A public protest is a means for people to complain in a public way about something they think is wrong and build support to correct it. Protests can take the form of an individual writing a letter to a newspaper – or a march of thousands along city streets. Some protests target specific people or companies, such as consumers’ boycotts of a particular product or service. More often protests are aimed at stopping or reforming public policies and laws and, therefore, are directed at politicians and governments.
Public protest is an important aspect of New Zealand’s participatory democracy. It is a way for people to have their voices heard by politicians and, conversely, for politicians to keep abreast of community concerns. This encourages stable government. While not all public protests achieve their objectives, some have been important in reshaping government policy and in influencing public opinion. For example, the 1975 Māori hīkoi (land march) paved the way for the return of land to Māori under the Treaty of Waitangi settlement process.
In 2007 Valerie Morse was arrested for burning a New Zealand flag at an Anzac Day ceremony, in a protest against New Zealand’s military involvement in foreign wars. Morse was charged with offensive behaviour in a public place. She was convicted in the District Court and lost appeals in the High Court and Court of Appeal. But the Supreme Court overturned the conviction, saying that offensive behavior required proof of an intolerable disturbance of public order. This was not proven in Morse’s case and her freedom-of-expression rights should have prevailed.
The right to public protest is guaranteed under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990. This gives every New Zealander the right to freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly. These freedoms are limited by the need to protect other people’s rights and maintain national security, public order and health, and morality. Such limits are not always clear. Sometimes police have shut down public protests, only for the courts to find their intervention has breached protesters’ rights.
Most protests occur in towns and cities, where there is more chance to shape events and be heard. Public spaces – such as squares, parks and streets – are used for protest rallies and marches. Some spaces assume great importance as sites of protest. Cathedral Square in Christchurch has hosted public protests since the 1880s; Wellington’s Pigeon Park (later called Te Aro Park) became a hub of protest in the 1930s. Often protest marches will follow a particular route. In Auckland, most protest marches flow down Queen Street, the city’s principal thoroughfare. Many marches in Wellington wend along Lambton Quay and finish on Parliament’s forecourt. Parliamentarians sometimes meet these protests to address the crowd and express their views on the protest cause. Often the government will receive a delegation from the protest to hear their concerns.
In 2003 Mothers Against Genetic Engineering (MAdGE) slipped past Parliament’s security and staged a public protest in Parliament’s gallery. They stripped off their shirts, baring bright pink bras and anti-genetic-modification banners in front of MPs. As chants of ‘Mums say no to GMOs’ (genetically modified organisms) rang through the chamber, a security guard escorted the protesters away. Asked why the bras, a MAdGE spokeswoman said: ‘Well, they look good, and pink’s our colour.’1
Private spaces can also become targets of public protest. In 1990 a group from the Unemployed Workers’ Union briefly occupied the boardroom of the Business Roundtable (an influential pressure group), which it accused of promoting policies that created unemployment.
While many public protests involve the occupation of public spaces – pickets, marches and rallies – some communicate grievances through letters, petitions and the arts – paintings, sculpture, and literary and musical composition. The internet has opened up new means of protest. Social networking sites such as Facebook enable users to begin a public protest almost instantly, by setting up a new page where people can register their support. Such sites are also used to organise protests, such as the anti-rape SlutWalk marches in 2011.
Letter writing is a simple form of public protest. A letter to a newspaper editor or a politician is an easy way for an individual to highlight an issue and initiate public debate. In January 1841 Wellingtonian A. W. Shand wrote to a local newspaper protesting about the New Zealand Company’s land sales process, sparking letters for and against his view. Protest groups sometimes initiate letter-writing campaigns where people are encouraged to send letters or emails to the media and decision-makers in support of the protest. Some groups organise form letters or emails that individuals can sign; others prefer supporters to compose their own letters as these look less staged.
A 1970 survey of 109 Christchurch people who had signed a petition found that 49% felt their petitions had achieved something, another 30% were not sure, and 21% felt their petitions had not achieved anything. The survey concluded that the public believed petitions were an effective way to communicate to Parliament.
Petitions are a formal request for a higher authority to consider a grievance. Signatures are collected by street canvassers or through community networks. In the 21st century online petitions made the collection process easier. Petitions are then presented to the authority (usually Parliament or a local authority) for consideration. If the petition gains significant support, politicians are more likely to address its concerns. Major petitions have included:
Many petitions fail in their aim. During the 19th and 20th centuries Māori often used petitions to protest the alienation of their land as well as the withdrawal of fishing and other customary rights. From 1882 some representatives travelled to London to present their petitions to the British Crown (their Treaty of Waitangi partner). Invariably these were referred back to the New Zealand government, where they rarely got a sympathetic hearing.
Anyone can petition New Zealand’s Parliament to ask it to act on a legal or public policy matter or to correct a community or private issue. It needs to be signed by at least one person and can only be presented to Parliament if other statutory remedies have been exhausted. When a petition is ready, it is delivered to the clerk of the House of Representatives by a supportive MP. It is then presented to the House and given to the relevant select committee. The committee can seek further submissions and will issue a report on the petition with, or without, recommendations to the government. The government then has 90 days to report on what action it will take on the recommendations.
A 1909 meeting to protest the government’s offer of a warship to the British navy filled Christchurch’s Lyceum theatre, with a further 2,000 people turned away. A newspaper reported that a ‘very large section of the audience was antagonistic to the protest and all the speakers were interrupted by the singing of “Rule Britannia” and “Red, White and Blue.”’ MP Thomas Taylor moved a motion against the government’s action, which was seconded and carried. ‘A pandemonium ensued and hooting followed,’ said the paper.1 (The warship was bought.)
Meetings are typically held in public halls or theatres. They comprise a series of speeches where protest leaders outline a grievance and suggest solutions. The meeting might also hear divergent views from the ‘floor’ (audience). Sometimes songs and anthems are sung to rouse the audience. Towards the meeting’s end leaders will formulate resolutions that summarise the gathering’s view and the action to be taken to progress the issue. Usually these are put to the meeting to gain its support.
Rallies are held outside in public spaces such as parks and squares. Speakers will address the assembled crowd to explain the protest. The speeches may be preceded or followed by songs, anthems and chants. One of the largest rallies occurred during the 1951 waterfront industrial dispute, when on 3 June up to 17,000 people gathered in Auckland’s Domain to support the wharfies (waterside workers). Often rallies are held at the beginning or end of protest marches to rally and fire up participants.
Sit-ins and occupations happen when a group occupies a place to highlight a grievance. A sit-in usually lasts a day or so, but an occupation can extend for weeks or even years.
One of the most famous sit-ins was carried out by a group of Nelson women in September 1955. Angered by the government’s decision to close the local railway, the women occupied a goods shed at Kiwi station (near Glenhope) to stop its demolition. As news of the protest spread more people began a sit-in on the railway’s tracks, stopping trains. After 10 days, the police arrested nine women, including Sonja Davies, later a trade unionist and MP. The women were convicted and fined. The railway was still closed.
On 4 July 2011 Christchurch businessman Andrew Everist staged a sit-in at the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) premises in the art gallery. He had been told his shop – damaged in the Christchurch earthquakes, and located in the restricted central-city ‘red zone’ – was to be demolished that day. Everist wanted access to his premises to rescue stock and belongings. Wearing a high-visibility vest and hard hat, he said he would not budge until the matter was resolved. His last-ditch protest led CERA to delay the demolition.
Sit-ins became popular during the counter-culture era of the late 1960s and early 1970s. When US vice-president Spiro Agnew visited New Zealand in 1970, anti-Vietnam War protesters staged a noisy sit-in outside his Auckland hotel, until violently removed by police just before midnight. During the same year feminists helped end the tradition of men-only public bars by conducting sit-ins (or ‘pub liberations’) at city hotels.
In February 1978 Eva Rickard led a sit-in at the Raglan golf course. The land had been taken from her sub-tribe, Tainui Awhiro, for a military airfield during the Second World War – and was then turned into a golf course. She wanted it returned to its original owners. Rickard and others were arrested and removed, but the land was given back to the hapū in 1987.
Sit-ins remained an activist tool in the 2000s. In December 2009 protesters held a sit-in at Wellington’s stock exchange to highlight New Zealand business’s responsibility for climate change. The event featured ‘radical cheerleaders’ and a samba band. In February 2011 animal-rights protesters sat on top of silos at a Pukekohe battery-hen farm to protest the caged birds’ living conditions. After 14 hours they came down and were arrested by police.
Occupations have been strongly associated with Māori grievances. In the 19th century Māori sometimes occupied land they disputed had been sold, or that had been sold from under their feet by rival claimants. Some occupations, such as that by Ngāti Kauwhata at Pukekura in the late 1870s and 1880s, lasted many years. Following the 1975 hīkoi (protest march about Māori land loss), Māori revived the strategy of occupying disputed lands.
In January 1977 protesters occupied former Ngāti Whātua ki Ōrākei land that the government had compulsorily purchased at Bastion Point, Auckland. The protesters wanted the land given back to the tribe. In May 1978, after 507 days, the police arrested 222 protesters and evicted the rest. Following a Waitangi Tribunal report in 1987, much of the land was returned to the tribe.
Pākehā sometimes used occupations as a protest tool as well. In 1978 several protesters camped in the canopies of tōtara trees in Pureora Forest, stopping forest workers from felling them. Their action was widely supported and led to the suspension of native-forest logging at Pureora and elsewhere.
Whanganui Māori began a 79-day occupation of Moutoa Gardens in the centre of Whanganui in February 1995. The group was protesting Māori land loss and wanted to restore the mana (guardianship) of Whanganui Māori over the place, formerly an important site of Māori trade known as Pākaitore.
In October and November 2010 Ngāti Kahu protesters occupied land outside the Taipā sailing club in Northland. The group wanted the land returned to them as part of a Treaty settlement process, but because it was private land it was unable to be considered. After police issued trespass notices to the protesters, they briefly occupied a plot of land next door.
Taking their cue from overseas 'Occupy' movements in mid-2011, New Zealand supporters set up their own camps in public spaces in Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin. The movement arose in the United States and was seemingly a protest against the perceived greed and immorality of corporate capitalism. However, its spokespeople said it had no set protest goals. By the end of 2011 the movement appeared to be waning.
Pickets consist of a line of people standing in a public space, and are sometimes used to inhibit the passage of people and goods. Usually the picket is staged outside the target of protest, such as a workplace, or a council or government office. Protesters usually bear placards with terse and (sometimes) droll slogans about the protest’s aims or grievance. Some picketers sing and chant.
When, in 1913, Odlin and Company’s timber carters were ‘stuck up’ by a drivers’ picket in Newtown, Wellington, and asked to leave work, Mr Odlin telephoned the police. Within ‘a few moments a troop of 10 came up at a full gallop, and the pickets rapidly dispersed.’1
Pickets are strongly identified with industrial disputes and are often formed to discourage strikebreakers and others from entering a workplace. This may lead to scuffles and violence between the two sides, which can result in police intervention and arrests. In December 1999 in Lyttelton, picketer Christine Clarke was killed when she was knocked down by a truck crossing the picket line. The driver, Derek Powell, was tried and found not guilty of causing her death.
Most pickets are peaceful and disperse once they feel their point has been made. Some pickets are creative. In 1986 fears that Wellington’s historic Mission to Seamen building was about to be demolished led protesters to link hands and encircle the building, preventing demolition workers from moving in.
A blockade involves stopping the passage of goods or people over a certain line. Usually it takes the form of blocking a thoroughfare such as a road.
Perhaps the earliest blockade was by Porirua Māori. In 1841 a group obstructed road construction through disputed lands between Wellington and Whanganui by ‘tapuing [placing ritual restriction on] a river over which it was necessary to pass.’2 The tapu was lifted after Governor William Hobson intervened. Some 165 years later, in September 2006, Ōmuriwaka Māori blockaded a road through the Urewera Range on the grounds that it ran over their land. They charged $10 per head for people wanting to access what was then Te Urewera National Park. The blockade lasted until April 2008.
Between 1870 and 1875, Māori in the King Country strictly enforced the aukati line, which delineated Māori- from Pākehā-controlled land. Pākehā who crossed the line faced imminent death. In 1870 the government surveyor Richard Todd was shot near Pirongia. Three years later the farm labourer Timothy Sullivan was chased down, shot and decapitated, and had his heart cut out, in a gruesome killing that alarmed Pākehā settlers.
The removal of survey pegs and the ploughing of Pākehā-occupied land was a type of blockade because it impeded European settlement. In 1879 the Taranaki leaders Tohu Kākahi and Te Whiti-o-Rongomai oversaw the ploughing of confiscated land that had been occupied by Pākehā, culminating in the government invasion of Parihaka in 1881.
Blockades do not only occur on land. In August 2009 Greenpeace activists briefly blockaded a trawler in Auckland Harbour to protest overfishing of endangered species. Some blockades are more trivial. Incensed by Wellington airport’s plan to put up a ‘Wellywood’ sign on a Miramar hillside, in May 2011 protesters organised a slow-moving vehicle blockade of the airport’s drop-off area, jamming traffic.
Boycotts protest against the actions of a business or country by suspending some or all relations with it.
In July 1912, to ‘protest against alleged misrepresentation of the “Capitalistic” press’ of actions taken by unionists, miners at Millerton decided to boycott Westport papers and all tradesmen that advertised in them.
In the late 1930s watersiders boycotted shipments of scrap metal to Japan on the grounds that it could be turned into weapons. During the 1970s many New Zealanders supported boycotts of goods from Chile and South Africa to protest against their repressive governments. In 1980 New Zealand joined an international sporting boycott of the Moscow Olympic Games to protest the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan.
Two high-profile local boycotts both involved Greymouth and beer. In 1947 hotels in Greymouth all raised the price of beer. This led patrons to boycott the hotels. After a four-and-a-half month standoff, the pubs backed down and lowered the price. DB Breweries’ 2001 decision to close its Monteith’s brewery in Greymouth led to a national boycott of the brand. The brewery quickly reversed its decision.
A protest march is a procession of people along streets or roads to publicise a grievance. Marches use symbols and rituals such as flags, banners, placards, songs and chants that express the identities and aims of the marchers. In moving along a particular route, marches offer greater public exposure than protests that remain in one place.
In 1843 Aucklanders marked the end of Willoughby Shortland’s reign as acting governor by carrying his effigy through town before burning it. Wellingtonians did the same to Shortland’s successor, Robert FitzRoy, when he was recalled two years later.
The first protest marches were associated with effigy burning. Protesters would build an effigy of the person at the centre of their grievance, then march it around streets while hissing and hooting, before throwing it on a bonfire. Possibly the largest early march happened in Hokitika in 1868, when some 800 people marched to protest the execution of three Irish nationalists in Manchester, England.
Urban workers and the unemployed have used marches to highlight industrial disputes or lack of work. In 1886 nearly 500 unemployed and famished Aucklanders marched through the city demanding work. Among the first union marches were during an industrial dispute in Waihī in 1912. Strikers, their wives and children expressed solidarity by marching through Waihī streets. During the 1930s economic depression the unemployed held regular protest marches. The largest, in the main centres, numbered several thousand.
By the late 1930s political marches were becoming more common. In 1938 the Christian Pacifist Society started regular sandwich-board marches through Wellington streets. In 1949 protesters marched against colonial rule in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). During the 1950s a New Zealand Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) was launched, and introduced protest marches based on the British Aldermaston marches (held between London and the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston). The first was at Easter 1961, from Featherston to Parliament.
Youth frustration with the conservative political consensus of mid-20th-century society led to the counter-culture period of the 1960s and 1970s. It was a time of heightened public protest with street marches opposing the Vietnam War, the suppression of Māori and women’s rights, environmental degradation and nuclear testing in the Pacific. Conservatives sometimes responded by organising their own marches, including the 1972 Jesus marches, protesting against perceived sexual permissiveness in society.
A march to Parliament on 17 June 1968 saw a convergence of issues. Among the groups marching were unionists protesting a nil wage-rise order, opponents of the Vietnam War, seamen wanting better safety at sea, Māori protesting land alienation, students demanding higher bursaries and campaigners protesting rising prices. When Prime Minister Keith Holyoake appeared, the 4,000-strong crowd surged forward, partly breaking the police cordon and leading to tussles. The media represented it as a near-riot – riots had recently broken out in Paris – but this was a beat-up. Only two arrests were made.
Hīkoi usually refer to Māori protest marches, many of which begin in tribal areas and travel to a city. The 1975 hīkoi from Northland to Wellington was a protest against the continuing alienation of Māori land. Led by Whina Cooper, it gathered strength as it moved south and filled Parliament’s grounds. Later that year the Waitangi Tribunal was set up to investigate Crown breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi. In 2004 a large hīkoi protesting the Foreshore and Seabed Bill – removing a perceived Māori customary right – also ended at Parliament.
During the 1980s and early 1990s there were large protest marches against the 1981 Springbok rugby tour, Treaty of Waitangi breaches, homosexual law reform and neo-liberal economic reforms – and in support of women’s rights. A variation of the protest march were the peace flotillas of sailboats and small craft that protested port visits by American warships in the 1970s and 1980s. Union protest marches climaxed in the 1980s and early 1990s, after which government reforms curtailing union power encouraged alternative protest strategies.
A decrease in protest marches in the late 1990s and early 2000s led some to ask whether the great age of protest had passed. One explanation was that a new political consensus had emerged so there was less need to protest. This was challenged by the 2004 hīkoi – and again in 2010 when the government proposed mining national parks. Many saw this as an assault on the understanding that such places were untouchable. It resulted in the ‘biggest protest in a generation’1 (40,000 people) marching down Auckland’s Queen Street, leading to a swift government back-down.
In October 2010 fears that Peter Jackson’s film The Hobbit might be shot offshore sparked protest marches in Wellington and elsewhere. Carrying banners declaring ‘New Zealand is Middle Earth’ and ‘We love hobbits’, the marchers hoped their protest would help convince the film studio to make the film in New Zealand. Their support – and a multi-million-dollar government subsidy to the studio – did the trick.
That marches remain a potent protest tool was highlighted in July 2008 when nearly 15,000, mainly Chinese, Aucklanders marched in South Auckland to protest violent crime there. The march signalled a new assertiveness among Asian communities to make their voices heard. As in the past, youth have led new protest issues. In June 2011 hundreds of young protesters attended SlutWalk marches in Auckland and Wellington. Marchers argued that how women dressed was a red herring in sexual attacks: perpetrators, not victims, were responsible for rape and sexual assault.
Destructive and violent public protests are relatively rare in New Zealand. There have only been two reported deaths from protest action – the first during the 1912 Waihī dispute, when Fred Evans was shot, and the second in 1999, when Christine Clarke was run over at a Lyttelton picket. Even so, some public protests have included wilful property damage or resulted in injuries to participants and police.
In 1845 Ngāpuhi leader Hōne Heke protested his disillusionment with colonisation by ordering the chopping down of the British flagpole at Kororāreka (Russell). Each time the pole was re-erected he had it chopped down again, a process that culminated in war between British troops and northern tribes.
A ‘riot’ occurred in Timaru on Boxing Day in 1879, when 40 Irish Protestants (known as Orangemen) tried to join a march of friendly societies. A 150-strong group of Catholics blocked their way, crying, ‘Remove your colours’ (regalia celebrating an English victory over the Irish in 1690). The Orangemen refused, and fights broke out. After a tense standoff the Protestants removed their colours.
Many Wellingtonians supported the wharfies. When the special constables entered the city each morning, protesters abused them and threw stones and bottles. The specials adopted protective gear: folded towels around their necks and newspaper or other padding in their hats.
In late October 1913, in protest at being locked out by their employers, Wellington wharf workers declared a strike and took control of the wharves. Prime Minister William Massey brought in special constables from rural districts to restore order. In a series of street clashes the two sides exchanged punches and beatings. On 5 November a large troop of mounted specials and regular police charged the strikers and retook the wharves.
The Auckland ‘riot’ was vividly captured in John Mulgan’s 1939 novel, Man alone: ‘Johnson saw a baton go up and an arm raised and the little man [Edwards] go down with a blow on the side of the head, and then at once men seemed to know where they were going. He was knocked aside … It was a wild business, like a dream in which no one seemed real any longer.’1
During 1932 unemployment protests turned violent. On 9 January in Dunedin, hungry unemployed workers rushed Wardell’s grocery store, but were prevented from looting by police. On 14 April thousands of Auckland protesters were unable to get into a town-hall meeting. As their leader, Jim Edwards, rose to speak, he was struck down by a police baton. This created uproar: protesters ran down Queen Street smashing windows and looting shops. On 10 May 4,000 protesters in Wellington marched to Parliament. After an unsuccessful deputation to Prime Minister George Forbes, a small part of the crowd rushed along Lambton Quay, breaking shop windows. The next day protesters at a Cuba Street rally were charged and batoned by police. The protests saw many arrested and imprisoned. While Dunedin police acted with restraint, police actions in Auckland and Wellington inflamed events. Officially, protesters were blamed.
Rugby supporters eagerly anticipated the first Springbok tour to New Zealand since 1965. Opponents associated the Springboks with the racist South African apartheid regime and urged the government to stop the tour. It refused and the team arrived on 19 July. Anti-tour campaigners tried to halt the tour’s progress by blocking roads and attempting to invade rugby grounds. Running street battles and violent clashes between tour opponents and supporters became commonplace. Struggling to control events, the police batoned protesters, with bloody results.
In 2008 three peace protesters broke through security fences at the Government Communications Security Bureau at Waihopai and punctured an inflatable million-dollar satellite dome. They said they were saving lives in Iraq by disrupting satellite transmissions. The men were charged with burglary and wilful damage. They used the claim of right defence – that lives were more important than property. The jury agreed and the men walked free.
During a power cut at a free rock concert in Aotea Square, Auckland, on 7 December 1984, a few of the 10,000-strong crowd began throwing bottles at police. There were several arrests and police asked for the concert to be stopped. In protest, some in the crowd rioted, smashing shop windows in Queen Street and upturning cars. The singer Dave Dobbyn was charged with, and later cleared of, the charge of inciting the riot.
Derby, Mark. ‘Wellington at war – the 1913 strike.’ New Zealand Geographic 80 (July–August 2005): 38–44.
Harris, Aroha. Hikoi: forty years of Māori protest. Wellington: Huia, 2004.
Petitioning the House of Representatives. Wellington: Office of the Clerk of the House of Representatives, 2010.