Covid-19: Parliamentary protest of those who feel unheard will just be ignored

Protesters in Wellington turn their attention to the media.

ANALYSIS: This was a singular cultural moment in New Zealand politics. A massive protest on the lawns of Parliament and not a single MP or minister appeared outside the building to speak, lend support or even to just have a sticky beak in the midday sun.

Whatever the message was, no-one in power was listening.

The surprisingly large protest, organised by an outfit called the Freedoms and Rights Coalition that weaved its way from Wellington’s Civic Square to the front lawn of Parliament knew what it was for: freedom. It also knew what it was against: Jacinda Ardern and the Labour (possibly “Communist”) Government. Oh, and vaccine mandates and lockdowns.

It was a massive anti-government protest on Parliament grounds on Tuesday, with thousands of protestors make their way onto Parliament.
It was a massive anti-government protest on Parliament grounds on Tuesday, with thousands of protestors make their way onto Parliament.

Aside from that, there seemed to be little common cause among the protesters: an estimated 3000- to 5000-odd. Headlined by Destiny Church-affiliated characters, the protest included gang members, hippies, anti-vaxxers, anti-mandaters as well as those worried about losing their jobs or who just don’t like being told what to do.

* Covid-19 NZ: Jacinda Ardern says protest outside Parliament not representative of 'vast bulk' of Kiwis
* Noisy anti vaccine mandate protest winds down at Parliament
* Covid-19: Second person charged over Brian Tamaki-led anti-lockdown protest
* Covid-19: Destiny Church's Brian Tamaki named as man charged in anti-lockdown protest

There were New Zealand flags, tino rangatiratanga flags, Trump flags, the Eureka flag (more common in Australia and used by the various unions and white nationalists), even a Russian flag.

It was curious place where aspects of white nationalism and Māori nationalism intersected to a common end. Add to that dynamic bikies doing burnouts, prayerful exhortations, greetings relayed from Destiny Church’s Brian Tamaki – as well as 1080 and Three Waters protesters – and it was quite a show.

Protesters make their way through Wellington.
Protesters make their way through Wellington.

But what will any of this achieve? Well, not much. The numbers of vaccinated people here is instructive: a massive 89 per cent of the country, nationwide, has had a first vaccine shot, 78 per cent are fully vaccinated. While some of those people are probably uncomfortable, or hostile towards the vaccine being mandated – there were signs in the crowd saying ‘not anti-vax, anti-mandate’– the public appears to have voted with its arms.

But it does highlight what is a deliberate policy decision by the Government and one basically shared across and up and down the political aisle: that vaccinated and unvaccinated will be treated differently.

While there is limited political disagreement over whether the Government should order it directly, or give businesses and organisations legal cover to mandate various vaccination rules, the broad principle of less freedom for some is shared.

Thousands of protesters make their way onto Parliament to protest Covid-19 in general.
Thousands of protesters make their way onto Parliament to protest Covid-19 in general.

It is not a by-product of the Government's policies, but a deliberate design feature to drive vaccination rates upwards and limit the spread of Covid.

For those who do not wish to get the vaccine, their world is getting smaller: and a lot of them are angry. It was that anger on show at Parliament. Anger at the prime minister, ministers, the media and elites in general.

Politically, there is little upside for the protesters. Exercising democratic rights is important and protests are part of that. But no-one in the halls of power particularly care, even if some are more uncomfortable with mandates in principle – and teachers and nurses losing their jobs – than others.

This was a protest for those who feel left out and excluded in a world that has fundamentally changed.

The group had a list of demands, which it expects the Government to agree to by 2pm on Friday: to revoke all workplace vaccination mandates by next Monday, get rid of the new traffic light system, move all of New Zealand into level 1 and remove the Auckland border.

If not, the protest organisers say they will unleash “the great gridlock”, where they will gum up the major cities with cars and trucks until the Government relents to its demands. Then it plans to send Destiny Church boss Brian Tamaki to lead negotiations with the police and Government.

Protesters at the Beehive on Tuesday.
Protesters at the Beehive on Tuesday.

The fact that the protesters think this will work suggests they have fallen deep into the bowels of the social media echo chamber.

In the first season of US TV show House of Cards, the villainous politician Frank Underwood comes across a homeless man yelling at a government building. He walks over to him and says: “Nobody can hear you. Nobody cares about you. Nothing will come of this. Why don’t you let these nice gentlemen take you home.”

While anyone reading or watching the news will hear about this, Underwood’s fictional advice could apply to the protesters. The vaccine mandates are a done deal as is the traffic light system. Protests only work when there is a political vehicle or politicians to help apply pressure on the Government. No such vehicle or party currently exists.

Vaccines and mandates have overwhelming support from the political class, and the public at large. If those protesting feel unheard, it is because they basically are. And most people probably don't care. This is not the US, this protest is not the start of some Tea Party movement.

But it does highlight a sharpening divide over the vaccine issue and the clear existence of a motivated vocal minority which could turn into a greater degree of social rupture.

It would be very surprising if this were the last big Covid-related protest at Parliament, especially once vaccine certificates are in operation.