Feb 20, 2011

RWC Protest: A few thoughts

From today’s Sunday Star Times;

DISGRUNTLED Maori have warned that Rugby World Cup celebrations could be disrupted if their grievances – including those over the foreshore and seabed – aren't addressed.

I believe this is a tangible threat. Maori are beginning to grow impatient, certainly the younger generations are frustrated with the pace of change. The older generations are willing to accept, and are indeed accustomed to, sluggish progress, whereas young Maori are accustomed to a world that moves fast, a world where change is rapid.

The government would be wise to treat this threat as genuine. It would be incredibly reckless to disregard this as mumbo jumbo coming from the mouths of a few disaffected brown people. The possibility of mass protest is very real. The protest organisers will, I imagine, have little trouble mobilising thousands of protestors given the high unemployment environment, likely welfare changes and passage of the MCA bill. As Maori households continue to struggle political awareness will increase. The challenge is to channel that awareness into mass political action which admittedly is easier said than done. It is worth keeping in mind though that for Maori households, and of course many non-Maori households, it is painful knowing that you struggle but not as a consequence of your own actions. It is painful knowing you struggle due to incompetent economic management and a failure, on the government’s part, to neutralise the worst effects of their economic policy, for example the rise in GST. In my opinion poverty and deprivation, i.e. the current economic conditions, should be enough to amplify political awareness and facilitate political change.

Maori have identified an opportunity to push the government hard and they have a powerful weapon – leverage. Protest action, or the threat of, will deter more than a few overseas spectators. The government literally cannot afford to let this happen. The government looks to the RWC in the hope that it will stimulate the economy and help kick start growth. A significant decrease in spectator numbers will have a profound negative effect on the economy, after all the tournament is already forecast to make a loss. Therefore, it would be reckless for the government to disregard the threat of protest action.

The government also cannot afford to contain any protest. Given the authoritarian nature of the current government I can imagine the creation of “free speech zones”. Free speech zones are an undemocratic American creation used to contain protests. They are used to keep protestors out of the public eye, make them invisible. Of course such undemocratic behaviour would never be acceptable in New Zealand, or at least I hope it would never be acceptable, therefore the government would need to search for different means. How about kettling? This would be the worst response. There is no better way to turn a peaceful protest in to a riot. Maori respond in kind to physical confrontation. Without doubt things will turn very, very ugly. This would have the flow on effect of mobilising many more Maori. Violent clashes during such an international showpiece will do nothing for New Zealand’s reputation as a safe and stable tourist destination nor will it do anything for New Zealand’s standing in the international community.

Ultimately, for the sake of the economy and our international standing, the government cannot allow any protest during the RWC. Therefore, the protestors will have a significant amount of leverage.

However, the protestors should consider this. The international media are not going to pay any attention to an insignificant minority making some noise during an insignificant sporting tournament. The likes of the colonial Stephen Jones are not going to cover any story that is not related directly to what is happening on the rugby field. The international media present will be, by and large, sports journalist from Europe and covering political demonstrations in New Zealand will not be part of their brief or expertise.

There is also the threat of clashes between Maori and die hard rugby fans. Do Maori really want a repeat of the Springbok Tour? Is it really fair to divide the nation during what is meant to be a triumphant moment in New Zealand history? Is it not better to hold ones protest at the ballot box? Vote this scum government out?

Protest during the RWC will create anti-Maori feeling that will last a decade or more. Having said that equality and justice is more important than what others think of you. Sadly, New Zealanders fail to realise their own privilege, even if they did I am unsure they would have the courtesy to extend that privilege to the underprivileged. New Zealand is not an egalitarian country. We are a country divided, divided along class lines, divided according to ethnicity and divided along ideological lines. We are not equal, we are unequal. We are a country where the privileged are determined to preserve what they have over the rest of the country. Whether that be weakening work rights or failing to acknowledge the interests of the indigenous people. The privileged operate under the assumption that their rights are paramount and exclusive. Perhaps it will take mass political action during the RWC to effect change for the underprivileged, perhaps it will take mass political action during the RWC to win the rights that the privileged enjoy.

The government should not ignore the warnings. Maori will wreck the government’s precious tournament. All Maori ask for is equality.  

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