How distrust and deceit turned Parliament into a battleground

There were ugly scenes on the streets outside Parliament, with people throwing bricks at police.

Wellington's protest saw disadvantaged Kiwis, including many Māori and Pasifika, protest alongside white supremacists. In this final part of a three-part series, Kristin Hall asks, how did this happen, and can it be prevented?

Tackling the influence of misinformation on Kiwis will require building trust in public institutions, experts say.

The Parliament occupation, which ended in violence a month ago, became a home not just for those opposing Covid-19 measures, but people claiming to have been failed in other ways.

1News spoke to a tearful man who was living out of his van. He said the protest was "the end of the road" for him.

"When a man loses his home, he comes and lives on your lawn until you give it back."

A woman there to protest state care read a speech about Oranga Tamariki, saying the occupation had become about much more than Covid-19 measures.

"[The Government] are destroying lives, they are destroying families… I've had a horrific life, but it was them in the Family Courts that f***ing took me to the death bed, they took my child!"

She said the Government was committing "murder by proxy" and "they need to go".

Justified distrust

Protesters pour milk in their eyes at Parliament protest

The latest data from the Public Service Commission's quarterly Kiwis Count survey shows based on personal experience, 81% of Kiwis trust Government-run services, a figure that's remained relatively static since 2015.

But an ethnic breakdown of the figures show levels of trust among Māori and Pacific people are lower and more variable. Seventy-four per cent of Māori and 73% of Pacific people trusted Government services as of December 2021, but those figures have dropped as low as 61% in the last seven years.

Indigenous rights advocate Tina Ngata says Māori are less likely to trust Government and other institutions like media, and in many cases there's good reason for doing so.

"We have a long-standing history of Government-centred mis and disinformation that we still have to deal with now… When you have hyper-incarceration of Māori going on… and there are issues of systemic racism that are rife in Aotearoa, but we still have this overarching narrative that 'that's not us' - that's a form of mis and disinformation that we've been dealing with for a long time."

She points to Māori standing alongside known white supremacists at recent protests as an example of how deep the mistrust runs for some.

"It speaks to the destabilising of our own ideas of who's here to help us. Oranga Tamariki is a perfect example. We know there is racial inequity in Oranga Tamariki… There's deep racism within other ministries as well, and the whole time they are harming your family they are telling you, 'We are here to help you.'

"What you get after having generation after generation of the Government visiting harm while telling you, 'We are here to help you,' is a situation where Nazis are saying, 'We are here to help you,' and people will believe them."

Quick fixes

Standoff between protesters and police near Parliament

Marianne Elliott, co-director of research organisation The Workshop, says building up trust is a huge job - but there are some short-term solutions.

"People trust institutions that are controlled, led and shaped by people like them… So there's just a really deep need for inclusiveness and diversity in leadership and the people who are controlling public institutions."

She says that could mean more messages coming from trusted community leaders, rather than Government figures.

"Pass the resources and the money over to people who are trusted in their community. It doesn't mean you don't also have more official resources, but recognising they're just not going to reach everybody."

She says there've been signs growing distrust in communities "for a long time".

"What gets hard and complicated is sometimes those groups seem really clear and really justified in why they would have lost that trust. There are lots of very good reasons why Māori might have distrust in a whole range of official and public institutions, but there might be other groups where that might not be so immediately apparent.

"I know some folks looked at the protest groups in Wellington and wondered, 'Why are these middle-class, white women here? How did they come to distrust official sources?' But when we look at research it's clear that for a long time women in particular have experienced a lot of dismissal of their concerns of their own lived experience in the health system…

"It isn't a surprise that there are groups of people who have lost trust, and it's not a surprise there's other groups of people who have been really happy to exploit that to advance their own agenda."

'Dangerous path' if issues not addressed

Person being arrested during Parliament protest

Professor Richard Jackson from the University of Otago's National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies says the consequences of not addressing underlying issues that fuelled the protest could be grave.

"Things like a sense of grievance, lack of trust in authorities, social deprivation, particular radical groups, these are all social factors that sort of come together to sometimes lead people down a dangerous path."

The latest NZSIS terror threat assessment for New Zealand, issued late last year but released publicly in March, says there's an increasing crossover between anti-vax and extremist ideologies.

"The Covid-19 pandemic and associated restrictions in New Zealand have almost certainly contributed to an environment that is conducive to the spread of threatening anti-authority rhetoric," it reads.

"Threatening online rhetoric is likely to continue to increase as the Covid-19 mitigation programme evolves in New Zealand… The online environment will almost certainly continue to influence violent extremist radicalisation in New Zealand, with individuals operating on platforms which reinforce personal grievances, normalise violence and can provide exposure to high volumes of extreme material."

Long-term solutions needed

So far there've been 250 arrests and 220 prosecutions linked to the Wellington occupation. Jackson says those who've been arrested and are facing court for the first time will need support to stop them from being further radicalised.

"One problem with our justice system is it's very retributive based. We punish people for what they've done, and then they have to live with that stigma and social isolation further. In actual fact it would be better to have some sort of restorative justice approach, which tries to restore people to the community and help them make restitution and find connection and community again."

Ngata says it's important to remember some people who've been caught up in recent protest action have been manipulated.

"We've got to remember these people have been deceived, particularly for Māori, our trauma and our mamae and our experience and our distrust has been exploited and weaponised for somebody else's agenda. There's deep manipulation going on there.

"Until we address the lack of education and understanding around how these levers are pulled… we're going to keep coming up against it."

Read the first two parts of Kristin Hall's series:

Misinformation: Down the rabbit hole, and back

Misinformation: How social media turned protest into a problem


More Stories