Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Political roundup: Is 'political violence' escalating in NZ?

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Is New Zealand witnessing an unacceptable increase in physical assaults on politicians? Or do we need to understand why some people are driven to such tactics?
Government minister Steven Joyce is hit in the face by a pink dildo thrown at him in Waitangi. Photo / Newshub
Government minister Steven Joyce is hit in the face by a pink dildo thrown at him in Waitangi. Photo / Newshub

The recent increase in projectiles thrown at politicians is creating some debate and concern about the current nature of political protest, and where the line should be drawn for those interacting with public figures. What is robust and legitimate civil disobedience for some, is for others simply "political violence".

Recently there has been a noticeable escalation in physical altercations with political figures, as well as increasingly robust protest. John Key has been at the centre of this, with threats to his safety and ability to speak at Waitangi, through to glitter bombing at the Big Gay Out, and other reports of him being booed at public events. MP electorate offices have also recently been badly vandalised. But it was the sex toy thrown at Steven Joyce, and now the mud thrown at Gerry Brownlee that has prompted many to ask if things are getting out of control.

The potential for further escalation is covered in an interesting blog post by Geoffrey Miller that looks at a worst-case scenario in which New Zealand goes down the path experienced by Sweden, a country with many similarities to our own - see: New Zealand's increasingly dangerous level of political vitriol.

Miller points to the assassinations of Prime Minister Olof Palme in 1986 and of foreign minister Anna Lindh in 2003, saying "We should keep Sweden's experiences in mind when reflecting in the increasingly dangerous level of political vitriol that New Zealand has seen in recent months." He suggests that political protests are "desperately" needed in New Zealand, but that "hurling objects at MPs is not peaceful.

So far, the incidents have been harmless. But what if the next time a minister is attacked, it is with a bullet? Impossible? That's what Sweden thought."

Newstalk ZB's Tim Fookes makes a similar point today: "You might well say, it's all a form of light-hearted protest and that no one was hurt but the question remains - what if it was something more serious thrown at these politicians?" - see: NZ Security Too Lax. He argues "This craze to throw things at politicians is a worry."

State security increase likely

Many commentators have said that the recent incidents highlight New Zealand's relatively low level of state security for politicians. This was the humorous - yet serious - point made by comedian and current affairs commentator John Oliver in his must-view coverage of Steven Joyce's dildo incident - see the 5-minute video John Oliver: New Zealand - Steven Joyce to go down in history as "Dildo Baggins". Oliver says: "If you threw something at a politician in this country, you'd be dead before the dildo hit the ground."

So will we see increased security for politicians? Security expert and former police negotiator and detective Lance Burdett told Paul Henry "There will be some kickback, I think, from this event" - see the five-minute interview More security for MPs could be coming.

See also Rosanna Price's Concern over public access to MPs after throwing incidents. Burdett says that New Zealand's security arrangements are very low key, and copy-cat actions might now occur: "We see something like that and it gives us an idea...it often happens during protests, one person or two people will run off somewhere and the others will go 'yeah yeah that's what I'll do'."

Reduced public access to politicians

Gerry Brownlee reacts after having a brown goo tipped on him whilst attending the memorial service for the 2011 earthquake in Christchurch. Photo / Joe Morgan
Gerry Brownlee reacts after having a brown goo tipped on him whilst attending the memorial service for the 2011 earthquake in Christchurch. Photo / Joe Morgan

If public access to politicians is reduced, then the health of New Zealand politics will decline according argues Tracy Watkins, who says increased security will make politicians more divorced from the public: "anyone can talk to them. It's almost seen as a right of being a Kiwi. And it's also what helps keep our politicians real" - see: Politicians are people too.

Watkins disputes that throwing objects is humorous: "Funny? Not really. It's nasty, it could eventually get dangerous and no matter what your politics no politician deserves to be hated so much it's okay to throw stuff at them. They're not cartoon characters, they are real people. Heckle them, ear bash them, vote against them. But in every day life it's not normal to biff something at people just because we disagree with them. "

Inhumane treatment of politicians is condemned by Barry Soper, who says: Gerry Brownlee didn't deserve to have muck thrown at him. No politician does. Similarly, Rachel Smalley defends the right of politicians to enjoy safety, and also questions the intentions of protesters who throw objects: "All it did was give those responsible their 15 seconds of fame and perhaps if they're honest, that was all they were seeking anyway" - see: Our politicians should be free to move around. She says "The diplomatic protection squad must be having a few crisis meetings right now."

Physical interactions or intimidation of politicians is not a legitimate part of democracy according to last week's Listener editorial, Give peace a chance. It argues "They are an intrusion on the rights of others. They are also a sad admission that gestures of inarticulate rage are too often preferred over the skills of reasoned debate. It matters not whether any serious harm is done in such incidents. In a civilised, liberal democracy, people engaging in politics are entitled to expect that basic rights, such as freedom of speech and movement, will be respected."

A similar argument was made by the Dominion Post when the Prime Minister pulled out of his travel to Waitangi. Its editorial says that Maori opposition to the Government should protest rather than seek to undemocratically censor the PM - see: Trying to silence the prime minister is an anti-democratic act.

And in terms of the Steven Joyce incident, Frances Cook argues that while she has "no problem" with protesting, this was simply "an attempt to humiliate" - see: Dildo no substitute for reasoned debate.

She wasn't the only one with concerns. Even some of the protesters at Waitangi were apparently unhappy with the actions of Josie Butler - see Marika Hill's story, Prime Minister John Key target of flying-dildo Waitangi protest.

But the protest did get the tick of approval of veteran protester John Minto, who said, "Congratulations also to Josie Butler whose simple protest (tossing a dildo at Economic Development Minister Stephen Joyce as symbolic of the government "raping our sovereignty") carried the anti-TPPA message to a wider audience. I know it was not to everyone's taste - no pun intended - but nonetheless it will be remembered widely with its dramatic, incisive message" - see: Sovereignty under attack.

Unsurprisingly, there seems to be a consensus against hitting politicians amongst parliamentarians themselves. Newstalk ZB reported that Labour leader Andrew Little condemned the attack on Brownlee: "I don't think it's ever acceptable to throw a sludgy mix over anybody, but this was a commemorative occasion and it isn't the time to take up whatever the issue was that the person was protesting about" - see: Arrest after foul smelling muck tipped over Gerry Brownlee. See also Simon Wong's Little: Objects shouldn't be thrown at politicians.

Some on the political left have condemned the latest action - see The Standard: Going too far. And on the right, David Farrar says that such actions are generally counterproductive: "What they don't get, and probably will never get, is that the average person is simply repulsed by such behaviour and, if anything, increases public support for the target of their nastiness" - see: Average NZers repulsed by nasty protests.

Similarly, see the Southland Times editorial, Protesting well takes more skill than this, which says, "New Zealanders, as a group, don't tend to like shrill, or violent protest. Nor do they tend to be impressed by disruptive actions, much as the might consider these legitimate."

Of course this might all mean that the National Government benefits from the recent attacks. After the Waitangi Day controversies, Tracy Watkins referred back to another projectile incident, when Don Brash was hit by mud at Waitangi: "Former National MP John Carter was caught on camera gleefully pronouncing that that the TV images would be 'worth at least 3 points' in the polls, and joking that he had told someone to 'go down and say thank you to that young National Party supporter' - that is, the mud-slinger" - see: Politics the reason Key will go to Waitangi but his security detail won't thank him.

Dissenting views on hitting politicians

Don Brash is hit in the face by mud thrown from a protester at the entrance to Te Tii Waitangi Marae. Photo / Getty Images
Don Brash is hit in the face by mud thrown from a protester at the entrance to Te Tii Waitangi Marae. Photo / Getty Images

But are the above views rather prissy and overly favourable to those with power? Christchurch blogger Steven Cowan seems to think so, and he reacts to what he calls "the self appointed arbiters of what is and isn't appropriate behaviour", putting forward a case in favour of what he calls "acts of non violent civil disobedience" against political leaders who have, in his view, let down or damaged society - see: Gunking Gerry Brownlee.

Cowan complains that the "commentariat" are being inconsistent in their outrage: "It's pity that none of this outrage has been exhibited over Gerry Brownlee's behaviour over the past five years. This is the man, who through his actions - or lack of action - has inflicted great hardship and misery on thousands of people in Christchurch."

Former Green MP Sue Bradford is no stranger to threats to her safety. But she is sympathetic to the actions against Gerry Brownlee, saying they are "understandable" in a three-minute interview with Mike Hosking - listen here: Sue Bradford, Don Brash: Muddy protests.

Bradford lays out her position: "There's a lot of people in this country right now who fell very dispossessed and not represented in the Parliament. And that kind of anger and frustration and trying to make political points can be often be expressed in ways that Dr Brash would not consider acceptable.... It depends on the situation - does it make sense? Is the message clear? Are you actually trying to achieve something useful for people or for the earth around us? Not doing it pointlessly or stupidly. But yes I think it is a legitimate part of the range of things you can do when you are trying to make a point."

And are the politicians themselves to blame for citizens being driven to extremes? This is the point made by Lynn Prentice, the editor of The Standard: "But politicians always have had to deal with the consequences of their policies of lack thereof. From ministers of education fleeing confrontations with students in the 1990s to John Key shying away from it at Waitangi, it is part of politics... Things like that poor bugger in Christchurch or Joyce being sex toyed or the guy with the 1080 are usually a direct response to poor or manufactured consultation. Politicians trying to shove things like the TPPA or mining or roads or mass selling of housing like Glen Eden or simply being incompetent at their tasks like Gerry Brownlee will anger individuals and have done so forever" - see his comments on the blog post by Pete George: Dangerous level of political vitriol.

For information on why the Christchurch protester hit out at Brownlee, see Kurt Bayer's Protester who threw muck at Gerry Brownlee says Government has 'no compassion'.

So do "the means justify the ends?" asks Stacey Knott, a former a New Zealand journalist now working in Ghana - see: Power of protest needs to be exercised. She says "Friends here were shocked that citizens throw things at their MPs, and astonished they can get away with it".

TPP protests under attack

TPP protesters in Auckland. Photo / Doug Sherring
TPP protesters in Auckland. Photo / Doug Sherring

Angst has been expressed about other protests lately - especially the anti-TPP protests in Auckland. Heather du Plessis-Allan complained that protestors were ignorant and inarticulate in her column, infuriating protest. She also suggested their tactics would backfire.

Paul Buchanan had some similar points to make in his blog post, Too Clever. On the TPP protests, he said, "Unfortunately, it has activists who seemingly are more interested in establishing and maintaining their street credentials as 'radicals' or 'militants' than using protest and civil disobedience as an effective counter-hegemonic tool."

And Karl du Fresne argued "When idealism morphs into acts of violence, protesters relinquish any right to be heard" - see:The arrogance of the self-righteous. He also thought Josie Butler's protest would be counterproductive: "No doubt she will have become an overnight hero of the Left, who are too absorbed in their own sanctimonious bubble to realise that offensive protest gestures ultimately boost support for the National government and play into the hands of the law-and-order lobby."

Finally, some of the increased political aggression is occurring online at the moment, and John Key's son, Max, has responded to some of his own online harassment by reading out the offensive messages in this George FM two-minute video: Social Meanies: Max Key reads out your most ruthless messages.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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