17 Feb 2022

Parliament protest: Vehicle towing yet to start, police 'focus on engagement'

5:05 pm on 17 February 2022

Police in Wellington are not yet towing protester vehicles blocking streets around Parliament, and say they are exercising "careful judgement" about when to start.

Protesters in Parliament grounds and vehicles blocking the central Wellington street outside.

Vehicles on the streets around Parliament on Monday. Photo: RNZ

Hundreds of cars, vans and campervans remain ensconced in several streets alongside Parliament, where the protest is in its tenth day.

While police say say they now have access to significantly more tow trucks to remove illegally parked vehicles they are concentrating on engaging with protest leaders.

"Having observed the response from protesters and noting the ongoing dynamics of similar situations overseas, Police is continuing to exercise careful judgement about when to commence a towing phase," the statement said.

"For the time being, Police is continuing to focus on engagement with protest leaders with the aim of building on the initial positive responses we have seen so far."

Police had pulled back from an ultimatum to tow the vehicles but said say they have secured commitments from companies outside the region to help if a decision was made to start the removal.

National Recovery Alliance - a group of seven Auckland towing companies - spokesperson Chris Ratcliffe told Morning Report said he was aware of others around the country which would heed the call if police decided to proceed. If police contacted towing companies across the country it was possible they could get up to 20 tow trucks, Ratcliffe said.

Police said blocked roads prevented an ambulance getting close to a protester who suffered a medical event inside Parliament grounds.

The woman was taken to hospital, but the ambulance was unable to drive directly to her because of the protesters' vehicles blocking surrounding roads.

"We continue to urge protesters to move the vehicles blocking roads as these are not only an inconvenience but also a danger in situations like this," the statement said.

Defence Force towing would wreck vehicles - Minister

Defence Force equipment would wreck protest vehicles if used to tow them, Defence Minister Peeni Henare says.

Police had requested the help of Defence to tow away vehicles from the so-called Freedom Convoy. Asked what the hold-up was on his way into Parliament this afternoon, Henare said that needed to be worked out between police and Defence.

"I know there's been a request for towing vehicles - many of the Defence Force towing vehicles aren't actually towing vehicles, they're salvage vehicles, so if one of them were to pick up a car, it would wreck the car.

"Then there's questions about liability - if a car's wrecked, then who's responsible - and those are all matters that as I said need to be worked out as to why we need the kind of facilities that the Defence Force provides."

There were other reasons to be cautious about sending in the armed forces to deal with the protesters, he said.

"If the defence force came, they don't have powers to detain, they don't have powers to arrest. all of those matters are operational matters that need to be worked through between the Police Commissioner and the Chief of Defence Force."

Henare is able to grant those powers, but said no such conversation had taken place and he did not anticipate that it would any time soon.

"It is quite a large call to bring in the defence force here, domestically. I've been involved in Waitangi all of my life, protests in Waitangi in recent times have been bigger than protests out here, the defence force weren't used. We back the police to do it, the defence force will continue to work with them."

He suggested Defence was also busy dealing with the pandemic.

"We've made it clear that there are a large number of personnel deployed on Op Protect, which has just done its rotation into the MIQs. Despite Op Protect we've managed to help on the West Coast during recent floods, we've managed to get to Tonga, so I'm still satisfied that we have the capability to respond."

Police Minister Poto Williams was also adamant that police should be left to handle operational matters, and bringing in Defence would be need Cabinet signoff.

"When you get to that stage, they're fairly important national security matters, so that's not something that I'm prepared to answer, that's a matter for Cabinet."

She said she was grateful for the work of all police involved, but was getting "pretty fed up" with the protest.

"I'm frustrated that it's still continuing, and I know everybody around here is, but at the end of the day the police have to be able to do their jobs."

Supermarket company calls for calm

Supermarket company Foodstuffs corporate affairs manager Emma Wooster is asking shoppers to be calm in its Wellington stores.

The parent company of New World supermarkets has three stores near the protest site at Parliament.

Corporate affairs manager Emma Wooster said there had been a noticeable drop in mask-wearing compliance in recent days, but they are unable to enforce mask wearing.

She said people not wearing a mask and without a legitimate exemption should show respect for staff and other customers.

Wooster said anyone violent or abusive will be asked to leave and police will be called.

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