Duncan Gillies: We will never be among the world leaders when it comes to protesting


New Zealand has a lot to learn when it comes to protests.

Maybe it's because we are a young country, maybe it's because of our ties to Mother England, or maybe it's because Hobbits just don't like confrontation, but we are too polite when it comes to expressing our opposition to something.

Or maybe as a nation we suffer from an identity crisis. We may wear pointy ears and hold up banners saying this is Middle-earth, but does the rest of the world really believe us?

When looking back on the turmoil over the filming of the Hobbit movies, the disappointing thing for me is how undramatic it has all been. The Germans would have made more of a fuss. The Americans would have been yelling at each other from across the barricades. The Greeks would have been throwing stones and filling the streets with trucks, even if truck drivers weren't involved in the dispute.

But if New Zealanders really want their protests to be taken seriously, they could learn a thing or two from the French. President Nicolas Sarkozy has all but pushed through pension reforms designed to raise the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 and the age for a full pension from 65 to 67, but protesters have made sure he knows just how unpopular his plans are, causing chaos at major transport hubs, cutting the flow of fuel to service stations, even overturning and setting fire to the odd car.

In New Zealand the average protester would go down to the car wrecker's, put a down payment on a rusted-out heap of trash and then apply for a fire permit before thinking of doing such a thing.

Now, I'm not promoting wanton acts of vandalism, but it must be said a few wanton acts of vandalism make for great TV. I'm sure even in Middle-earth, as idyllic as it seems on the big screen, that they had ways of sorting out these disputes that involved overturning horse-drawn carts and setting them on fire. Bilbo Baggins may look like a cute little character but I bet he'd be on the frontline of any fight for Hobbits' rights.

But in New Zealand, our top actor-activists, after calling for a union-negotiated agreement, collapsed in a death scene that seemed to be over within minutes. When you consider Sir Peter Jackson needs nine hours to tell a story, you would have hoped industrial action relating to his movies would have dragged on a bit longer than that.

Then, thousands took to the street to show just how important these movies are to our country. To the guys who held up the banners saying you will work for free, Warner Bros might not be interested but Nike and Apple may end up sending more work our way.

And while supporters of the movie seemed happy to change the name of our country to Middle-earth, Prime Minister John Key was only prepared to change our laws to keep Warner Bros happy. At least I suppose Key won't have to appear on the Dave Letterman Show again to remind the world where New Zealand is.

It's hard to think where else in the world this might have happened. Not France, which has built its society on the motto of brotherhood that has its origins in the French Revolution: Liberté, égalité, créme brulée.

The French are brought up on the tales of strikes and protests. There were the strikes of May 1968 which brought the economy to a virtual standstill, the riots of November 2005, triggered by the deaths of two teenagers in a poor Paris suburb, and then there was the lesser known kindergarten sit-in of 1998, when 3- and 4-year-olds refused to lie down at naptime because they were given apple juice at morning tea and they didn't want apple juice. They wanted orange juice.

The French strikes have definitely been helped by the involvement of slim, stylish female protesters who appeared to have taken time out from Paris Fashion Week. There's nothing quite like seeing a size 0 demonstrator taking on lines of battle-hardened riot police.

The union Actors' Equity had Robyn Malcolm as the face of its campaign, which in the end may not have been such a wise move. In a country where we seem ready to give up our identity so a couple of movies can be made here, it's quite possible some people thought Cheryl West was still in prison and therefore not an ideal person to be arguing for better working conditions.

* Duncan Gillies is the Herald's Foreign Subeditor

- NZ Herald

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