The art of protest in New Zealand

New Zealand's long and proud history of environmental protest was dealt a blow this month with the Government's plan to ban protests on the water.  Was this a move to increase safety on the sea, or was it an attempt to put a lid on growing public discomfort with plans to expand ocean oil drilling?

New Zealanders are certainly no strangers to protest. From Kate Sheppard's quest to get women the vote, to the staunch opposition to the Springbok Tour, we have always stood up for what we believe is the right thing to do. But in my view we've got a little lazy on it, a little self-conscious perhaps, and we're far more likely to click "like" on a Facebook page or retweet something on Twitter than propel ourselves off our couches and take to the streets like so many of our fellow New Zealanders before us.

Attacks on our nature, do we still care?

While we've been a little backward in coming forward in recent years, I'll admit there probably hasn't been a lack of protests.  My very first protest was the "March against Mining" in May 2010 regarding the Government's signalling its intention to open up National Parks and Schedule 4 protected areas for mining interests.  In that instance, 50,000 people marched up Queen Street to voice their dissent against such a plan, and the Government executed a remarkable backdown.

The turnout to the March against Mining was huge! (that's me between the 'R' and the 'E' in 'pure'. One of my proudest moments - as a kid who had the privilege of living in a National Park).

Much like a party you've planned, it's hard to say beforehand how many people will come to a protest. The day before the march, working for Forest & Bird at the time, I visited the Greenpeace office to speak to them about it (as the action was being arranged by several environmental groups, though Greenpeace took a huge role in social media and organisation). I asked one or two of their staff how many people they thought would turn up. "Definitely five thousand people, maybe ten," said one.  "I reckon 20,000," said another - and we all laughed nervously and congratulated him on his enthusiasm. Nobody was ready for the more than double that (largely of ordinary New Zealand families) who turned up on the day.

In the past few years I've also seen a continual and regular series of smaller protests, making their voices heard on everything from whaling to water issues.  It seems, when push comes to shove, we still get fired up about things.

Even in Christchurch, a (generally) more conservative crowd, protests regarding water (before the earthquakes) were becoming a regular affair. I attended one in Cathedral Square on a wintry Saturday in 2010 along with 3000 other Christchurch folk to protest the removal of our democratic process (including the sacking of elected ECAN councillors), but more importantly to stand up for our rivers (water conservation orders were weakened, the right to appeal was removed in the new ECAN Act). On that day, standing on the freezing flagstones, the temperature dipped below zero, but the people stayed and listened to spirited speeches from locals about the loss of our protections on our rivers. We created a symbolic sculpture, a stone cairn, filled with river rocks from our special braided rivers. It was one of the last things left standing in the Square after the February earthquake, and as far as I'm aware, it still stands.  

But this all applies to dry-land protests. What then of our long history of protest on the sea?

'We will not be leaving, we will be doing some fishing'

New Zealanders have a proud maritime ancestry, both with respect to the Polynesian explorers and navigators who discovered this land, as well as early European explorers and navigators such as Captain Cook. Since that time we have continued to be a people of the sea - fishers, sailors, sportsmen and women who live by the ocean's rise and fall.

It is no surprise, then, that in addition to making an international name for ourselves as world-class sailors, that much of our environmental protest history in New Zealand has occurred on the ocean.  

The nuclear-free protests that began quietly in communities throughout the country reached for the oars and put to sea, as nuclear testing in the Pacific escalated in our own blue backyard. So great was the concern that New Zealand's government sent two navy ships, the HMS Canterbury and HMS Otago, to Mururoa to watch what was happening, with immigration and mines minister Fraser Colman (his name was drawn out of a hat) on board. This protest was significant, because New Zealand and Australia had gone to the International Court of Justice to try to get France to stop the nuclear testing. France had ignored the requests, and the government took to their boats as a further course of action. Which is of course the whole point of protest. If people feel so strongly about an issue, and are being ignored at every avenue, they engage in the art of protest. This has always been the way.

The same occurred a couple of years ago when Te Whanau a Apanui along with Greenpeace New Zealand protested the Petrobras oil drilling survey ship being in the waters of the East Coast. Once again, concerned New Zealanders took to their boats and headed out to make their position known. In a now famous radio call, from a boat belonging to Captain Teddy Elvis of Te Whanau a Apanui, crew stated to the Orient Explorer that they would be placing themselves in the way of the enormous boat and that "we will not be moving, we will be doing some fishing".

Soon afterward, the San Pietro (Te Whanau a Apanui fishing boat) was boarded by special forces, and Teddy Elvis was arrested. He was aware of the risks, but chose to make his voice heard. This has always been the way of things in New Zealand.


Until now, perhaps. Last Sunday, Simon Bridges, Minister for Energy and Resources, was interviewed on TVNZ's Q+A (transcript here) where he stated that the Government would now be banning protest actions within 500 metres of any drilling operation at sea for "safety reasons" and that invividuals could be fined $50,000 (organisations would be fined $100,000) or sent to prison for 12 months if they got within 500m of a drilling or surveying vessel.

This seems pretty heavy-handed, and the question of "maritime safety" has been raised by Andrew Geddis over at Pundit, who asks why, then, the Government doesn't get upset about people travelling through those same waters in small boats like rowboats and kayaks, and doesn't force people to wear lifejackets out at sea (in an effort to enhance safety). I think he may have a point.

In any case, the proposal to change the legislation to ban protests on the open sea and inflict heavy sentences and fines appears to be out of kilter with our nation's long-lasting legacy of sticking up for our nature when we feel it has been squeezed too much.

For a reminder, this wee video gives a great glimpse of some of our history and Kiwi heroes, in addition to some of our well-known protest actions.

So what do you think about this? Have we lost our protest mojo? Are we too busy, too concerned with other things, spending too many hours spent in front of computers, to take a breath and think about the things we value and how we'd like to protect them? Or do we value other things now? I'm keen to hear your thoughts on this.

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