Alison McCulloch: Time to stand up for the rabble-rousers

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We need more rabble-rousers. More activists, protesters, agitators and firebrands.

And not just that, we need to cherish the ones we've got - and to do it now, rather than decades in the future, which, if we remember or appreciate them at all, is when it's usually done.

It's the rabble-rousers who so often move us forward, who come up with new ideas to challenge the old ways, who make sure we don't keep doing the wrong thing just because that's the way we've always done it.

Unfortunately, rather than seeing protesters as engaging in honourable activity - the kind that makes for a strong progressive democracy - we prefer to dump on them. To write them off, scoff, mock and steer well clear. At least until enough time has passed that their once-outrageous ideals have become commonsense realities.

Think of the suffragists and early feminists, who were laughed at and called names back in the day.

True, feminists are still laughed at and called names, but the suffragists are now a source of national pride, with Kate Sheppard's face adorning our $10 bill.

Consider, too, the peace movement of the 1970s and 80s. When The New Zealand Herald launched its reformatted paper earlier this year, one of the pride-boosting ads it ran was of an antinuclear protest accompanied by these inspiring words: "In 1987, we knew we could stand up to anyone."

At the time, however, that same newspaper wasn't so keen on vertical posture.

In a 1985 editorial, it damned anti-nuclear sentiment as unrealistic. If we shut out US ships, the Herald said, "what special consideration would the Administration give to our trade aspirations?" (Sad to say, we're still banging on about how we might encourage the Americans to meet our "trade aspirations" - this time through the secretive Trans-Pacific Partnership deal.)

Tauranga has had its own share of rabble-rousers, many forgotten, or never remembered in the first place.

One of the boats that set off to protest French nuclear testing at Moruroa in the early 70s was a Tauranga vessel, the Boy Roel, donated by local orchardists, the Van Leeuwens.

In a delightful book named after the boat, a crew member wrote of all those who mucked in to prepare for the journey, such as "the stevedore who came down and helped load and stow the deck cargo, the jeweller who worked Saturday morning on the chronometer and then quietly refused payment, the Tauranga college girls who spent all their out-of-school hours collecting money and goods ..." The list goes on.

Even though the Boy Roel's journey was troubled, and she didn't reach the test site, her voyage helped keep the issue in the news.

More recently, it was eastern Bay of Plenty iwi Te Whanau a Apanui who last year led the charge against offshore oil drilling. They dispatched a flotilla out toward the exploration zone, leading to the arrest of skipper Elvis Teddy.

Maori are more than used to both protesting and being rubbished for it, but thankfully it hasn't stopped them. Local iwi have been objecting to the Port of Tauranga's plans to expand its operations by dredging the harbour and hacking a sizeable chunk off the Tanea Shelf, which is part of Mauao.

If it weren't for the desire to dump on objectors and protesters - and, too often, Maori - the rest of us might have taken a closer look at just what that expansion might mean for both the harbour and our beloved Mauao.

When you think about it, it's not the protesters and rabble-rousers, but the establishment upholders of the status quo - the ones with the power, the money and the connections - who really deserve our scepticism.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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