There have been many things said about the escalating debacle involving the occupation in and around Parliament grounds in Wellington. I’ve already blogged an assessment in my previous Political Bytes post: Rights, responsibilities and far right agendas.
Much has changed since then. Abuse and intimidation (including threats of violence) has increased for residents, local workers and bus drivers, parliamentary staff, journalists, mask wearers and others unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity. The far right has migrated to the anti-vaccinators activists like vultures to a carcass.
The occupation now extends further along Molesworth St and in other nearby streets, and in Victoria University’s Pipitea campus (which has now been closed down for students on the grounds of safety).
Threats of harm and death to politicians, journalists and others continue with the added dimension of a call for a military coup. This is not an insurrection but there is no doubt that the far right, who have to date the greatest influence on the occupation leadership and its tactics, would like this to be the outcome.
What about the ‘dispossessed’?
There has also been an overblown narrative suggesting that the ‘dispossessed’ are driving the occupation. There are certainly many people in New Zealand living in dire circumstances as a result of both cruel government decisions and neglect. Dispossessed of secure employment and other basics they have good reason for feeling marginalised and disenfranchised (‘declassed’ in other words).
However, while the ‘dispossessed’ are among the occupiers they are not the drivers and their involvement is overstated (certainly in respect of leadership). This was certainly my experience walking through the occupation on its first day.
Further, the ‘dispossessed’ tend not to possess utes, SUVs and campervans that block Molesworth St unless I’ve misunderstood what the word means. Nor does the presence of a millionaire’s partner help this narrative.
Voice of the dispossessed (millionaire’s partner)!!!
There is more that can be said but the situation is well described in two published articles. I don’t necessarily agree with all their observations but broadly speaking they are on the mark. The first is by Stuff journalist Charlie Mitchell (18 February): Police failure to understand.
The second article is by Newsroom political editor Jo Moir 19 February): Behind political manoeuvring. Both articles are good reads.
Failure of police leadership
What stands out is the failure of the police leadership (which isn’t a reflection on rank-and-file police). Leadership was unprepared. Better preparation and an earlier more strategic response may well have made a huge difference. Initially the convoy was described as being one of trucks. That was clearly not the case (utes, SUVs and campervans instead).
But this clearly signalled an intention to block roads with Molesworth St being both a major arterial road and running alongside Parliament. There were no plans to redirect these vehicles when numbers were much smaller. They were simply left to blockade the street at their will.
It was as if the police leadership were unaware of what was already happening in Ottawa on their own television screens including the far right involvement.
It also begs the question of what the security services were doing – the Government Communications Security Bureau and Security Intelligence Services should have been well aware of the risk including the international connections from the United States and advising the police accordingly.
I was stunned to learn that when parliamentary security guards requested police support to remove illegal tents in the grounds while numbers were very small this was denied. No attempt was made to prevent tents being erected at all even it would have been increasingly more difficult as numbers grew. Thereafter it got worse.
At least up until around 3pm this morning, the police leadership had, in effect, conceded defeat and given virtual free rein to the occupation’s far right influenced leadership. Worse than no longer protecting the abused, intimidated and threatened public, the police leadership then downplayed the significance of this behaviour although it now appears to have reversed its position.
The far right and those it influences gained open entry to those areas they had taken over. No wonder they feel emboldened and believed they have beaten the police. With some justification they can consider that they had won and that the sky was their only limit.
It is extraordinary that a disunited and factionalised far right could outmanoeuvre a police leadership that has a much larger disciplined and trained workforce at its disposal.
The likes of far righter Kelvyn Alps outmanoeuvred the police
Remembering the past
I can still vividly recall witnessing police violence over 40 years ago in 1981. This was the same street blocked by wealthy vehicles today (Molesworth). The violence was against peaceful anti-Springbok tour marchers.
I was in about the 8th row from the front of the march where the assault occurred. For the entirety of the eight-week tour police moved heaven and earth, including violence, to protect this racist tour.
Surely it is not too much to expect that the police now would move heaven and earth (without violence) to protect the public from the risk of Covid infection and worse, as well as intimidation and threats of physical harm (and worse)!
Biggest danger: risk to the public’s health
But intimidation and threats of violence (and worse) are not the biggest danger to the public We are now left with a worsening public health risk in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Its highly transmissible variant (Omicron) is out of control quickly spreading throughout New Zealand. It is expected to soon overrun our already overwhelmed public hospitals.
While Delta is more deadly (a higher likelihood of death for those infected), Omicron is potentially more devastating. Its transmissibility is so high that the previously successful elimination strategy (including lockdowns) is rendered ineffective. We can only hope to mitigate rather than eliminate Omicron. Mitigation may take months.
We are already at a record high of hospitalisations. Hospitals will struggle to cope with just Covid-19 patients. Many other patients requiring critical treatment such as cancer and cardiac will miss out or be dangerously delayed. Even worse so might diagnosis.
Through its higher transmissibility and the dependence on mitigation rather than elimination, it is possible that Omicron could lead to more deaths than Delta.
State of public health emergency
So where does this far right shaped occupation fit in? The last thing New Zealand needs are virus spreaders. Large crowds without public health measures, such as social distancing and masks, are potential virus spreaders.
This is even more so when many or most are unvaccinated and in a very crowded environment. It is the unvaccinated who are already disproportionately putting hospitals under pressure. This will escalate as Omicron continues to run rampant.
This particular occupation (which is unlike any other occupation we have experienced) is a huge virus spreader extending well beyond its participants; to those they encounter or threaten both during and after the event. This is the expert advice of leading epidemiologists and other medical specialists.
When the pandemic first hit New Zealand in March 2020 the Government declared a state of emergency. This was the right decision. Declaring a state of emergency is a critical part of a country’s response arrangements. It allows relevant authorities and people to exercise extraordinary powers designed to deliver an effective and swift response.
The far right and those they influence have created an illegal huge virus spreader. This justifies a state of emergency as much as the arrival of Covid-19 did nearly two years ago.
Presently the Government is caught between a rock and a hard place because of the strong sensible tradition of not being involved in police operational decisions. But these are exceptional circumstances.
A state of emergency on the basis of the current level of intimidation and threats in Wellington can’t be justified. But it could be on the basis of the threat to public health. It would strengthen the ability of the police and other authorities to first protect the health (not to forget personal safety) of the public in and around Parliament and beyond.
Encouragingly the police initiative this morning in blocking in the occupation (including preventing access) and protecting workers and others on the streets is an intelligent step in the right direction.
This needs to be followed by reclaiming other occupied or threatened premises like the university and courts. Gradual well-planned removal of the vehicles blocking roads should follow.
Then there should be a firm (but non-violent) gradual strategic removal of tents from the grounds. This will take time but should be assisted by the earlier activities. The threat to public health should be the biggest driver of this direction.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s government should not be blamed for this debacle but it must provide leadership to put it right
If the current situation is allowed to continue unabated (or even if reduced) then the probability of affecting the health and wellbeing of the innocent will exponentially increase (including otherwise avoidable mortalities). This has to be turned around quickly.
Otherwise, not only will have the far right won (they have won enough already) and the police failed, but the Government will have failed too.
Responsibility for this debacle should not be apportioned to the Government given these exceptional circumstances. But it is the putting right that counts.
Ian Powell was Executive Director of the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists, the professional union representing senior doctors and dentists in New Zealand, for over 30 years, until December 2019. He is now a health systems, labour market, and political commentator living in the small river estuary community of Otaihanga (the place by the tide). First published at Political Bytes