The Week in Politics: The protesters and the politicians

4:43 pm on 18 February 2022

Analysis - Opposition parties gang up on Speaker Trevor Mallard over his reaction to the protesters, David Seymour upsets the prime minister by talking to them and a dialogue deal is rejected.

Anti-vaccine, anti-mandate protest in Wellington on Parliament grounds on ninth day - 16 February 2022.

Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

For a second week the protest outside Parliament dominated political news and Speaker Trevor Mallard became a target as opposition parties ganged up on him for the way he reacted to the occupation.

Starting at the beginning: At her post-Cabinet press conference on Monday Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced phase two of the Omicron response under the red light setting would start at midnight on Tuesday.

It meant reduced isolation times and the start of the critical worker exemption regime which allows contacts of known cases to keep working if they have rapid antigen tests and are negative on a daily basis.

How it will work is explained on the Ministry of Health website and in RNZ's report of the announcement.

On Tuesday the criticism of Speaker Trevor Mallard began.

Last Friday he began his own anti-protest action, turning on the lawn sprinklers and blasting loud music through speakers. The intention was to drench and irritate the protesters, hopefully encouraging them to leave.

It didn't work. They reacted by dancing to the music and digging trenches in the lawn to divert the water.

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Trevor Mallard turned on the sprinklers and played loud music over the parliamentary speakers to try and prompt protesters to leave. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

ACT leader David Seymour accused Mallard of "acting like a kid in a very adult situation". National's Chris Bishop said people were "wondering what on earth the Speaker is up to".

Wellington district police commander Corrie Parnell said using music and sprinklers was "certainly not a tactic we would encourage… but it is what it is".

Bryce Edwards, lecturer in politics at Victoria University, said Mallard appeared to have made "rather incompetent decisions that have backfired" and the protesters were "generally revelling in the challenge, they have taken his deliberately hostile action and turned it around by celebrating it".

On Wednesday National lodged notice of a no confidence motion in Mallard. The wording described Mallard's behaviour as "childish, provocative and embarrassing".

A successful no confidence motion would force Mallard's resignation. This one has no chance because of Labour's majority, it's a piece of parliamentary theatre.

It's at the bottom of the notice of motion list on the order paper and there are 11 in front of it. The protest could be over before it sees the light of day.

What was Mallard's explanation for what he did? The NZ Herald's former political editor Audrey Young, who has known him for many years, appears to have been the only journalist to get through to him.

"Mallard has always been a blunt operator. He has never been one to care too much what people think," Young said in her report.

"He says the ground was going to get sodden with heavy rain anyway, and after seeing some people urinating and defecating in the grounds on Tuesday night, he had no qualms about his actions."

Young quoted Mallard: "Diluting a bit of s… and urine was not a major issue for me."

Mallard described the protest as "the biggest collection of ferals that I've ever seen".

He said he had never seen death threats such as those on the placards, in chalk markings and in protester speeches.

In her report Young said Mallard was a veteran protester himself for causes such as the Springbok tour and nuclear testing.

"He has been arrested so many times himself that he has lost count, and he has convictions for obscene language and obstructing a footpath," she said.

Young noted opposition politicians weren't happy with Mallard "but based on feedback, it gave him instant popularity with a large section of the public".

Through the week, Ardern held her position that she wasn't going to talk to the protesters and National's leader Christopher Luxon backed her.

ACT leader David Seymour broke ranks and did talk to a person he described as an intermediary at the Backbencher, a pub across the road from Parliament that has been forced to close because of the protest.

Seymour said he set out conditions for dialogue, which included removing vehicles blocking roads and a guarantee that no more abuse would be hurled at passers-by.

He said the protesters felt no one was listening to them.

"I don't think we're ever going to glue this country back together if the response from Labour and some parliamentarians is to call them feral, turn on sprinklers and play ugly music at them," Seymour said.

ACT's David Seymour speaks to the media

David Seymour talked someone he described as an intermediary for the protesters. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

The prime minister was annoyed. "I don't think it was a responsible thing to do for a party that purports to be the champion of law and order, or indeed business, to meet with those who are obstructing Wellingtonians from going about their everyday lives, bullying and harassing people who are trying to go to school or work," she told reporters.

Ardern said the protest activity had "tipped into a space of being illegal activity".

Seymour may have seen an opportunity to pick up some votes, and he needs them.

A poll this week conducted by Curia for the Taxpayers' Union showed National up 5.4 points to 38.4 percent while ACT had slipped 4.9 points to 6.6 percent since last month's poll.

The Greens also took a hit, dropping 4.4 points to 6.3 percent.

Labour inched up about a point to 42.3 percent.

Late on Thursday Mallard sought a breakthrough, issuing a statement on behalf of all the parties.

It stated politicians would not speak with protesters until the illegally parked vehicles blocking streets were moved, unauthorised structures were removed and intimidation of Wellingtonians ceased.

On Friday morning RNZ reported protesters it had spoken to rejected the statement and said they weren't going to budge.

By the end of the week there were reported to be many more protesters and tents than there had been on Monday.

There was a village atmosphere on the grounds and in nearby streets which were blocked by cars. Protesters said they had set up a school, a yoga tent and a first aid centre.

The situation became totally bizarre when Stuff journalist Ellen O'Dwyer reported she and her colleague Lawrence Smith had been "trespassed" from the lawn.

"I was being kicked off Parliament's lawn by those who had been occupying it for a week," she said.

Earlier that day, one protester had slammed a copy of the Dominion Post on his fold-out table, claiming it was propaganda, O'Dwyer reported.

"It is nothing new to be hassled as a journalist, and it is often our job to be in uncomfortable situations," she said.

"But this is the new and peculiar experience of one reporter in the middle of a protest of thousands largely fuelled by misinformation and mistrust in the fourth estate."

Labour MP Steph Lewis said protesters had been waiting at the doors of Parliament at night and were telling politicians they would be "lynched, hung or kidnapped", Stuff reported.

Lewis said she and others no longer felt safe at work. Last week protesters banged on their windows. "They called at us 'come out, come out wherever you are or we will come in and find you'."

With public irritation growing and patience wearing then, police didn't seem able or willing to do anything about the occupation of the grounds and nearby streets.

Spokesmen talked about attempts that were being made to talk to the protesters and persuade them to take their vehicles to the special site that had been set up at the nearby stadium.

A few left but hundreds didn't, and threats to tow cars away didn't come to anything. Police Commissioner Andrew Coster said there was a problem finding tow truck companies which would remove the cars and the military had been asked for support.

Stuff said in an editorial Coster's speech could hardly have been softer or more pleading. "There's been scant sign of a stick… it cannot have escaped his notice that in Canada, Ottawa police chief Peter Sloly has just resigned amid criticism of the flaccid reaction to protests that have been all but cemented in place for nearly three weeks."

On Thursday Stuff reported four Defence Force vehicles had arrived in Wellington and were on standby.

"They are being pre-positioned should they be required, but as stated no decisions have been made about their use to assist the towing operation," a NZDF spokeswoman said.

While this was going on, MPs were getting through their work and the Conversion Practices Prohibition Legislation Bill was passed.

It makes it a criminal offence to attempt to change or suppress a person's sexual orientation, read about the impassioned speeches and Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson's "coming out" experience on RNZ's website.

This was landmark legislation, and made CNN's world news. The protest didn't - there are numerous others just like it around the world.

*Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament's press gallery, 22 years as NZPA's political editor and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire.

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