The Conversation: Occupation of parliament is over – now New Zealand needs new laws to protect ‘the epicenter of its democracy’
The protestation. Photo/Mark Mitchell
New Zealand is no stranger to protest or protest violence. But what happened inside the precincts of Parliament for 23 days in February and March was unique – and, ultimately, extreme.
A country that cringes at unruly wild camping by tourists has found itself with an unlicensed campsite in one of the least suitable places imaginable. And it ended violently.
How the government and Parliament react to what happened is important both for the future of legitimate protests and for the security of Parliament itself.
A review of security arrangements for parliament has already been reported, but the nature and funding of the protest itself also requires careful consideration. Overall, a legislative change specific to the Parliamentary Precinct may be required.
Keep the ground open
There is no specific legal right to protest. Rather, it is a manifestation of the broader rights to freedom of movement, association and peaceful assembly. Internationally, these are protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its related framework of human rights treaties, and domestically by New Zealand’s Bill of Rights Act.
In practice, the right to protest is evident in the country’s history. The events that shaped generations and made New Zealand one of the freest and most liberal democracies happened both outside of parliament and inside the legislative chamber.
From women’s rights and redressing injustices done to Maori, to workers’ rights and foreign policy reform, the grounds of Parliament have been a forum for dissent. Indeed, if there was room for another sculpture in the park, it would have to be ordinary people delivering a petition to lawmakers.
It is therefore essential to keep the land as open and unfenced as possible. A new bespoke law for the parliamentary precinct – including clear pathways for lawful and orderly protest – should be created.
Rules with consequences
It is important to remember that the right to protest is not absolute. There is no right to violent or illegal demonstrations. But while the existing laws to prosecute offenders are adequate, there are obvious shortcomings.
First, New Zealand has more laws about respecting the flag than protecting the epicenter of its democracy. Even at the symbolic level, this must change.
A starting point would be to place parliament alongside Te Pitowhenua, the Treaty of Waitangi ground, as a national historic landmark. Citizens should be encouraged to view the capital of the nation’s political and legal history with equal respect.
Currently, the grounds of Parliament are vested in the Queen under the effective control of the Speaker of the House, whose job it is to authorize and moderate protests. The rules prohibit various actions, including:
* damage lawns and flower beds
* interfere with traffic flows and drive on the ground
* climbing the main steps of parliament or interfering with the use of parliament buildings
* excessive amplified sound and construction of structures such as tents
* general disturbances to public order and demonstrations lasting more than eight hours or until late at night.
To enforce the rules, the speaker can issue a notice under the Trespass Act. But the ineffectual nature of these powers was laid bare during the occupation, with protesters largely indifferent to weak penalties.
Any new legislation specific to the parliamentary precinct should maintain the existing right and ability to protest lawfully and peacefully, but increase penalties for non-compliance.
Foreign funding and interference
Beyond the behavior of the protesters, their ideological origins and funding need to be better understood. Similar “anti-warrant” protests elsewhere are believed to have received foreign funding. Did this happen in New Zealand?
This is an important and difficult question. The flow of charitable support across borders for lawful purposes is a good thing. But charitable or other financial support is not always benign.
There are already laws in place to protect New Zealand elections from foreign interference by prohibiting foreign donations to political parties and candidates. This concern must extend to foreign interests that attempt to foster lawless or extremist behavior within New Zealand protest movements.
Such transparency will necessarily involve examining events in Parliament (and other places of protest) as a starting point, to see if groups and individuals, here and/or abroad, have attempted to ” incites, procures or encourages violence, lawlessness or disorder” under the Crimes Act, or violates broadcast standards and publicity codes. There are also civil law issues, such as whether wrongdoing has been committed by registered charities.
And beyond the legal considerations, there is the thorny question of how misinformation has spread as fast as the Covid virus itself.
None of this is simple. And in the past, New Zealand has sometimes reacted harshly to protests or dissent – for example after the 1932 hunger marches and the 1951 seafront lockdown.
At other times, wiser advice prevailed when it came to mending the social fabric. One example is the creation of the Independent Police Conduct Authority in the decade following the 1981 Springbok Tour protests.
The challenge for lawmakers this time is to find deeper solutions that take into account the importance of protest, but also to address the problem of disrespect and defense of the epicenter of our democracy. At the same time, it will be important to understand how this manifestation was different.
Suppressing future protests is not the answer. Likewise, it is urgent to prevent another episode like the one the country has just experienced.