Thomas Coughlan: Parliament occupation inevitable, but end should also be


The protest-cum-occupation of Parliament has an air of inevitability about it.

Vaccine mandates, and a system of affording privileges to people who decided to get vaccinated were inevitable, as evinced by the broad parliamentary support for some kind of mandate system.

While most people agree mandates don’t breach people’s rights (people do have a choice not to the jab, after all, and the mandates can be justified in a free and democratic society), the Government’s broad mandate system certainly walks up to the line.

If not getting jabbed means you lose your job, and are shut out of community pubs, restaurants and libraries, it’s not unfair to say the current system gets close to effectively forcing people to be vaccinated. A protest against such measures is as inevitable as the measures themselves.

Given the anti-mandate crowd are only anti-mandate because they’re anti-vaccine, and they’re only anti-vaccine because of conspiracy theories about its provenance and efficacy, there’s also an air of inevitability about the involvement of neo-Nazis and associated far-right conspiracy theorists and cranks with the protest.

Just what level of involvement these people have with the protest is unclear. Their social media, easily accessible via messaging apps, suggests a high-level involvement, but fringe groups tend to big note when talking to each other about their power. The leaked communications with Cameron Slater in Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics would suggest he ran the John Key Beehive. People in the room are less sure.

I have walked through the protesters on five of the days since it began, talking to anyone who would chat. Like many journalists, I’ve found some protesters friendly, fair, and likeable, and others to be intimidating and anti-social. Stories of MPs, most recently the accounts of Sarah Pallett and Steph Lewis, show an even more intimidating side to the protest.

Many protests I’ve witnessed in person – Occupy and the anti-Trans-Pacific Partnership marches, for example – have had an occasionally intimidating conspiracy fringe. The Parliament occupation is different in that the conspiracy fringe is not so much a fringe, but a large portion, and possibly a majority, of the protesters. Indeed, the protest has itself grown out of a conspiracy theory about vaccines.

No occupation that I’m aware of has made such violent and such frequent threats against MPs, passing workers and schoolchildren. People have protested against governments regulating away their jobs since time immemorial, but very few have brought swastikas and nooses along for the ride.

The Prime Minister rightly feels unobliged to answer the demands of people threatening her and her Cabinet.

But as she is responsible for examining conditions and policies that have allowed such anger and misinformation to thrive.

The protesters’ central demand that vaccine mandates be dropped is a difficult one.

Vaccine mandates enjoy broad parliamentary support. Act is perhaps the least vociferous backers, and believes businesses should be able to decide for themselves whether their workers will be mandated. Public sector mandates would be devolved to individual school boards and DHBs.

People would be able to “test out” of getting jabbed by getting regularly tested to ensure they didn’t have Covid.

Leader David Seymour suspects many organisations would still choose to mandate their staff get the jab, but some smaller organisations might opt out. He reckons it would take “some of the heat” out of the protesters’ cause.

A strong argument, but the Government’s reasoning for the current system is also strong.

A voluntary system creates gaps for people like young children who cannot be vaccinated, and creates difficulties for people who despite being vaccinated are still vulnerable to getting seriously ill if they catch Covid.

Allowing large numbers of unvaccinated people to congregate in schools, pubs and restaurants undermines the reason why people got vaccinated in the first place: to enjoy life with a greatly reduced risk of getting sick.

It’s easy to imagine a situation in which even a small city like Wellington had a handful of non-vaccinated venues, each of which would put parts of the city’s highly vaccinated population, and their children at risk. Parents would not want to send their children to school with unvaccinated teachers; nor would people be very happy being treated by unvaccinated nurses.

People, by and large, support mandates right now. A November 1-News Kantar poll put their support at 74 per cent.

The politics of that will change, as – fingers crossed – the pandemic wanes, and new generations of vaccine achieve sterilising immunity; that is,totally prevent infection (something which may be impossible).

Until that time, the politics of vaccination will have to contend with the awkward question of the desire of vaccinated people to enjoy the freedoms of vaccination, and the necessary restrictions that will impose on people who continue to refuse the jab, and their desire to speak up about those restrictions.

Much like MIQ, the mandate system can only be justified by its impermanence. But, again like MIQ, expect to see much disagreement over just how it gets wound down.

That too, is inevitable, but just when and how it gets wound down will be one of the key questions of politics this year.

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