Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern refuses to engage with 'illegal' protest, insists involvement at Ihumātao 'not the same'

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is still refusing to engage with the anti-vaccine mandate protest occupation at Parliament, describing it as "illegal". 

Ardern is also rejecting comparisons to the protest occupation of Ihumātao in 2019, which the Government did engage with - resulting in a $30 million agreement overseen by Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson. 

"I do not consider this to be the same," Ardern told reporters on Thursday. 

Ardern's comments came after New Zealand First leader Winston Peters, her former Deputy Prime Minister, made the comparison on Twitter. 

"The PM just said the protest at Parliament is illegal because they are setting up camp and that MPs shouldn't get involved and leave it up to police," Peters wrote. 

"At Ihumatao they set up camp on privately owned land and she covertly sent in her ministers to negotiate..."

Ardern did not elaborate on how the situations were dissimilar, though there are some identifiable differences, such as illegally parked cars blocking roads in the surrounding area of Parliament, and death threats made to politicians.  

The Prime Minister said her focus was on the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"It's at the top of our minds. And what's top of our minds is we're seeing increasing cases - a significant increase today and that is not unexpected," she said in Rotorua.  

"But it demonstrates that actually, amongst the activity on the forecourt, the major focus for me and the Government has to be the growing pandemic and keeping people safe.

"There has throughout our pandemic response been calls from different quarters to remove restrictions, to lessen things that ultimately protect us and keep us safe. 

"[The Parliament protest] happens to be the current incarnation of that but that doesn't mean we should step away from those things at the very time we need them, that are keeping people well and safe."

Ardern said her Government's response kept Kiwis safe. 

"Throughout the last two years, we have seen people who have opposed some of the measures that have ultimately resulted in New Zealand having one of the lowest death rates and hospitalisation rates in the OECD. So, that is not new. 

"What is new is that for the first time, New Zealand really is seeing this pandemic on our doorstep. It is growing, and so with that, the Government must remain focussed - and we are - on continuing to keep people safe. 

"There will be a time when we will be in a position to move away from restrictions in the same way that we've moved away from lockdowns and that we're opening our borders. But right now is not that time."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo credit: Getty Images

Ardern said she did not expect the protesters to leave soon. 

"I don't expect it necessarily to change quickly," she said. "I think we're all prepared that it may take some time. That won't change our focus. 

"What is happening there is illegal. We're all clear on that. But despite that, it will not change our focus. We have a duty of care to all New Zealanders that as this pandemic grows we're focussed on them and their wellbeing."

Ardern said protesting is "not illegal in New Zealand" but "building camps on the lawn of Parliament, obstructing the ability of young people to go to school, of workers to operate, and harassing those who are wearing masks and taking measures to keep themselves safe" is "absolutely unacceptable". 

A protest with no end in site 

For 10 days now, protesters have camped outside Parliament demanding an end to COVID-19 vaccine mandates and other restrictions related to the coronavirus. And despite being trespassed from Parliament grounds, a large group of protesters remains.

Police Commissioner Andrew Coster on Tuesday activated a major operations centre at police national headquarters in Wellington to support the operation "following ongoing protest activity that is unreasonably impacting the city". 

Coster said protestors had "not taken up the offer and nor have they shown any concern for the negative impact of their activities", which included blocking traffic in the surrounding area - forcing some businesses to close - and reports of locals being harassed. 

Assistant Commissioner Richard Chambers said several vehicles were voluntarily moved and he was "encouraged by influencers within the group calling for roads to be cleared", but "it will take some time for this conversation to work its way through to a solution". 

"We've been very clear in our intent to unblock the roads and protestors have had ample opportunity to comply with the law and the standard conditions for all protests and demonstrations on Parliament grounds. This also means removing all structures such as tents and marquees."

Protesters have occupied the surrounding area of Parliament for more than a week.
Protesters have occupied the surrounding area of Parliament for more than a week. Photo credit: Getty Images

Police last week arrested more than 120 protesters after House Speaker Trevor Mallard issued a trespass notice. But a core group remained, despite the Speaker's controversial attempts at dispersing them with sprinklers and loud music

Mallard on Thursday announced there would be no dialogue "until the protest returns to one within the law, including the clearing of all illegally parked vehicles that are blocking streets, the removal of unauthorised structures, and the cessation of the intimidation of Wellingtonians". 

Ardern would not comment on the operation. 

"I'll be absolutely consistent on this: the way that the protest and the occupation are managed is for the police," she said.

"It is so important that you don't have politicians stepping into the space where we're seen to give instruction on that. It's a convention we won't break."

However, she did not shy away from expressing a view. 

"We've been very clear on our view on what is happening there. In this country, we are all used to, and accept and celebrate, the fact we're a democracy where protest can occur. But what this has turned into is no longer a protest and we've been very clear on that."

A spokesperson for the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) confirmed to Newshub the Officials Committee for Domestic and External Security Coordination (ODESC) was convening on Thursday. 

ODESC provides strategic advice to the Prime Minister on security and intelligence matters. The group includes bosses from police, the two spy agencies, foreign affairs, and the Defence Force. 

ODESC was convened in 2019 after the March 15 Christchurch terror attack.

"It's not unusual for ODESC to meet," Ardern said. 

"To give context, it's agencies coming together, so that's happened at an agency-level at the request of the New Zealand police, because there are multiple agencies that are affected by the protest. The courts, for instance, sit opposite Parliament and have been affected.

"It enables agencies to coordinate their responses together."