Destiny Church leader Brian Tamaki met virtually last week with Police Commissioner Andrew Coster ahead of planned "freedom" protests this weekend.
The controversial preacher is a founding member of the Freedom and Rights Coalition, which says it is holding protests across the country on Saturday, including in Auckland and Christchurch. They're described as "not a Destiny Church event" or "even a Christian event", but instead a "peaceful and family-friendly stand" for "all those concerned with the state of our nation". There will also be picnics at the event.
The group, which says it has members from all walks of life and is a mix of both vaccinated and unvaccinated people, opposes the Government's COVID-19 management "including border breaches, unnecessary lockdowns, vaccination pressure and bribery".
Coster and deputy Commissioner Wally Haumaha spoke with Tamaki on Friday to discuss safety measures at the protest in light of COVID-19 restrictions. When the protests occur, Auckland will still be at alert level 3, where people are asked to stay at home most of the time, and the rest of the country at alert level 2, where gatherings are capped.
Following the meeting, Coster wrote to Tamaki summarising their discussion. In the letter, provided to Newshub, Coster says "whilst it is unusual for me to be involved in this kind of discussion, it reflects my concern about the level of interest in this gathering and its potential size".
"I do not wish to end up in the position that other jurisdictions have when policing protest activity, and prefer to take a preventative approach," Coster says.
The planned protest follows chaos in Melbourne last week after rallies against the city's lockdown as well as vaccine mandates and the temporary shutdown of the construction industry. More than 200 people were arrested and there was conflict between protesters and police officers.
The top cop mentions Tamaki has said organisers intend to run the protest "lawfully", such as by having two metre distancing rules "in an effort to avoid a gathering as that term is defined", and operate QR scanning. The coalition's website sets out these measures, including stating that sanitiser would be available.
"In our conversation you also agreed that you will mandate mask wearing by those in attendance," Coster says.
While Coster says Tamaki agreed to "mandate" mask-wearing, the Freedom and Rights Coalition's website says "it is your personal choice as to whether you will wear a mask at this event". The group says it will have free masks available.
"We will be encouraging as many people as possible to wear a mask as a small price to pay to keep the police happy," it says.
In encouraging followers on Facebook to wear masks at the events, the coalition received negative backlash. One person said they were standing up for their freedoms "yet somehow we are ment to abide by these ridiculous rules from above [sic]", while another said: "Wait what? So we are fighting for freedom while complying". Others said they won't wear masks or won't socially distance.
In his letter, Coster says the current health order "requires that people do not leave their homes except for essential personal movement, which creates a risk to those attending this planned event. Police respects that protest is part of a free and well-functioning democracy".
"However, that must be weighed against the lawfulness and reasonableness of the protest activity. As we have indicated, gathering for a protest run other than in compliance with the law carries with it the risk of COVID transmission and may lead to enforcement action, including against yourself as an organiser.
"As I noted in our discussion, I am concerned about the positioning of the protest up to date, in particular the use of the phrase, 'Let's get arrested'. You’ve indicated it's not your intention that people should be arrested but that they should be prepared to be arrested for what they believe in.
"We would ask that you clarify your public messaging on this point, i.e. be clear that you intend to run this event safely, and that you do not intend people to act in a way that leads to their arrest.
"Your leadership in this matter will have an impact in protecting the wellbeing of the community and those who decide to attend. My focus as Commissioner of Police is on ensuring community safety. Please note that in continuing with your planned event, you do risk an enforcement response by Police."
Speaking to the NZ Herald, Tamaki said "we agreed to cooperate [with police] and we will make sure we are COVID responsible".
"This is a peaceful protest to say lockdowns are damaging our livelihoods and the mental state of this country."
Asked what she thought of police communicating with Tamaki about the protests, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she needed to leave police "to do their job".
"I have confidence in them to deal with every compliance issue they face with the right judgement. There are judgement calls in all of this," she said.
"What I would say about the protest generally, no one wants lockdown, no one wants restrictions, no one wants a situation where, particularly those who regularly engage with the community, be it through spiritual worship, or be it through community groups or clubs, or kids in their playgroups, no one wants them separated longer than they need to be."
Ardern said the Government was "desperate to get rid" of the restrictions.
"I just implore people to help us get rid of them by following those rules because as soon as we feel comfortable removing them, we will, and to get us back to normal and to get back to those gatherings that they are looking for."
Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield echoed Ardern's comments.
"I do have confidence in the police to take an approach that is appropriate to minimise any risk there might be. We have seen them do that repeatedly through this lockdown where there have been organised protests that have eventuated and organised protests that haven't eventuated, probably because of their intervention."
In the FAQ section of the Freedom and Rights Coalition's website, it raises the question of whether attendees will be arrested.
"We have been in active dialogue with the NZ Police who have agreed to assist our event," the FAQ section says. "They will have a police presence, as they recognise in principle our right to peacefully protest.
"They have asked only one thing of participants, that we each wear a mask. We believe this is a small compromise to make for the sake of the greater good of this event. This will still come down to individuals making this personal choice for themselves though.
"No one should fear being arrested if they remain peaceful."
The group says there will be security to ensure participants behave peacefully. It says it's not aware of "gangs coming along, but all Kiwis are welcome to attend as long as they are peaceful, family-friendly and happy to support our kaupapa".
One of the group's leaflets advertises a "food drive" following the Saturday event at the Auckland Domain with "10 tonnes of free food". It doesn't mention the stand beforehand or what the coalition is protesting.