Claire Trevett: What toll will protests and Omicron take on PM, and who’s the biggest hypocrite of all?


Most Prime Ministers have faced protests over one thing or another, but few if any have been as visceral and sustained as those faced by Jacinda Ardern.

The political effect of protest action varies: if it is seen as overly vitriolic, violent, or unjust, it works in the favour of the politician targeted by them.

The footage of Ardern walking to her car with people screaming obscenities at her in Westport, and of her car being chased away from a school in Christchurch will not sit well with the vast majority of reasonable minded New Zealanders.

So the protest outside Parliament and groups haranguing her wherever she seems to go will not harm Ardern in the short term. It is more likely to get people backing her.

She has had a gruelling week. The protests drag on and on, she was dealing with Omicron rocketing through the community. She had to respond to the Russia invasion of Ukraine.

To cap it off the High Court ruled that the vaccination mandates for police and the Defence Force were illegal – giving the protesters a morale boost after their week skirmishing with police.

In the medium term, this period in time will take its toll on Ardern’s electoral chances.

The Auckland outbreak and lockdowns had already started the process of polarising people on her and the past few weeks will have only accentuated that.

Many of those people who before might not have felt strongly either way about her will now have taken a position – and part of that is because of the protests.

This week the protesters’ energy has gone into defending their patch from the police rather than focusing on vaccine mandates.

But before that, those arguments against the mandates had started to get traction, both among the public and the politicians.

New Zealand may not be divided 50-50 over the issue – but the mandates and vaccinations have created rifts in many families, workplaces and groups of friends on a smaller scale.

Most people know someone who is anti-vax or affected by the mandates. The pro-vaxxers can be just as vehement in their views as the anti-vaxxers: to the degree of cutting off friendships or distancing from family members over it.

In the middle are the live and let live brigade, who are vaccinated themselves but struggle to see the fairness in people being forced to quit their jobs because they do not want to get vaccinated.

Yesterday’s High Court ruling that Police and Defence mandates were unlawful was mainly because of that very issue: the court ruled that terminating their employment because they refused to get vaccinated was an unreasonable limit of their human rights.

The court ruling made it clear that its reasoning was specific to the Defence Force and Police, rather than other workforces facing mandates, such as those in the health sector.

It noted that the Ministry of Health had not recommended Police and Defence mandates were needed to slow community spread, as it had for other sectors.

But it does set a precedent to challenge some other mandates – and the Government may appeal it in case it needs to bring mandates back in the future.

While Ardern has said some mandates will be wound back soon anyway, she has also signalled they will stay in place in some settings – such as health and caring for the elderly.

Those will be harder to challenge, for there will be a different balance between the rights of those affected and health impacts.

The court ruling could also raise difficulties for employers who want to require staff to be vaccinated.

Politically, that ruling will increase the perception the Government may have over-reached in its Covid-19 restrictions.

The combination of the protests and that court order will have made it clear to the Government what was always going to be the case: people will accept restrictions to their usual liberties if there is good reason, and even then only for a limited period of time.

At the other end of the scale are those who still expect and want the Government to look after them and micro-manage every case of Covid-19. Some are holding onto the vestiges of the old Covid-19 response as if they were comfort blankets.

Even the Government knows they are not: Omicron is marching through and the Government has moved from restrictions to an “every person for themselves” approach. Those people may well feel they are being let down by Ardern after putting their faith in her throughout the pandemic.

Ardern did attempt to warn people earlier in the year – advising people to get boosters before it arrived, because the Government could only do so much. But it will still have taken some people by surprise.

The next few months will be a tough test for Ardern, especially if the toll on hospitals and lives is great. And now there is a viable alternative it will be harder for her to regain that lost ground.

For National leader Christopher Luxon there is not necessarily anything to gain by wading in either on the protest or Omicron. He could simply sit back and let them do the damage for him.

There is something to lose: the protests have taken attention away just when Luxon was building up momentum by focusing on the cost of living. But already polling has shown something of a Just Add Luxon effect on the perception of National as a viable government again.

The question Ardern needed to answer from the protest was how long the policies that affect all New Zealanders will need to be in place: the mandates and the vax certificates.The court has now answered some of that for her, but Ardern had answered as fully as she was able on Monday, saying once Omicron peaked those elements would start to scale back quite rapidly.

There was some irony in the reason she gave for that: she pointed out it was partly because the unvaccinated would have caught Covid-19 by then. The next day, cases were confirmed within the protest camp.

(The protesters seem to be blaming their symptoms on a belief there is secret transmission equipment on the top of the Beehive emitting rays down and making them sick. An urgent request apparently went to the Speaker to confirm or deny the existence of this equipment. There is some hope the Speaker will respond on April 1 by confirming it.)

Those cases were also confirmed the day after NZ First leader Winston Peters sallied forth among the protesters, maskless and undaunted by the mystery Covid rays.

In terms of where other political leaders have sat on the protests, there has been solidarity in numbers: they all agreed to ignore the protesters.

Luxon has tried to play up the “divided country” theme, and Ardern described Luxon as sounding dangerously close to sympathy for the protesters.

But their views on mandates are roughly similar: they were once good, but not forever.

Act leader David Seymour’s stand is slightly different and is where things will likely end up: he proposed workplaces being able to offer regular testing for unvaccinated people as an alternative to the vaccination mandate.

It is Ardern’s former deputy PM Winston Peters who has pandered to the protesters the most.

Parliament is supposed to be a house of representatives, but the 5 per cent threshold for entry to that parlour drives some politicians to great lengths.

Peters was a strong advocate for mandatory mask use long before the Government moved on it.

NZ First also has a strong law and order stand – Peters pushed a policy to recruit more police.

Some of those police sprayed in the face by what is suspected to be battery acid were new recruits.

Peters wasn’t heard to say a word to the protesters about such treatment of the police. He was there to lend an ear, to hear the concerns. He was also trespassing.

Whether the unvaccinated have found a representative is uncertain – but at least the hypocrites have.

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