The Speaker and police were right yesterday to start removing the rabble from Parliament's grounds and their vehicles from surrounding streets.
As in Washington DC last January, the credibility of the state was on the line. A government that allows trespassers to unlawfully occupy and obstruct the entrances to the land and buildings symbolising its authority, and to block the main streets of its capital city, raises questions about whether it is truly sovereign.
Everyone has a right to go to Parliament's grounds and protest, but everyone else has a right to visit those grounds and drive around Wellington. In more than three decades of watching students, teachers, farmers, unions, environmentalists, Māori and activists on both sides of social issues march on Parliament, none has behaved as disgracefully as the mob who turned up on Tuesday and refused to leave.
Tough and abusive language has often been exchanged, effigies burned and tractors driven up the front steps. But there were always limits, including that those involved dispersed. No other group has called for the Prime Minister and others to be taken out and hanged. Rightly, no Member of Parliament dignified the display by appearing.
By Wednesday, it was clear some intended to storm Parliament the way the insurgents did in Washington. Others had peaceful intent, but all were trespassing.
In the end, the New Zealand authorities handled matters better than their American colleagues who humiliatingly allowed their Capitol to be defiled.
That 95 per cent of New Zealanders aged 12 and above are fully vaccinated and that only around 1000 demonstrators turned up at Parliament underlines they are a tiny minority. Many are so caught up in conspiracism that their problems appear more medical than legal.
Yet the Wellington political, bureaucratic and media establishments should not kid themselves that only a deranged fringe is feeling enraged by the current situation. Two years of pandemic and the long and preventable Auckland lockdown have fuelled a seething anger towards the Government from a much larger and more reasonable segment of the population, even if its source may be difficult to pinpoint.
Some of this can be explained by misogyny, as Jacinda Ardern's more zealous supporters claim.
But more is based on legitimate irritation with a Beehive communications strategy seemingly targeted towards children rather than voting adults, and which cannot admit the slightest fault or setback for fear of undermining Ardern's global brand as Covid vanquisher.
When expressing their own lived experience of the past two years, and their anxieties over whether they can survive financially or emotionally if we don't hurry up and get the Omicron outbreak over with, Aucklanders are made to feel like naughty teenagers told by the adults in Wellington we have it all wrong and they know what's best for us.
For its part, the Wellington bureaucracy is under so much pressure from its political masters to support the Beehive narrative that it increasingly provides information that is radically incomplete, contradictory or just plain wrong.
An example? In a rapidly changing environment, the Ministry of Health could be forgiven for failing to order enough rapid antigen tests (RATs) before Christmas, giving it no choice but to use its power as biggest buyer to intercept orders on their way to the private sector.
But it could have said so and trusted the public to be fair-minded. Instead, a ludicrous story was concocted, insulting the public's intelligence, which no one believed anyway.
Worse, after his own staff finally contradicted Ashley Bloomfield's claims that his "consolidation" of RATs excluded those already in New Zealand, pressure was placed on Roche by its biggest customer — the Government — to back up the original story. It did, but its numbers are difficult to reconcile.
The Beehive points to polls suggesting that Labour and the Greens still have around 50 per cent support, that 45 per cent agree the Government prepared well enough for an Omicron outbreak and that 48 per cent would support a lockdown against the new strain.
But those numbers also reveal that around half of us want a change of Government and disagree with each proposition.
Similarly, 58 per cent may want the border to stay closed longer than Ardern intends. But 36 per cent say they can't tolerate being cut off from the world any longer.
What the polls don't pick up, but focus groups do, is the intensity of these feelings.
The incoherence in the Government's Omicron strategy means public co-operation is radically declining, including for tracking and testing. The Beehive may think a few more earnest homilies from the podium of truth will turn that around, but the public isn't stupid.
Bloomfield himself conceded last year that contact tracing falls over at around 200 new cases a day, a point already passed. While the Government says it can collect 58,000 Omicron tests every day, it won't say how many can be analysed. One person closely involved in the industry suggests capacity is around 30,000.
Meanwhile, health experts have finally conceded that which Aucklanders have known for weeks, that a large segment of the population won't be tested for fear their children and the rest of their household will be forced to self-isolate for 24 days. If feeling sick, it's more rational to just hunker down in the spare room — if there is one — and allow the rest of the family to keep leading normal lives.
The public knows there is now almost no chance Omicron will hospitalise those who are double-vaxxed and boosted, let alone threaten their lives. One initial and admittedly small study in Queensland suggests as many as 90 per cent of people who are infected with Omicron will never know they have been. It is not worth putting kids' school, sport, theatre and time with their friends at risk, after all they endured for two years.
At deadline, clearing Parliament's grounds and surrounding streets was half complete.
Many of those people smashed the boundaries of civility and even sanity, but Ardern should not fool herself others aren't feeling a more restrained rage.
If nothing else, that threatens the health response. If Ardern wants to get people testing again, the 24-day rule ought to be gone by Monday. More people will need to be allowed to keep working and going about their lives after testing positive. And those protesting the mandates and vaccine passes might be reassured knowing when Ardern plans to end them. Adult conversations are called for.
- Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based public relations consultant.