Overall security arrangements for Parliament to be reviewed following anti-mandate protest - Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson

Rubbish left at Parliament grounds on 3 March, 2022, following a three-week occupation by anti-mandate and other protesters.
Rubbish left at Parliament grounds on 3 March, 2022, following a three-week occupation by anti-mandate and other protesters. Photo credit: RNZ

As damage to Parliament's grounds and surrounding streets is assessed the future of protest in New Zealand, both online and in person, will have to be reconsidered, Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson says.

This morning parliamentary services workers are out in gloves beginning the work of dismantling and disposing of piles of debris left strewn across the site when protesters were forced out by police yesterday.

The violent scenes ended a three-week occupation, and left behind couches, clothing, tents and gazebos, barbecues, gas bottles and camping gear, as well as the gaps left when paving stones were torn out and hurled at police and charred damage from fires lit in a final desperate stand.

A ripped-up pavement outside Parliament is seen on 3 March, 2022, a day after the bricks were used as projectiles, which protesters hurled at police.
A ripped-up pavement outside Parliament is seen on 3 March, 2022, a day after the bricks were used as projectiles, which protesters hurled at police. Photo credit: RNZ

The grounds of Parliament are closed until further notice. In a statement, speaker Trevor Mallard said repairs would begin soon: "For health, safety, and sanitary reasons, I ask that all members of the public please stay away till advised otherwise".

In a tweet last night, he said Parliament will have to have a wall and gates that can be closed when needed, but that he wanted to "retain the openness and accessibility of our House and Grounds".

Deputy Prime Minister and Wellington Central MP Grant Robertson told Morning Report that throughout the protest he was confident police were controlling the situation and the buildings would not be breached, but nevertheless the protesters' actions were disturbing and have forced the government to reconsider demonstrators' access to Parliament's grounds in the future.

"I think for a lot of Wellingtonians, Parliament and its surrounds have a really significant cultural importance to us, so for everybody it was just so shocking to see that. I'm incredibly grateful to all of the police and emergency services for putting their own safety at risk to protect us."

One low point was the burning of a children's playground in Parliament's grounds, he said.

"That [playground] is a symbol of something the Speaker has tried to do here in Parliament over the last four years - to make Parliament more accessible, so that families and groups who come here can feel at home here.

"And ... two huge old pohutukawa that are very familiar to Wellingtonians, who eat their lunch in the shade underneath them - I was very fearful that they would go up as well. They didn't, I think due to the extraordinary efforts of our emergency services."

Questions are now being asked over whether future protests will be allowed into Parliament's grounds.

"There will be a review of the overall security arrangements for Parliament. It is a really careful balance that we have to strike here," Robertson said.

"I think for New Zealanders the idea that you can come and protest at Parliament is a really important one, and many of us have been involved in protests at Parliament over the years.

"We want to try and continue to protect those rights, but we have to obviously think about the safety and security of the people who work here and live around here. We'll take some time to work our way through that... I'd like to think we can protect that, while also making sure we get our security arrangements in order."

Robertson said the speaker would have to consider whether to try to recoup the costs associated with the protest from those involved in the protest, but he was doubtful it would be practical.

"These are abhorrent groups that I want nothing to do with, I don't think they've got a place in a normal functioning democracy."

Robertson said after the 2019 Christchurch mosque attacks, work was already underway to consider what can and should be done about hate materials spread online.

"Regulating the internet is not the easiest thing, but we do need to make sure that we get to the root causes of the disinformation and misinformation.

"Over the last three weeks... there certainly were some sadly misinformed people being manipulated by others with malignant intent, and that is a terrible situation to be in. So yes, there's a responsibility to all of us to look at how we can stop the spread of mis- and disinformation."

He expects prosecutions are likely.

"I imagine the police will be looking very closely at the footage yesterday, and the content that's gone along with it over the last few weeks.

"The level of threats to people who work here - to politicians, to journalists - has been extreme and extraordinary, and then the actual scenes of yesterday - there is a lot of footage floating around, so I imagine the police will be taking a very close look at it as they assess their next steps."

Wellingtonians had been volunteering to help with the clean-up, Robertson said. But officials would keep the work groups limited to professionals, due to safety and sanitary concerns about what remains at the sites.

"But a time will come very soon I hope, where Wellingtonians will be able to come through the grounds."

The problem of misinformation

A researcher of the far-right said some remaining protesters in Wellington who still refuse to leave are beyond being reasoned with.

Disinformation and conspiracy researcher Byron C Clark told Morning Report the discord seen in Wellington isn't likely to disappear overnight.

"I've already seen one influencer on Telegram encouraging people who've been at the Wellington protest to go back to their own towns and start their own protests, with the goal of spreading police resources thinly around the country. So we haven't seen the last of them," he said.

A core group of those involved in the Wellington anti-mandate protest had been radicalised by online disinformation, he said.

"Some of these groups appear to be well resourced ..."

"There's likely to be some funding there, and these groups we do know are linked with more international disinformation networks..."

The repercussions of such influences are potentially wide ranging and long-lasting, he said.

"We need to be having that discussion around the role that disinformation and misinformation is playing in our politics now, because it's not an issue that's going to disappear.

"We need to be talking about media education and literacy, we need to talk about where it's appropriate to have regulation of social media and who gets to do that regulation - whether we bring in something like the broadcasting standards authority, but also covering social media.

"There's a big discussion to be had, and I think we're in the first stages of having that discussion as a society. "

Clark said it is most likely to be friends and whānau who can start one on one discussions with those who've been radicalised to help them to see their way out of the "rabbitholes" of disinformation.