Public anger is not new but its expression is changing

Politicians are under threat: Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Grant Robertson (RNZ Picture by Angus Dreaver)

Tim Wilson
Auckland, October 1, 2022

(Acting Prime Minister and Finance Minister) Grant Robertson recently received sympathy (and some cynicism) for his decision to call in the Diplomatic Protection Squad during a visit to Northland.

Protesters followed him around screaming vile epithets such as ‘paedophile’ and blockaded the airport. Some observers made comedic grist of the fact that the protesters also deployed lamingtons as weapons, but there is a serious point here.

Whatever you may think of Robertson’s policies, he is a savvy operator who is typically happy to address opposing views or interviewers.

So, it is a surprise when such a robust figure is floating the possibility of ending the political walkabout for his Party because of security worries.

“We are going to have to think about this election campaign in a slightly different way,” he said.

Intensified anger

Indeed, the conditions for anger have intensified. The unvaccinated have been fired from jobs; the end of the traffic light system doesn’t give them a right to re-employment. Theories abound about igniting resentment through misinformation, conspiracy, etc.

Social media, the reliable culprit, is blamed; chins are stroked. The presumption is that outliers have found new ways to magnify their isolation and their aggression.

Tim Wilson

But “deplorables” are not born, they are created.

Yes, blame Covid. The pandemic has exacerbated the wealth divide.

But the government must shoulder some responsibility.

Covid response, as examined by Maxim Research Fellow Alex Penk, has been a mixed bag, often eroding our Constitutional arrangements. The urgency was overused in passing laws. Minority rights were trammelled. As Professor Andrew Geddis has observed, “if you were trying to construct a law-making process to set off the conspiracy-minded and undermine the social licence needed for success, it would look something like this.”

Put it another way: If those in the Beehive do not follow the rules, how can they expect those on the streets to do otherwise?

Not without precedent

Widespread anger at and resentment of politicians is not new or limited to one party.

In 2012, John Key and Judith Collins were beheaded in effigy in Aotea Square. The argument is that this time is different. Neither of the main parties met the protesters outside of Parliament. Private conversations with MPs reveal genuine fear around the anti-mandate fringe.

Grant Robertson is not alone.

When institutions fail, or the safety rails around them are ignored, as we have seen, our whole body politic suffers. The rise of Donald Trump was, in many respects, a response to the failure of establishment President Barack Obama.

It is concerning that the politics of resentment, a mode often directed at politicians, is being turned back on a segment of voters. Those protesters in Northland may indeed have been a security risk; they are also citizens.

The challenge

The wero (or challenge) to our political class is: Please continue to engage with and be accessible to those who disparage you. Politicians should be held accountable; they also need to be accessible. We are small and mostly connected.

We are Aotearoa New Zealand; let us not become the Disunited States.

Tim Wilson is Executive Director of Maxim Institute, an Auckland-based independent think tank working to promote the dignity of every person in New Zealand by standing for freedom, justice, compassion and hope.

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