Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson has stated this week that he believes that threats and abuse towards politicians has increased. I'm not out there anymore so I don't have first-hand knowledge, but have been talking to a few journalists and other MPs who say it does seem a bit more organised and that there are some people who really want to disrupt and are abusive.
I had more than my fair share during my 15 years in Parliament. I could be a bit controversial and, as Minister of Social Development, I made the most significant changes to welfare that the country had seen in decades. When you make changes in a portfolio that directly affects some of our most vulnerable, people can be scared of change and that can manifest to anger. I didn't enjoy it, but I understood it.
I in no way support abuse and threats of violence. I had a few scary times. One where a guy chased me and I got into my car and locked the door just in time. He then kicked the side of my car and started to punch the windscreen – I got out of there quickly. Another protest in Whanganui that was blocking my exit and I was in the car with my mate Chester Burrows and one of the protesters said her foot was run over.
On the whole I found listening to people and understanding where they were coming from was part of the job and actually made me better at it. Hiding from the public and hearing only the good stuff is ignorant and dangerous.
Threats and abuse are not new – but they might seem that way to the current government. For the first few years of a new Labour Government the country went through what was called "Jacindamania". No one would dare criticise her, including the media. I once criticised her in an ill-thought-out tweet and was hounded with outrage for weeks.
Then we had Covid and the Prime Minister was held up as some kind of saint who was saving our lives. Again, no one dared criticise her, we turned into a nation of followers overnight as messages were sent through every medium, led by the PM to "be kind". Simon Bridges dared to criticise our response to Covid – proven right with time – but we all know how that went. It was the beginning of the end of his leadership.
The blinkers have now come off for many. They feel lied-to. They feel cheated. All the promises, all the words about improving everything from child poverty to housing to crime to cost of living have come to nothing. In fact, we are substantially worse off. Yes, people are angry and they don't feel they are being listened to.
The thing I feel most cynical about is Grant Robertson saying this week that they would have to look at how they campaign next year. That is because in the past two elections they have had very staged appearances by the Prime Minister – her facing an angry mob doesn't suit their agenda. They want you to see her in front of a planned crowd, all hanging on her every word and looking at her adoringly. Think about her announcement standing on the train platform promising to build light rail from downtown Auckland to the airport. Carefully staged – oh and of course, another broken promise.
His coming out now was planned and will be used as an excuse for her not to be out campaigning in public. Perhaps the Government should listen to some of those angry people. Understand where they are coming from.
Perhaps they should stop with false promises and actually deliver something and then people might happily get on with their lives.
Paula Bennett is a former Deputy Prime Minister and National Party politician who now works at Bayleys Real Estate as national director-customer engagement.
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