As peaceful protest and occupation continue at Ihumātao in Auckland, what does the future hold for protest movements of this ilk in New Zealand? How effective can these sorts of protest be in enacting change? Deb Rawson spoke to Professor Paul Moon about treaty issues, similar protests to Ihumātao in New Zealand’s history, and how social media is changing the reach and access of protests.
Paul Moon is a Professor of History at AUT University. He is an expert in New Zealand history and treaty issues.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length
Deb Rawson: Do you think the nature of protest has changed substantially over the years in New Zealand?
Paul Moon: Probably not. It is probably the same that it has been for decades which is in this sort of case people protest either by approaching a venue or in this case occupying it and typically start out very peacefully. So it is quite similar to what has gone on in previous occupations elsewhere.
DR: In regards to what is happening at Ihumātao at the moment, do you think this is quite similar to past protests?
PM: It is in a way. What makes this different though is this is taking place in effectively a post-settlement environment and that is quite important. Previous protests have either been in anticipation of a treaty claim or in conjunction with one. This really is after the settlement process in this region has been completed and also it is not a claim for crown land, it is a claim for private land so there are some quite important distinctions in this particular protest.
DR: Do you think it being post-treaty sort of shows that there are still issues with the way that treaty settlements are being approached?
PM: Oh, very much so, and I think this is something most politicians have been reluctant to acknowledge. There is a distinction between a settlement and a resolution, and you can look at it perhaps in terms of a divorce, a divorce between two parties is a settlement and after the settlement that is it. But that is not to say that the disagreements between the two parties are suddenly resolved and everything’s fine, and in a way these sorts of things are like divorces but writ large, that the sense of grievance and sense of injustice just gets transmitted from generation to generation precisely because it hasn’t been dealt with. It is a legal settlement but it doesn’t resolve that sense that an injustice has been done.
DR: I think the protests at Parihaka really led the way both in New Zealand and internationally in creating this whole idea of peaceful protesting. For those who don’t know would you be able to describe what happened there?
PM: In a way it is the fate of a lot of protests of this nature, they start out peacefully and being peaceful turns out to be quite an irritant in some cases to the authorities. And so in cases like Parihaka, Bastion Point, what eventually happens is the authorities respond to peaceful protest with force and it becomes a very unequal relationship at that point. You have got one group saying ‘We are trying to do things peacefully’ and another group saying ‘Well, look we don’t approve of what you are doing and the only way we can counter that is through force’.
DR: Do you think the introduction of the Bill of Rights in 1990 really changed the way people approached protesting in New Zealand?
PM: Probably not. I don’t think, if you talk to many of the protesters, they would be aware of the contents of the Bill of Rights. I think it is more just an impulse reaction to an injustice which they feel that something wrong has been done and we have a responsibility to act to see if we can rectify it. The problem is, of course, the laws can’t sanction their own breach so protests of this nature are challenging the law and that is where it becomes much more complicated.
DR: What protests in New Zealand history do you think had the most impact or effected the most change?
PM: It is very difficult to know because the protesters themselves would claim substantial change was bought about through what they did. You can certainly look at Bastion Point as an example of a very successful protest, one carried out entirely on principles of natural justice, it wasn’t designed to necessarily attack other people or some other political motive, it was entirely based on the fact that the protesters knew that what they were doing was right. The same with Springbok tour protesters: those who opposed the tour felt that what they were doing was right and I know some of them have claimed some credit for bringing down the Apartheid system in South Africa. Whether or not that is absolutely true we will never know but certainly some protesters feel that what they do does effect change.
DR: What role do you think social media has had in changing the way protests develop and evolve?
PM: In enormous ways. Firstly, of course, it enables mass communication almost instantly and in a way that gets to people that conventional media wouldn’t necessarily. So twenty or thirty years ago if you wanted to organise a protest you might have a notice in the newspaper or leaflets or something, you might be phoning people to try to get people along. Now you can literally reach hundreds of thousands of people instantly, so it is much easier to get people in a way to consolidate around a cause both in terms of attending and also in using their respective networks. So if you post a message to one particular group they can then disseminate it to their group and off it goes. And so getting many thousands of people supporting a cause is much simpler nowadays depending on the cause of course.
DR: How important do you think protest is in enacting change?
PM: A lot of people would say that protesters are troublemakers and that they simply cause a nuisance. But I would look at it the other way around and say if you don’t have any protests at all ever in a society then the implication must be that that society is perfect, that there is nothing worth protesting about. The reality is we have never achieved a perfect society and although protesters often break the law, sometimes breaking the law is necessary for achieving a natural justice outcome. If you look throughout history, people like Martin Luther King Jr were put in prison for their views, so these people who have helped get advances in society have been punished because they had to breach the rules of the day in order to fight for a greater good. Now I am not saying that every protest fight’s for a greater good and some of them don’t, but there are occasions where society isn’t right and none of the mechanisms seems to fix particular problems so people resort to protesting as a means of trying to address it.
DR: I think it is an important part of our democracy as well?
PM: And it has to be because if we don’t have it, we are presuming that the state is perfect.
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Photo credit: Sam Smith