[Image © In Other News]
In 1981 during the Springbok Tour Protests, I was 15 years old and perhaps the only topic I knew less about than the apartheid system in South Africa, was rugby. I may have been an unusual kiwi kid, sure I enjoyed my sports, but rugby just wasn’t one I was particularly interested in. And besides, when a 15 year-old kid shows interest in international politics, society probably ought to keep a watchful eye and a big net close at hand; this one is going to be trouble.
But that wasn’t me. I saw the protests and the conflict, even outright violence between the opposing sides of the issue on tv news. And I saw the lengths the police went to, in an attempt to keep a lid on a potentially explosive chain of events. But when you’re 15, everything is new and there is nothing unusual in any of it.
In the years subsequent, I learned how the Prime Minister of the time, Robert Muldoon, had cynically used the tour and the divisiveness of it to his own political ends. It arguably gained him another term in the November 1981 general election, then by the time Muldoon drunkenly called a snap election on 14 June 1984, he was clearly doomed. But that is another story.
One of the great strengths of a democracy like New Zealand’s is that the politics and the politicians are dull. No one with any sense at all, wants to live or work or conduct business or even raise kids in a place with exciting politics. Or even worse, with exciting politicians. History shows us, no good can come of it.
And so, a comfortingly dull four decades passed before I attended my first protest, last week. It was the culmination of two years of rising bile, but in the end, by the time the current Prime Minister had publicly declared her policy of creating two classes of citizenship in New Zealand, and her government had usurped the Bill of Rights Act, politics in this country had gotten about as interesting as I felt I was prepared, as a citizen, to put up with.
My local Voices for Freedom group were planning a pop-up at a nearby intersection on a Friday afternoon. How different it seemed from when I was 15 – this was all very new to me, and unusual because of it. I recalled my vision of protest, and fully expected to be subjected to abuse or at least ridicule, for standing on the side of the road gripping a placard proclaiming that Truth Will Prevail. Though quite who could argue with that sentiment, for good or ill, I don’t know.
My experience was not what I had expected. The others there with me were surprisingly like me. Mostly middle aged, they reflected the makeup of the middle-class Auckland suburb I live in. They were nice, quiet everyday people, not the motorcycle helmet wearing student yahoos of the springbok days.
That’s a sign that a time bomb is ticking for any government, when the comfortably well-off middle class are out on street corners on a Friday afternoon. If you’re in political office when that happens, you know the buzzards are circling.
And the response of the passers-by was not what I expected either. I thought, briefly, that I would try counting the toots and waves of support we received from passing motorists. That soon turned out to be an overwhelming, uncountable number, certainly in the hundreds, maybe in the thousands. So, I resorted to counting the negative responses instead. There were 30, almost evenly split between those simply shaking their heads with disapproval, or combining the head shake with an eye roll. Then there were those who offered a thumbs down. And finally, those who presented us, or at least me, with the finger.
I can live with that. If I want to stand on a street corner making my views known, any other dingbat like me is fully entitled to express their views back at me too, whether I like it or not. That’s how good politics is kept dull, with the pressure-release valve of free expression.
I confess, I left that pasty-white, middle-class expression of political defiance feeling inspired. I’m not the only one out there feeling like an uppity government sometimes needs a bitch-slap reminder of who works for whom.
And this weekend that is exactly what the Ardern government received. A left-right combination, Batman-style bitch-slap it was too.
Firstly, on Friday afternoon, the High Court overturned the government’s orders mandating compulsory C-19 jabs for all police and armed services personnel. Sock!
Then, on Saturday morning, I joined the tens of thousands of New Zealanders who marched across the Auckland Harbour Bridge to protest the government’s C-19 policies. The police and Transit New Zealand had been denying permission for the march all week, but caved on Saturday morning when the scale of the protest finally dawned on them. Ka-Pow!
Perhaps the two events were not unrelated.
Again, I was happily surprised. This time by the diversity of the crowd. This was a throng not just representative of my sleepy suburban neighbourhood, but by the wider Auckland as I know it. And remember, Auckland is possibly one of the most diverse cities in the world. The mood was happy and friendly, but united and resolute in their message to the government. Not on my watch you don’t!
What was really gratifying, was running into a business colleague during the march. Someone I do a lot of work with. Neither of us had spoken to the other previously about our views on the state of democracy in New Zealand. We each confessed to being a little wary of doing so in our work circles. But we both took a renewed confidence from meeting and talking, and pledged to ourselves to be more courageous in our support for our fellow New Zealanders, in their fight to keep our government on its leash, where it belongs.
And in the end, that is what this is all about. Today, the issue is around C-19. But you better believe, if we let this or any other uppity government off its leash and let it run wild, it will, in the end, shit on the lawn.
And no one wants to clean that mess up.
By Colin Ford for In Other News