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The power of peaceful protests like Ihumātao

Occupiers plant trees at Ihumātao, where Fletcher Building plans a controversial housing development. Phil Walter/Getty.

Let’s be thankful for peaceful marches and occupations.

Whatever else you might think about the state of the nation, our willingness to make ourselves heard through protest seems in pretty good shape. 

In recent months, we’ve had teachers and nurses on the streets demanding better pay, school students marching over climate change, crowds descending on Parliament over abortion and the End of Life Choice Bill, and a pair of anti-oil activists trussing up in climbing gear to scale Wellington’s tallest building and hang banners in support of their cause.

Most recently, Māori groups have been making themselves heard in protests against Ōranga Tamariki’s removal of Māori children from their whānau, and in the occupation at Ihumātao, near Auckland Airport, opposing a housing development on land next to the heritage landscape of the Ōtuataua Stonefields Historic Reserve.

Having bubbled along in the current affairs background for a few years, the Ihumātao dispute flared into prominence with the serving of an eviction notice on occupiers and a handful of arrests in July.

After saying the government wouldn’t intervene because local iwi supported the development, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern promised just two days later – after a surge of interest in the case and swelling of numbers at the site – that no building would take place while the government and others tried to broker a solution.

Cue wails of alarm from critics such as Act’s David Seymour, who reckoned she had “legitimised unlawful behaviour”, and National leader Simon Bridges, who said she had “set a very bad precedent”.

Whatever the merit of that view, Bridges’ claim when asked about the issue on TVNZ’s Q+A that it was “pretty simple” seemed a stretch. Ironically, the occupiers also might see it as a simple matter (of protecting ancestral lands), but for most of us it’s complicated, due to the divide between the protest group Save Our Unique Landscape (SOUL) and the kaumātua from Te Kawerau ā Maki who gave land owners Fletchers the green light to proceed. Would giving in to the former trample on the rights and standing of the latter?

Adding to the tensions, some observers have fretted that halting development might breach the general principle of keeping private property out of treaty settlements, a prospect guaranteed to stir up the aggrieved-Pākehā lobby on social media, and potentially at the ballot box.

Read more: What Ihumātao reveals about NZ's protection of Māori heritage sites Facing up to China’s undiplomatic diplomacy

Protests always carry the possibility of provoking a backlash. The anti-apartheid protesters who opposed the 1981 Springbok Tour were on the right side of history, but we shouldn’t forget how their disruption of games unleashed the rage of rugby lovers in the provinces, and how Prime Minister Robert Muldoon, who allowed the tour to go ahead, ended up on the right side of the election result later that year.

Helen Clark had to negotiate the race-relations quicksands back in 2004, when her Government devised the Foreshore and Seabed Act to give ownership of such land to the crown and prevent Māori seeking customary title through the courts.

When Māori activists mobilised in a hikoi to the capital, she dubbed them “haters and wreckers”, which seemed pretty harsh for people following in the footsteps of peaceful resisters such as those at Bastion Point and, a century earlier, Parihaka.

The phrase was as memorable – and tone-deaf – as the “basket of deplorables” line Hillary Clinton used to describe Trump supporters in 2016.

Labour’s stance led to the resignation of Associate Māori Affairs Minister Tariana Turia, the formation of the Māori Party and the loss of four Labour-held Māori seats in the 2005 election. But it surely also helped Labour hold off the challenge of the Don Brash-led National Party, with its “Iwi/Kiwi” billboards and one-rule-for-all policies.

It also led to National eventually working with that very Māori Party in government, helping draw National away from the direction Brash had advocated, and writing another chapter in the story of constructive race relations. 

Students protesting in Auckland earlier this year against government inaction on climate change. Photo/Jenny Nicholls.
Judging by the toots of encouragement for nurses waving placards outside hospitals, and the television vox pops with parents asked about teachers’ strikes, both groups this year seemed to attract broad support in the wider community.

In different circumstances, footage of a striking teacher on a march adapting the “ole, ole” rugby chant to call for “more pay, more pay” might have raised a few more hackles.

But it appeared the message had got through: that to have enough teachers to staff our schools and enough nurses to tend the sick, wages had to rise further than was being offered.

The purposeful but mostly good-natured protests helped showcase the public support and ventilate the issues. If there were attempts to paint the strikers as money-grabbing unionists running rampant, they didn’t get much traction.

The schoolkids making their feelings known about climate change also seemed to be encouraged to have their say without coming in for too much criticism or flexing of authority in return. Maybe because everyone outside climate-change-denial circles realises the young are quite right to protest, and feels a little guilty that older generations haven’t responded adequately to an unfolding crisis.

But Māori protests tend to stir more complicated emotions. The issues are heavy, burdened as they are by the weight of history. If climate-change protests ask us to confront the future, Māori land disputes demand that we deal squarely with the past. Whether we like it or not, they can stir feelings with their roots in events of long ago.

Some Pākehā instinctively bridle at claims of historic injustice, which make them feel the society they are part of is being put in the dock. They wonder why people can’t all just “move on”.

Are younger generations of Pākehā more sympathetic? Has the greater respect paid to the Māori world in our education system and media actually yielded a changed national consciousness? The outpouring of support for the Ihumātao occupation might suggest that, although we should be careful not to mistake a flurry of social-media approval for proven societal change. Centre-right commentator Matthew Hooton memorably described the burgeoning encampment as “Wokestock”, and certainly, the crowds will have included a proportion of Instagramming fad followers.

But the political calculations and calibrations demanded of Jacinda Ardern in dealing with this and other issues are different to those faced by Clark. Ardern must still avoid spooking the Pākehā mainstream, but her own political identity is based on the promise of real change; cynical old politics-as-usual won’t cut it with her idealistic younger supporters.

A protester against the Springbok Tour in 1981. Photo/Listener.
It might not always feel like it when our society’s failings are being detailed by marchers with megaphones, but we can count ourselves lucky to live in a country where peaceful public protest plays an accepted part in the national discourse.

It complements our political and legal institutions, provides a pressure valve for the aggrieved, and sometimes draws the attention of the rest of us to something that needs to change.

Coinciding on a whole different scale with the recent string of protests in New Zealand, demonstrations in Hong Kong against an extradition bill have snowballed into a broader pro-democracy movement and shown again what can happen when people power collides with the wishes of an authoritarian regime.

Thirty years after Beijing brutally cracked down on pro-democracy activists in response to protests in Tiananmen Square, the world again ponders whether – or just when – the iron fist of the state will descend. At the beginning of August, the Chinese military chief in Hong Kong declared the army determined to protect China’s sovereignty, raising fears of military intervention and the awful bloodshed that might entail.

Before we get too smug about our own record, it’s worth recalling that in 1978, the New Zealand Army was called in to help police evict the occupiers at Bastion Point, and that the police riot squads of the Springbok Tour era presented a face very different to that of the policeman who sang so tunefully with the occupiers at Ihumātao.

But those events – and the vindication marked by the return of Bastion Point in a treaty settlement, and the visit of Nelson Mandela here in 1995 – are an important part of our shared history.

The protests of today will also help steer the political mainstream. And just as activists such as Joe Hawke and Hone Harawira eventually found their way to Wellington as MPs, it’s not hard to imagine the determined Ihumātao occupation leader Pania Newton one day following the same path, perhaps adding some impetus to the notion of generational change. 

This article was first published in the September 2019 issue of North & South.

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