Winston Peters' Parliament protest visit 'demonstrates the strong distance between us' - Jacinda Ardern

Winston Peters' Parliament protest visit "demonstrates the strong distance that sits between us", Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says. 

Ardern made the comment during an interview with Newshub Nation's Simon Shepherd on Saturday, when asked if she as Labour leader could ever work with her New Zealand First counterpart again. 

"These are all hypotheticals, but I think it does demonstrate the strong distance that sits between us on these issues," Ardern said. 

Peters, who was Deputy Prime Minister in the Labour-NZ First Coalition Government from 2017 to 2020, earlier this week toured the anti-COVID-19 vaccine mandate protest at Parliament. 

He visited the protest on Tuesday - the same day that three people were arrested, and three officers were taken to hospital after being sprayed with an unknown substance. It was the day after human waste was thrown at police by the demonstrators. 

The NZ First leader - who lost his position in Parliament following the 2020 election after his party failed to get 5 percent of the vote or win a seat - mingled mask-free with the crowds, where COVID-19 cases have since been confirmed. 

"I hope to encourage the protesters to demand that they be heard," Peters told AM the following day. 

In stark contrast, Ardern has refused to engage with the protest, describing it as "illegal" due to the hundreds of illegally parked vehicles in the surrounding area and the tents pitched all over Parliament's lawn. 

Despite forming a Coalition Government with NZ First in 2017, Ardern appeared to throw cold water on the idea of that ever happening again. 

"Look, I disagree with the fact that, you know, individuals have chosen to embolden people who are undertaking illegal behaviour, whether or not that's a politician or anyone else, I would say, to anyone choosing to join," she told Newshub Nation. 

NZ First leader Winston Peters visited the protest on the same day that three people were arrested, and three officers were taken to hospital after being sprayed with an unknown substance.
NZ First leader Winston Peters visited the protest on the same day that three people were arrested, and three officers were taken to hospital after being sprayed with an unknown substance. Photo credit: Newshub

The Parliament protest is entering its third weekend and police are urging people to stay away. 

"Police would like to reiterate the warning to those thinking of travelling to Wellington to participate in the unlawful protest this weekend - don't," a statement released on Friday afternoon said. 

One person was arrested on Thursday afternoon after attempting to move a bollard with their vehicle. The bollards were installed by police earlier this week at the entrance of streets surrounding Parliament to prevent more vehicles from setting up at the protest. 

The protest appears to be thinning out, according to police, with about 300 vehicles remaining in the cordoned area, down from 800 at its peak. There have been a total of 132 arrests made to date in relation to incidents at the protest grounds.

Police estimate there are about 30 children at the protest whose safety they fear for. 

No regrets?

Ardern stands by her decision not to engage with the protesters. 

"This is actually a point that we've made to the protesters that, you know, we've had much larger protests than even what we've seen here," she told Newshub Nation. 

"They often have engagements with politicians. They'll often even speak on the forecourt. I've spoken on the forecourt of protests. The point is, engagement occurs and then people disperse. What we saw here was very quickly individuals coming onto the site and building structures, creating a permanence and abusing the people who were around them who were doing things simply like wearing masks. 

"So it was very quickly evident that this was not a protest to engage in the peaceful statement or sharing of a view, but those who are willing to engage in illegal activity."

Ardern responded to the recent snap Horizon poll that showed 30 percent support for the protesters. 

"I've seen others that have a lower number, and I also draw on the fact that we've seen in recent times surveys that show New Zealanders at 75 percent support for the measures that we currently have in place to protect people's health and slow down Omicron or believe they should be stronger. 

"Look, you know, at any given time, there will always be a group of individuals who disagree with the Government's actions, and it's always the case."

Ardern also responded to National leader Christopher Luxon's assessment that she's leading the most divisive Government in recent times.

"I totally disagree with that. Having a group of people - albeit a small one - who disagree with the steps we've taken to keep people safe, does not mean the whole country is divided. It means that there is a difference of opinion, albeit a strongly held one and one that I do believe in the very near future people will move on from because the measures we have to take for people's safety will change."

On the protesters' demands to end vaccine mandates, Ardern pointed to her announcement on Monday that the restrictions would be rolled back once Omicron has peaked in roughly three to six weeks. 

It comes as the High Court quashed the vaccine mandate for police and Defence Force staff in a bombshell ruling on Friday

"We've always said it hasn't been about case numbers anymore. With Omicron, it's very different to what we've seen with others because we are vaccinated. We know that actually, we can now safely have cases in the country and not have as many restrictions, but we won't know our ability to cope till we have peaks," Ardern said. 

"So I will not remove safety protections for all New Zealanders based on the protests of a few if it jeopardises their health."

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