A few years ago, I was MCing the New Zealand Defence Industry Association conference in Auckland. The event is an opportunity for New Zealand industries to showcase their products and their capabilities to buyers from around the world and although there are no nuclear warheads on display – it's mostly new advances in protein bars and navigation systems – the event attracts protests and protesters.
That's to be expected. There are many people who don't believe in the value of countries having armed forces, some who go further and think armies are inherently evil. I don't. I support New Zealand having a defence force, one that can be interoperable with our allies, and there it is.
I believe one thing and I'm happy to support an event involving the industries supporting our defence force. You believe another, and you want to protest to make your point. Go for it.
But the protest in Auckland was remarkable for its incoherence. The ragtag bunch of protesters, small in number, was able to disrupt the conference, preventing many members from attending and forcing Gerry Brownlee, then Minister of Defence, to be loaded into a rubber dinghy and ferried by water to the conference centre. I remember one Canadian chap, who had made it through, looking down at the 50 or so men and women carrying signs and placards. He turned to me and said "they're not even protesting about the military". And he was right.
There were signs for trans-rights in prisons, tino rangatiratanga signs, anti-National placards, but not one objecting to New Zealand's armed forces. And that's the thing about modern-day protests. You might have a genuine grievance but as soon as you attempt to galvanise support for your viewpoint, out come the crazies who hitch their caboose to your engine and come along for the free ride.
The protests in Wellington this week showed that. There were people there who were genuinely concerned about the vaccine mandate and about the Government's handling of this year's Covid response and about inept handling of border exemptions – there are any number of reasons New Zealanders can be justifiably aggrieved with the Government response.
And yet their voices of reason were drowned out by the roar of gang members' motorbikes, the chants of QAnon nutters calling for Trump to be reinstated, the calls for the Prime Minister and members of the media to be strung up and hanged. Pizzagate has even reached our shores with a couple of the halt, the lame and the dispossessed believing our Prime Minister was arrested for child trafficking when she visited the White House a couple of years ago, and is currently under arrest, wearing an ankle bracelet.
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It would be laughable if it wasn't so serious. As Toby Manhire and Simon Wilson have both argued in their columns this week, it would be a mistake to dismiss these crackpots as inconsequential. But how can ordinary, laid-back Kiwis protest? Many I know are doing it passive aggressively.
If they and the people they know are double vaxxed, they will meet inside, not out. They'll get their hair cut. They'll have dinner parties involving more than two bubbles. Hardly the sort of actions that will inspire revolutionary songs that will endure through the ages, but for erstwhile law-abiding Kiwis, it's heady stuff.
I looked at the protest – more specifically, the protesters – in Wellington and thought of a couple of my callers who rang in a few weeks ago after Brian Tamaki's rally at the Domain.
"I wish," said one older woman, "that someone could organise a nice, civilised protest that didn't involve THOSE sorts of people." Quite. In this country, I think we call that an election.