THE PROTESTS in Wellington could well be our own Trump or Brexit moment as a country. Already we have seen many faces to this ongoing demonstration. It has swung wildly from Peace and Love to Hang ‘Em High.
Beyond the call to end Covid mandates, there is a seething tumble of messaging that suggests that much more than this is afoot. And if you can look past the incoherence, the delusions, and the toxic versions of freedom and individualism … there are things for all of us to learn and listen to here.
I see the protests is as an expression of a much wider breakdown of social cohesion that has been going on in our country for more than a generation. I do blame economic management — by both National and Labour governments — for most of this. But I also understand that there are many factors involved here including the unanticipated impact of new technologies like social media.
When seen as a breakdown of social cohesion, the Wellington protestors are not “other”. They are absolutely connected to, and are a consequence of, the choices being made by the Parliamentarians across the same forecourt that is now being defended by police officers.
The protestors are also absolutely connected to issues that existed well before Covid. They are a consequence of the choices being made in all our communities as we try to face the emergencies and unexpected changes that continue to disrupt any sense of business-as-usual.
Social cohesion is a weaving of the intangible and the unlegislated. Its bonds make up the fabric of our communities, and determine our resilience in times of change.
Social cohesion is made up of 1,001 varieties of how we get to say “We”. It includes the degree of trust that exists between us as citizens, and the regard that we hold for our major institutions. It includes our willingness to embrace diversity, to welcome strangers and to listen to strange points of view.
This cohesion gives us a shared sense of what constitutes the common good. And it also gives us a commitment to the common responsibilities we need to hold in order to keep that goodness and wellbeing thriving.
Without this cohesion, we are condemned to be living in a bitter marketplace where everyone is just on survival-mode or scrambling after their own appetites.
Without this bonding, any efforts — such as a government bringing in public health mandates that affect people’s livelihoods — are just doomed to face the sort of push-back that we are currently experiencing.
I’m not sure any of us can expect this protest “movement” — or really, this internet-connected mob — to be coherent or even kind. Our political culture can’t spend 40 years actively dis-investing in the “We”, encouraging everyone to chase their own self-interest, and then expect the losers in this bitter new world to be articulate and leaderful and appreciate the collective wisdom behind public health measures.
The Coronavirus has at times brought out the best of New Zealanders. But it has also shone an inconvenient light on many of the cracks and contradictions of our national life. This especially applies to how the virus has highlighted our rapidly-growing inequalities.
The “team of five million” has not been true for too many people for too long. This is what makes this protest our own Trump and Brexit moment. The continuing gap between the rich and comfortable, and the poor and struggling, has been a major driver of the breakdown of our social cohesion. And the polarisation it brings to our society is ripe pickings for political (and religious) opportunists and demagogues.
The great shame is that, during this Pandemic, the economic management of our Labour administration has “accidentally on purpose” made this gap in wealth inequality so much worse. Historically worse.
Earlier this month, financial journalist Bernard Hickey spoke to the Tuesday Club. He pointed to official Statistics NZ figures which show us how much inequality has exploded since the onset of Covid.
Hickey reported that Government and Reserve Bank policies have helped make owners of homes and businesses $952 billion richer since December 2019. These Covid years have actually seen what Hickey calls “the biggest transfer of wealth to asset owners from current and future renters in the history of New Zealand.”
Meanwhile, those New Zealanders who have missed out on that asset growth have been hammered with real wage deflation and rents rising faster than incomes. Hickey reports that the poorest are now $400 million more in debt and need twice as many food parcels as before Covid.
Yes, we certainly can ask the anti-mandate protestors to take responsibility for their acts of violence and menace, and their many instances of disrespect to the citizens of Wellington.
But you can’t really blame these protestors for their incoherence, or for disappearing into weird conspiracy theories, when so many of them also have to face these fundamental economic storms battering away at the cohesion of their daily lives.
vivian Hutchinson is a trustee of Community Taranaki, and the author of “How Communities Awaken” (2021)