A "smug" Deputy Prime Minister Bill English has been blamed for making the comments that sparked disorderly protests and brought parts of central Auckland to a halt on Friday night.
Responding to taunts from English that they needed "some Greeks to show them how to do it", about 500 students, many dressed in togas, blocked inner-city streets. Police moved in and arrested 43 people.
English declined to comment on the protest action on Friday and was unavailable yesterday, while approaches from the Sunday Star-Times to his press secretary were not returned.
But while addressing a post-Budget business function in Wellington recently, he remarked on student protests, telling his audience: "They get on TV and they can make a bit of racket ... dragging a few rubbish bins around, they need some Greeks to show them how to do it.
"It gets reported, mainly because it blocks the traffic ... but who's listening? Most people actually think the students get a pretty fair go and they should count themselves lucky that they've still got interest-free loans and get on with it, because, you know, get your training finished, and get a job and start contributing."
But Labour deputy leader and education spokesman Grant Robertson said those comments caused Friday's protest.
"His comments were inflammatory, there is no doubt about that. English should be engaging with students, not abusing them. The comments were smug and inflammatory. He needs to have a good hard look at that, in terms of what happened.
"As deputy prime minister and finance minister he has an obligation to engage seriously with people, so he needs to be more careful with his comments and actually engage on what is a serious issue, the future of tertiary education."
Robertson said the Greek-style clothing protesters wore made it obvious it was a response to the challenge English laid down, and he could not argue his comments didn't cause the disorder.
"I saw someone on the news in a Greek head-dress, making the comment that it was in part about that [English's comments]," he said.
"There are serious issues behind it, the funding of education. There is a good debate to have there, but dismissing it in the way he did was inflammatory. Nobody will be under any illusion he has a different view about the funding than the protesters. But these are serious issues."
Robertson said Labour remained committed to fighting the proposed tough reforms in the education sector, including moves to stop allowances for post-graduate students.
"The Budget has taken away allowances from them, and these protesters viewed that as an attack on their futures.
"English has a right to propose the ideas, but he should at least listen to the opposition and engage. I've been knocking around in education issues since I was a student myself and we have been through a lot. But to make a blanket decision that no post-grad student will be eligible for an allowance is a major policy shift."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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