GUEST BLOG: Ian Powell – Rights, responsibilities, François-Marie Arouet and far right agendas

In 1981, although not a leader, I was an active participant in the massive protests against the Springbok rugby tour of New Zealand. South Africa was then under the tyrannical racist apartheid dictatorship responsible for the deny of fundamental democratic and repression of the large majority of its population. The protests were part of an international anti-apartheid campaign.

Unlike today’s country tours it was long – eight weeks with two matches each week.  Twice weekly large demonstrations were organised throughout the country with a particular focus on wherever each game was being played.

The thrust of the protests was peaceful, winning as much as possible the hearts and minds of the large minority who supported the tour, and civil disobedience which included at times breaking the law.

I participated in almost all the demonstrations including civil disobedience. This included, along with others, running on the Wellington airport runway, being in a sit-in on a motorway during the scheduled Hamilton game (famously called off), and another sit-in blocking traffic going to the rugby ground. These were time limited ranging from 10-15 minutes on the airport tarmac to around 90 minutes on the motorway.

Justice trumps the law

I remain proud of my participation in these activities. The cause was impeccable. The campaign did make an important contribution to the struggle for liberation in South Africa as acknowledged by Nelson Mandela. It did involve breaking the law in order to disrupt as many games as possible. No apologies from me on this.

The law is the law but it is not the same as justice. Law and justice overlap but there are differences; sometimes a colossal gap. But for me justice trumps the law every time. The inconvenience these protests caused paled into insignificance when contrasted with the justice of the anti-apartheid struggle.

However, none of this compares with the current protest including occupation at Parliament grounds and the surroundings. Contrary to the rhetoric this is not about rights. The claimed objective is vaccine passes which restrict the access of the unvaccinated to non-essential public amenities where there is a risk to the health of others.

But vaccine passes is the camouflage for the protest, not the substantive reason (for the record I support vaccine passes). At the core is a far right hardcore (itself factionalised) linked to an international extremist movement led by Donald Trump soulmate Steve Bannon. This hardcore are seizing an opportunity to build their political influence that this moment in the sun (and rain) provides.

Steve Bannon (right) with friend; influential among hardcore far right in New Zealand

 

Strolling through Parliament grounds

On the first day of the protest (Tuesday 8 February) I happened to be in Wellington. In the afternoon I took the opportunity to stroll through the crowd at its peak in Parliament’s grounds. I was masked but encountered no hostility or invasiveness.

But it was clear from the placards and other signs that vaccine passes were not the driving issue. They were more noticeably anti-vaccine, weird conspiracies including Covid-19 being a hoax and vaccines killing children, religious, and/or intimidation (including violence and death threats). Vaccine passes felt like a ‘ship of convenience’.

As I crossed Molesworth St through the parked ‘convey’ I was struck by both the absence of trucks and the prevalence of vehicles of the affluent (utes, SUVs and campervans to be precise).

Later at the railway station there were some protesters who had left to return home with religious placards. They were peaceful, minding their own business, and looking confused about what they had left.

Borrowing from rugby: a ‘game of two parts’

Borrowing from an overused rugby expression,  the protest is a ‘game of two parts’ (rather than two halves). On the first day attendance was at its peak (4,000 is the most generous claim but probably closer to 3,000). Most left before the second day with the number being in the hundreds rather than thousands (peaking at over a thousand at some points during the weekend).

Coinciding with the overall declining numbers has been the increasing influence of far right extreme activists who brought with them greater intimidation and threats. These are the kind of people who would be equally at home leading a xenophobic demonstration against Muslims.

This ‘game of two parts’ and evolution from the first to the second is well described in an excellent Dominion Post (12 February) article by journalist Charlie Mitchell: Evolution of protest towards far right leadership.

Extremist Brett Power attempting to arrest Health Minister Andrew Little; also wants to prosecute  others those involved in vaccine decision-making and implementation

 

Another article this time in the NZ Herald the following day by David Fisher focusses on the increasing role of far right leader and questionable businessperson Kelvyn Alps. Note the barely disguised threat against Fisher in the final paragraph. Far right leader Kelvyn Alps.

Far right leader Kelvyn Alps increased his influence during the protest

 

Cutting to the chase

Let’s cut to the chase. Rights are essential to democracy but are not an abstraction. Further, responsibilities are also essential to democracy. The pursuit of rights and responsibilities can be justified, even when contrary to the law where justice support this. Justice for the oppressed of South Africa supported civil disobedience against the 1981 Springbok tour.

In respect of its far right drivers. where is the justice in the occupation of Parliament? Consider this:

  • Less than 5% of the population 12 years and older are unvaccinated. Compare this with the peak occupation attendance of between 3-4,000. Compare it also with the over 100,000 people receiving the vaccine booster last weekend. It is tiny in contrast and smaller than earlier anti-vaccination demonstrations.
  • Vaccine passes are a temporary health protection measure as the omicron Covid-19 variant spreads exponentially throughout the country. They constrain access to some non-essential facilities for less than 5% of the population who have chosen not to be vaccinated. Further, a big majority of New Zealanders support vaccine passes.
  • But this small population subset is disproportionately contributing to much of the hospitalisations and consequential pressures on already creaking public hospitals and their already fatigued health professionals.
  • As confirmed by epidemiologists the occupation by the unvaccinated is a big virus spreader thereby risking infecting not only themselves. They risk also infecting others they come into contact with including police, parliamentary staff, media and local residents (and from them to many others).
  • There is no attempt by far right leaders to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the population. Rather it is an attempt through sheer force and intimidation to get their way. This includes intimidating mask wearers, shop owners, local residents, and parliamentary, railway station and university staff, blockading a major traffic thoroughfare for at least a week, preventing staff and students from accessing a university, and delaying access to medical care. It is not an attempted insurrection except in the minds of the deluded.
  • Children required to be present are at severe risk of omicron infection because they are in an unvaccinated crowd. They are also at risk of other illnesses because of unsanitary conditions. If this is not child abuse then it is certainly child neglect.

A legitimate protest

There is very little of rights in this and much less of responsibilities. As for justice it is buried in the mud. But there could have been a legitimate protest.

First, they should have stuck solely to vaccine passes. I disagree with their position but there is a right to challenge it. They should have treated this issue with respect rather than using it as camouflage.

Second, they should have acted in accordance with temporary health restrictions designed to protect the public (including them).

Third, they should not have blockaded the public’s traffic access in the city. Nor should they have abused or intimidated members of the public. Rather than trying to win support they only further alienated the much wider public.

The above is not a difficult threshold to meet. With appropriate physical distancing in an outdoors setting they could have occupied Parliament’s grounds, including overnighting in tents, even as long as the current occupation.

This would probably have broken the law but at least the objective would have been clear and it would not have alienated the public so much. I would have disagreed with them but respected their right to protest.

Where does Voltaire fit in

Voltaire: I never said that I had the right to encroach upon the safety and other rights of other people

 

An 18th century French Enlightenment writer, historian, and philosopher was famous for his wit and criticism of Christianity. He was equally famous for his advocacy of freedom of speech including for stating I disagree with what you are saying but support your right to say it.

Very few people today will know François-Marie Arouet but many will know his nom de plume Voltaire. What would he say about this current occupation by the unvaccinated. It is always hard to tell with philosophers, especially from nearly four centuries ago. But one would like to have Voltaire on your side given his advocacy of free speech.

But Voltaire was about rights for everyone, not just a self-selected group. He was also about justice. Given the complete absence of respect for rights, responsibilities and justice by the far right leaders I suspect Voltaire would say to them to  “va te faire foutre”.

 

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

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