Ananish Chaudhuri

Ananish Chaudhuri is Professor of Experimental Economics at the University of Auckland and the author of “Nudged into lockdown? Behavioral Economics, Uncertainty and Covid-19”. The views expressed are his own.  

The images from the protest in Wellington have been sobering to say the least. All these years, we saw the violent images on our TV screens beamed from far-flung countries, and we felt a smug sense of superiority. That was not us. We were better than this. Now it has all come home and our shared sense of community and pride in being a tolerant society have come crashing down. A naked woman dragged by her hair and put in handcuffs. The Speaker of the House, that modern-day Bull Connor, water-hosing protesters, a move decried by the NZ Police.  

Naked woman pulled by her hair by NZ Police. She was pulled out of the crowd and lost her dress during the struggle.

Trevor Mallard’s continued presence as Speaker within the hallowed halls of our Parliament would be offensive if we had not lost all sense of propriety.  

What is also astounding is that those heaping scorn on the Wellington protesters provided full-throated support for the Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter and similar outpourings of popular disenchantment with the reigning regimes. As if those protests all operated within the law and caused no inconvenience to anyone; as if none of those protests involved questionable slogans or placards.  

So, when it comes to the Wellington protests, why the double standards? If it was so important to listen to those other protesters and their demands (and indeed it was since those protests grew out of legitimate grievances), then why the disdain for our fellow citizens many of whom are protesting the government’s intrusion into our everyday lives and not only the loss of fundamental rights and liberties but at times of our very ability to earn a livelihood?  

What kind of progressivism is this that turns a deaf ear to people who are protesting their very exclusion from civil society?  

It is one thing to laugh and joke with friendly reporters about creating a segregationist society; not so funny anymore when the marginalized show up on the lawns of Parliament to protest their demonization.  

Attempts to dismiss the protests as being “imported” (whatever that means) are quickly losing ground. A recent petition “Don’t Divide us” garnered nearly 90,000 signatures and was tabled at Parliament. A new poll suggests that 1 in 3 New Zealanders support the protests and an ad hoc online poll of New Zealand Herald readers with more than 8000 respondents found 49% in support.   

Regardless of what the government would have you believe, many of those protesting are not anti-vaxxers. Many, like Russell Coutts, are objecting to the element of coercion in all of this. The New Zealand Bill of Rights 1990 s.11 does confer upon people the right to refuse medical treatment. The government’s broad vaccine mandates are seen by many as violating the proportionality rule articulated by the High Court.  The government’s vaccine mandates have been questioned by Amnesty International.   

In fact, it is also the case that, in excluding the unvaccinated from many areas of social life, the government is prima facie discriminating (under s.19 of the Bill of Rights) against a minority that is merely exercising another fundamental right. This is particularly salient given that New Zealand does not mandate any other vaccines; not even for diseases that kill children, such as measles.  

This is exactly why the protests have wide-ranging support from a cross-section of Kiwis; because at its heart, the protests are more about totalitarian control than about public health.   

One may or may not agree with the protesters; one may or may not agree with every slogan, every placard or every sentiment permeating the protests. But the protests do call upon us to engage in some soul-searching and ask: what went wrong with our society and sense of community?  

Because let us be clear: the primary blame here lies with the incompetence, ineptitude and indifference of this government. If the government was serious about dealing with the pandemic then they would have not have dithered on procuring vaccines, banned the import of rapid antigen tests to start with before realizing its folly and confiscating tests ordered by businesses who had greater foresight than the government.  

In Jacinda Ardern and her acolytes, we have a group of left-wing authoritarians who are happy to tear the country asunder if they believe that this will marginally improve their electoral prospects.  

The government’s approach is creating deep divisions within our society leading to suspicion, distrust and rage. These divisions are going to be detrimental for the same vulnerable communities that the government supposedly wishes to protect. The damage to social cohesion will be difficult to repair.  

How did it come to this?  

Ananish Chaudhuri is Professor of Experimental Economics at the University of Auckland. Besides Auckland, he has taught at Harvard Kennedy School, Rutgers University, Washington State University and Wellesley...