It’s six months since the hub of the country’s democracy was under siege, but the human cost is only beginning to become clear.
Despite some of the same noises, a protest at Parliament this week led by Destiny Church didn’t turn into a repeat of the fiery occupation of Parliament that took place over three weeks of February and March, when a protest against Covid-19 vaccine mandates got co-opted by extremists, malcontents and conspiracy theorists, culminating in a violent conflagration.
A half-year on provides a useful distance with which to ask: what sort of an impact has it made on Parliament, and what was the experience like for those who work there?
“Alarming, violent, confronting,” was the first response from Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson.
“I’m not just talking about the fires and the throwing things. I'm talking about the underbelly of it - confronting because we got lots of work to do, we’ve got so much work to do. It really for me held up a mirror to all of us actually to really say what on earth has happened here.”
“I watched it from the windows, saw it all unfolding in front of us and it was just really disturbing. Like many of us, I had friends and whānau out there, people I love dearly, and we had words, we exchanged words over those times, but also over the entire pandemic, due to the misinformation and disinformation that had impacted and had taken my whānau, I refer to that as being that my whānau were taken by that. A lot of my whānau were taken by that.
“The actions over those three weeks in front of us, the way it transpired, yes that felt unprecedented in that very specific way of being on the front of parliament. But I sadly wasn't terribly surprised given the conversations that I've been a part of and my connections to the communities doing it the roughest over generations. And so a part of me was also sort of like, yep, they were ripe for the picking. The large movements, also international in nature, really know where to target. So part of me unfortunately wasn't as surprised, but was definitely confronted by the way it manifested in front of parliament."
Due to the confusing crosscurrents of causes and multiple realities among the protesters, and because a number of MPs and others were being targeted for threatened violence, MPs were reluctant to meet with the people who occupied the Parliament lawns. The ACT Party leader David Seymour diverted from the stand that other political parties took and went to talk with protestors.
“One of the things that made it difficult to make sense of was that it was such a disparate group of people with different causes and there were highly objectionable people who, have no doubt, were talking about planning kidnappings and perhaps even executions of members of parliament and journalists," Seymour said.
"I somehow doubt that they were particularly serious, but you always get a few people like that - the history of New Zealand is that most people like that are a lot less serious than they sound.”
But beyond people who were causing trouble and taking advantage of others, Seymour said there were people involved who were there because of the way they felt excluded due to the mandates, and were desperate to be heard.
“I think the characterisation that many in the media put on it failed to understand that diversity,” Seymour said.
“I liked to think that I played an honourable role in trying to differentiate them and when I met with some of the leaders of these protests I said to them, look, there are people here that deserve to be heard, but there are also other people whose behaviour we cannot tolerate. Unfortunately the protest never really had a leadership or was able to disentangle those different elements.”
During the occupation, Ohariu MP Greg O’Connor came in every day - deliberately, he pointed out - and spent time with his former colleagues in the police, who he credits for a well planned operation to end the occupation. He said the affront on Parliament was not mere bluster.
“Anyone who thought that was empty threats, you only have to see what happened on the 6th of January (2021) in the United States. That crowd out here they were no different. They didn't get into the building on that first day, but boy you know that could easily have happened. That first weekend it was quite clear that this place was very close to being surrounded, and if that happened… I think people saw the pictures but you couldn't really appreciate that oppressive feel that was coming from out the front there,” O’Connor said.
“It was almost like every man, woman and child in New Zealand with a beef against the man, the government, whoever, they found their way out there, and they weren't going until they were forced to go or they got some sort of satisfaction which probably would have been one of those gallows being used.”
There’s more than just MPs who work in parliament and were under threat during the occupation. Anyone walking near the precinct with a lanyard could get unwanted attention, particularly if wearing a mask. Media people were among the most visible and accessible targets, and the occupation was particularly gruelling to cover for political reporters like Bridie Witton of Stuff. She looked back at the occupation with a measure of sadness.
“Probably sadness actually, looking back and going through it, because as a journalist I think a lot of us have a sort of like justice-based value that underpins reporting, regardless of what you think that is, but it's that you generally want to improve the lives of people in New Zealand and improve New Zealand. So to be the target of all this hatred was really sad, because it was like, I've just been trying to report on issues that you care about and listen to you and talk to you, and you hate me! It felt very personal,” Witton explained.
She said it has taken a while for it to sink in but people who work at Parliament were significantly affected by the experience of the occupation.
“A few of us were making light of it, as a joke, but it speaks to a more serious feeling: there was someone maybe a month ago with a loudspeaker on the road, my whole body went tense and it felt like an adrenaline rush, and other people felt exactly the same, it brings back some horrible feelings.”
Marc Daalder, a senior political reporter with Newsroom who has covered extremism, was already targeted, well before February, by some of the elements who hijacked the original anti-vaccine mandate agenda of the protest.
“It's something that has been happening for me since mid-2019. So I first wrote about the far right in New Zealand in February 2019 before the Christchurch attacks, and since there's been a concentrated effort on the part of a few individuals to make me into a household name on the far right, as as someone to be a reviled, and it's led to instances of me being yelled at in public and certainly people posting death threats about me on a range of online platforms and that sort of thing, and as well as stuff that is clearly not illegal but generally abusive and harassment and threatening. One of the things that made me conscious that the protest was concerning from the very start was that some of the individuals who have been engaging in that behaviour were at it from the very start,” Daalder recalled.
“I think it has made the institution more security conscious. To his credit, the Speaker had already been talking about security improvements at Parliament prior to these protest and then talking about things like potentially the need for body scanners at the entrance to Parliament and discussing it openly in response to select committee questioning and that sort of thing.”
New Zealand has one of the most open and accessible parliaments in the world. It’s something highly valued by MPs. However, the occupation exposed the risks involved. Police say that during the occupation there were 63 reported threats against MPs.
The occupation presented stern challenges for the Parliament Security Operations team which worked in close cooperation with Police. A security subcommittee of the Parliamentary Services Commission which looks at reports from the security team picked up a lot of points for future protests, and was well prepared for this week’s mobilisation.
On Tuesday when Brian Tamaki’s Freedom and Rights Coalition came to town, senior government minister Chris Hipkins - who was the Covid Minister at the time of the occupation - noted the twin challenges of having an open parliament and a secure one.
“We have to be realistic that our parliament is very open and therefore also very vulnerable. I think we should aim to strive for a very open parliament. But we also have to be realistic about the fact that there are security risks that go with that. We owe it to the people who work here - not just the elected representatives, but all of the staff. Hundreds of staff work here in this building, and they are entitled to feel safe in their workplace. So we do have to look at how we can make sure that we are protecting the right for people to protest whilst also protecting the rights of people who work in the complex to feel safe at work,” said Hipkins who was one of the high profile targets.
“It was an unpleasant time. I have no objection or no problem with people protesting against any decisions that I make as a minister. I recognise that as a minister some of the decisions we make are going to be controversial and from time to time people will be upset about those and they should absolutely be free to protest. But ultimately I think where it gets to the point where people are being threatened with violence, where in fact we saw actual violence at the end of the occupation, that’s well and truly stepping beyond the realms of protest,” Hipkins said.
“In terms of how I felt about the protest, I tried very hard - I guess for my own wellbeing - to make sure that I was differentiating in my mind between myself as a person and the decisions that I was making as a minister, and they were here protesting the decisions that I was making as a minister. They are absolutely entitled to protest against those decisions. When it became personal, when they are threatening me personally, or potentially making things unsafe for my family, it's hard not to be concerned about that. I'm very pleased that we’ve moved on from that now.”
MPs don’t want to see the walls go up around Parliament, or for it to become less accessible for the public.
“I just take the view that there’s probably a lot of smart things that the Parliament can do to prevent it being vulnerable without fully walling itself off, which would be a shame, practically and symbolically," Seymour said.
“We’re a country where school kids lie on the grass and have a picnic lunch, and office workers lie on the grass in the sun and read books in the afternoon, on the grounds of our Parliament - it’s a very special thing that we’re now in danger of losing because of this episode of our history.”
With election year looming, political tensions are poised to escalate again, and it would be no surprise to see more attempts to repeat what happened at Parliament, perhaps at other locations. FARC's ongoing mock trials are campaign rallies with cult energy. Society is being tested.
“Certainly there will be tests of - if not electoral democracy - sort of social cohesion and our bonds to one another, and what the police will and won't do in response to some of these protests," Marc Daalder said.
"So we've seen that more recently an Auckland where a lot of these protests are taking place now or weekly every other week and regularly involves sort of people spilling onto the motorway and so that's obviously dangerous and obviously illegal. Police so far have been unable to really stop it from happening, choosing instead to identify the people after the fact and go and charge them,” he said.
“The question is how long can we keep letting people do that? If they continue to face no consequences, at least in the moment, they’re going to keep pushing the envelope further and further and seeing how much more they can get away with, and so that's going to be a challenge - really a law and order challenge - but a challenge for New Zealand in the coming months and years.”
The occupation served as a warning sign that when people lose faith in the democratic system and social justice, some will take law into their own hands. Davidson said there were things for everyone to learn from the occupation, adding that the long term impact was on politics rather than the Parliament precinct.
“I don't think it's so much the extremist voices that we need to listen to. I think it's the vulnerable people who we need to be really clear about listening to. I think that the extremist voices, we cannot give them the time of day, personally, but we need to be aware of how we de-escalate rather than seen to exclude those voices in a way that just gives them more power, if you know what I mean.
“How do we instead focus not on those extremist voices but focus on their followers, the supporters? That stuff is the work at the community level, and Government has the responsibility not to make it harder for people to feel included - that’s the cost of housing, that's the lowest income households getting the support they need, that’s healthcare, that's mental health and addiction support; that's an education system that is inclusive and includes everyone, and so that's the responsibility of government to make sure we're not marginalising people even further,” Davidson said.
“We also need to support the Community Solutions, the people in the community who are connected and have the relationships and can say to that person over there ‘we love you, here’s a safe space, we want to help you’, so that person over there isn’t looking to Counter Spin for love.”
The occupation came with a human cost: the creation of fear, mistrust, resentment and divisions in communities. As a result, the physical walls may yet go up around Parliament, but perhaps the most dangerous impact is the mental walls that go up and leave people marginalised.