Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern condemns 'violent' Parliament demonstration 'fuelled by conspiracy theories'

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has condemned the "violent" demonstration at Parliament "fuelled by misinformation and conspiracy theories". 

Ardern's comments came after police arrested 65 protesters - on top of the 132 arrests made in weeks prior - and towed up to 50 vehicles during a major operation to clear the roads and restore order to Wellington. 

The protest outside Parliament against vaccine mandates and other COVID-19 restrictions is in its fourth week, and while police have so far maintained a 'de-escalation' approach, a change in behaviour at the camp prompted a change in response. 

"We were clear from the start that de-escalation was the preferred option. And during a period of engagement with protest leaders we were able to get in place tactics that de-escalated both the number of people and vehicles at the site," Police Commissioner Andrew Coster said on Wednesday. 

"However, we reached the stage where protest leaders were either unwilling, or unable, to affect meaningful change to the behaviour and the impact of the protest in Wellington.

"In the last week we have a changing mix in the make-up of the crowd at the protest - in particular we became concerned that those with good intentions were outnumbered by those with a willingness to use violence to effect their means."

The standoff on Wednesday morning quickly became violent, with footage showing a demonstrator kicking a police officer on the ground, a cop punching a protester, and people hurling bottles and spraying officers with what appeared to be a fire extinguisher. 

Ardern, who for weeks has refused to engage with the "illegal" demonstration, said on Wednesday protesters had been given ample opportunity to leave.

"It will be obvious to those who work in and around Parliament that the protest has at times been violent and increasingly fuelled by misinformation and sadly, conspiracy theories," she told reporters at the Beehive. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern condemns 'violent' Parliament demonstration 'fuelled by conspiracy theories'
Photo credit: Newshub

"It has also become a location of interest. We know COVID has circulated within the protest and there have been hospitalisations as a result.

"Whatever point the protesters were making at the beginning was made but it is time for it to end. I urge all those still there to leave peacefully today."

While Ardern has spoken publicly about not agreeing with every operational decision police took in response to the protest, she praised their efforts and sacrifice. Last week police had human waste thrown at them during efforts to reduce the protest perimeter. 

"I want to pay tribute to our frontline police. They have had to confront not only disgraceful behaviour but also COVID-19. It has been a difficult operation but one that I know we are all very thankful to them for."

But Ardern said there will be a time when reflection on the response is appropriate. 

"I think both the police and the Government will want to make sure that we go back and look at the progression of this protest that turned into an occupation to see whether or not more could have been done earlier to prevent the situation we eventually ended up with."

Those reflections will include whether Parliament was secure enough. 

"I remember working here some years ago when there was no security screening. Now that's a natural edition to make but there has been reluctance to make anything that limits people's sense of connection to Parliament," Ardern said. 

"In the UK you have to make an appointment with your constituency MP in order to come into and watch the debating chamber, so I would be concerned with anything that feels like it's distancing itself from the public, but at the same time some basic measures to ensure we can access the building safely. 

"The second thing is just checking in again on the enforcement powers. If there are threats to critical infrastructure, to make sure the police have what they need."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern condemns 'violent' Parliament demonstration 'fuelled by conspiracy theories'
Photo credit: Newshub

Ardern said the protest has promoted health concerns for some time. 

"You will have heard the police themselves talk about their concerns around not only COVID-19 but the conditions generally, so that has been an added layer to what has already been a highly problematic, difficult, illegal occupation. 

"It has become a place where COVID has spread. It has become a place that has led to cases moving to other parts of New Zealand. It has caused hospitalisations. 

"It also put the police themselves at risk. I think now is the time to acknowledge the risk that they took, the job they've done, and the time for reflection will be after it has been resolved."

Ardern did not hesitate telling the protesters to leave. 

"I have no qualms calling out what has happened here in Wellington and stating unequivocally for some time they have needed to go home and that is because very early on this tipped from being a protest - which we frequently see here at Parliament and welcome as an open democracy - to into an illegal occupation using violent tactics and threats, including to children and school children, quite early on."

The five groups representing the Parliament protest - Convoy 2022 NZ, Freedom Alliance, New Zealand Doctors Speaking Out with Science, Outdoors & Freedom Movement, The Freedom and Rights Coalition and Voices for Freedom - released a statement condemning media coverage. 

"New Zealanders should not have had to resort to social media channels to discover the true picture of what is happening in Wellington."

Newshub's social media team pointed out in a Facebook post that all of the footage in the latest video montage came directly from protesters' livestreams and social media.

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