenerates” intent on “killing the planet.”
And Greenpeace, Oil Free Otago and Climate Justice Taranaki long ago dispensed with dispassionate, fact-based argument. Many of their claims are entirely bogus.
Changes to electricity lines charges are not a bid by “big” energy companies to shutdown solar; the country’s beaches were not awash with stranded whales following offshore seismic surveys in 2013 and the 2018 offshore exploration ban has not accelerated renewable energy development nor lowered power prices as claimed.
As the Wellington protest shows, the public can generally judge for themselves where on the whacky-scale a group’s claims sit.
But nowhere does the freedom of speech, and the right to protest that comes with it, grant a right to disrupt the community or shut down those with opposing views. In fact, it requires just the opposite.
If the Flat Earth Society wants to picket the Carter Observatory in Wellington, they should be free to do so, so long as they don’t stop people enjoying the observatory and the adjoining Space Place.
And that also means the police – and the wider community – must ensure the flat-earthers can gather safely for their annual conference, should a vocal bunch of angry round earthers attempt to blockade it.
And that’s just the price of living in a tolerant society. “Tolerating” means putting up with things you don’t always like; sometimes it also means protecting the rights of people and groups you don’t agree with.
That’s a basic principle of democracy. It’s also common sense, because ‘what goes around comes around’.
Unfortunately, the basic premise that the police, local councils, universities and the government will act to protect those wider interests can’t be taken for granted any more.
The 2018 and 2019 petroleum conferences proceeded in Wellington and Queenstown only with a strong police presence; in 2017 protesters were able to outnumber New Plymouth police and badly disrupt that event.
In 2018, Phil Goff banned far-right Canadians Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux from Auckland Council venues, prompting Regional Facilities Auckland to cancel a planned event on the basis of “security concerns.”
The following month, Massey University vice-chancellor Jan Thomas cancelled a student-organised speech by former National leader Don Brash – claiming incorrectly that he backed the Canadian pair’s views and again citing the security risk his ‘hate speech’ would pose.
In 2019, Minerals Forum delegates were assaulted entering the event in Dunedin where police worked hard to keep the event open in the face of about 100 highly organised protesters.
The Covid-delayed 2020 Minerals Forum planned for Hamilton was cancelled due to a late change in the support offered by the police and the high cost of other security measures they required.
The event was to have included discussion of Waikato-Tainui mining interests, how to deal with legacy tailings facilities, and the potential for local lithium development – a key component of EV batteries.
Last year, a series of councils around the country moved to cancel meetings planned by the Speak Up for Women group, who opposed sex self-identification clauses in the proposed Births, Deaths, Marriages and Relationships Registration Bill.
The High Court ruled that Palmerston North City Council’s efforts to stop the group using a council venue was a “serious failure” to recognise the group’s rights to free speech and assembly. It was also neither rational nor reasonable, the court ruled.
Frankly, the Wellington occupation demonstrates a complete failure by some of our major institutions – chiefly the police and Wellington City Council – by not acting to protect the wider public’s rights.
The city’s traffic bylaws should have been enforced from day one. Victoria University and transport operator Metlink – which limply surrendered their venues to the protesters – are equally culpable.
At issue here is a lack of spine in defence of community rights.
Easy decisions are seldom the right ones and constabulary independence has little value if Police National Headquarters is more focused on second-guessing the mood of the elected Government and burnishing its long-term community image.
And if firms and sectors expect to have their lawful rights to operate and host events protected, they must stand up to defend the rights of others, and demand action from the police and government to do so.
When that eventually requires arrests and the use of force around Parliament, people should also very publicly back up the police action instead of slinking away to the sidelines, mumbling cooing words of regret.
And then all involved should take a good long hard look at themselves.
Because it’s not the 1000-odd protesters who have been a threat to our democracy: we started chipping away at that when we allowed some segments of society to believe they had greater rights than the rest of us.