Opinion: Howl of a Protest as town and country talk past each other

OPINION:

Freedom of speech, gun bans, labour shortages, land grabs, ute tax, environmental rules, money to gangs.

In Kerikeri at noon, all the “hot button” topics were being hammered like the vehicle horns sounding during the Howl of a Protest.

There were a couple of hundred people along the main street watching a seemingly endless stream of vehicles and, like those driving by, they knew why they were there.

Or sort of, anyway. Digging for detail on the policy behind the headlines was difficult.

But there was deep and genuine feeling on display, and rather than detail there were slogans rich with overblown hyperbole. The sign on one ute demanded “No Mugabe government in NZ”.

By any measure, New Zealand is a long way from Robert Mugabe’s despotic regime.

What it signals, though, is that The Great Communicator – Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern – really needs to work on her communication, or have her Cabinet do so.

“I thought I had come to a first-world country where I could express an opinion,” says Gerry Erasmus, 67, who left Zimbabwe in 2003. It had felt that way. Now, he says, “there’s sortof an uneasy feeling”.

Not that he could think of anything he might want to say but now can’t. But that’s the point, he says.

“There’s this thing about the hate speech laws and no firm answers as to what is hate speech. In that sense, people are going to go ‘I’d better be careful what I say’. It instil a little bit of fear.”

In that vacuum, uncertainty. Perhaps fear. Certainly a lack of unity and direction. If it was just the hate speech laws, then hackles might not have risen so much. A relationship can survive with a little misunderstanding.

But it’s not one misunderstanding but many, and seemingly all at once. That relationship between town-and-country has become strained, each talking past the other.

The disagreement might not be so great but who would know when the dialogue from Wellington is out of step with the concern in the regions?

Here in the North, there was rebellion over Significant Natural Areas, a move pushed onto councils to accurately map out special habitats under laws on the books since 1991.

It was poorly communicated, backfired and was then canned. Minister for Climate Change James Shaw – Green Party co-leader – sought to explain his way saying ill-feeling was whipped up through misinformation from “a group of Pākehā farmers from down south”.

He may be right but a month or so on those same “Pākehā farmers” organised today’s protests. If there was misunderstanding at the heart of it, Shaw deepened the divide.

“I do think there could be a big turnaround next election,” says John Worrall, 76, perched on a stone wall with wife Vicky as a stream of town cars, occasional utes and sporadic tractors pass by.

He is frustrated about the hate speech laws (which are not laws yet) and the $2.75 million given “to the Mongrel Mob” (which it hasn’t been). “Because they have an outright majority, it’s like they’re running roughshod over people.”

“End the dictatorship,” read one sign. In 2011, John Key mused over a cup to tea with then-Act leader John Banks about winning more than 50 per cent of the vote. When NZ First’s Winston Peters spun it to media, he described as Key seeking “absolute power”.

Willow-Jean Prime is the local electorate MP – the first to hold the seat for Labour since 1938. She won by a whisker, unseating the inherently unapologetic ute-driving Matt King from National. The tide doesn’t need to turn much to wash Prime away.

There were hundreds and hundreds of vehicles that meandered through the Kerikeri town centre. Democracy breathed deeply and sucked in exhaust fumes. It was a cross between Waitangi Day when traffic goes nowhere and the Santa parade, where the community bonded and cheered at the procession.

There was a hilarious moment when an old workhorse of a tractor popped out of gear and stopped in the Kerikeri main street.

The “Howl of a Protest” became a graunching of gears. The long, long line of traffic passing through the town centre stopped. Silence fell as everyone watched the tractor.

Then the old clunker popped into gear and lurched forward. Cheers broke out and the protest began howling again.

Sally Stanford, 39, of Waipapa, arrived in New Zealand from South African just before lockdown last year.

“To be honest,” she says, “I don’t know too much about it. It’s a good feeling to know that here you can stand up for something and be safe to do it.”

Back in South Africa, it’s a long way from safe right now. She has friends and family there. Knowing what they are confronted with, and what she is experiencing, is to know two different worlds.

“It’s a good time to be here, that’s for sure.”


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