Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern points finger 'squarely' at protesters for uprising after Winston Peters blames her 'refusal to engage'

Former Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters is pointing blame at Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern for the uprising at Parliament due to her "refusal to engage". 

But the Prime Minister said on Thursday the blame sat "squarely" with the protesters "who threw the LPG canisters onto the fire, with those who threw bricks at police, who chose to act in that violent way". 

The protest against COVID-19 restrictions ended on Wednesday with a violent standoff between police and protesters that resulted in 89 arrests and eight police officers requiring hospital treatment. 

And that was after the more than 120 protesters arrested during the first major clash with police when the demonstration began in early February. 

In total, 600 police staff were involved in Wednesday's events that saw bricks hurled at cops and 50 firefighters responding to extinguish Parliament's $500,000 playground and multiple tents that had been set ablaze. 

The Parliament forecourt, once boasting a healthy green lawn, is now dug up and covered in rubbish. But with House Speaker Trevor Mallard vowing to restore the grounds and Wellington City Council poised to help, the time for reflection has come.

Ardern on Wednesday pointed blame at conspiracy theories and ideologies from abroad. It's widely accepted the protest was inspired by The Freedom Convoy, a protest in Canada against COVID-19 vaccine requirements for truckers that also turned violent. 

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

"Alongside growth in disinformation, it is accompanied by growth in distrust of traditional forms of access to information, such as mainstream media, and also distrust in Government," Ardern told reporters. 

"The very channels that we have open to us to try and counter disinformation become seen as part of the problem by those who are succumbing to it. It is a complex issue.

"Government will not be able to solve it alone, particularly given the growth in people accessing information in those non-mainstream platforms and media.

"When the debate you're having is no longer based on fact, where does that take you? And that's the challenge."

Former Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters.
Former Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters. Photo credit: Getty Images

Peters, who served as Ardern's Deputy Prime Minister from 2017 to 2020 when NZ First went into coalition with Labour, visited the protest camp last week and did not hold back his belief that the Government should have engaged. 

"Last week I said that this would inevitably turn into something akin to the Springbok Tour if the Government continued their refusal to engage - and it's exactly what happened," Peters said on Thursday.

"It was their refusal to engage that allowed the nefarious violent groups time to begin seeping in from around the country in the first place and eventually take over the protest. 

"Let's be clear, those few-hundred rioters need to be held to account and no one should try to defend their violent actions. 

"But the mistake the Prime Minister is making is attempting to label the entirety of the protest, the thousands that turned up at Parliament, and the hundreds of thousands around the country who supported it, all as a bunch of violent conspiracy theorist deplorables."

Ardern disagreed with Peters' assessment. 

"I absolutely stand by the decision that we made right at the beginning that this was not a protest that was engaging peacefully in debate and in dialogue and that wanted to engage in the way we otherwise see protests do that here," she said on Thursday. 

"From the very beginning, the media were abused and chased away from the site, we saw aggressive and threatening statements on placards. There was a noose hanging on the front lawn of Parliament. It was clear that this was a different protest than what we have seen before."

Police move in to clear protesters from Parliament grounds on March 2, 2022, on day 23 of demonstrations against COVID-19 restrictions.
Police move in to clear protesters from Parliament grounds on March 2, 2022, on day 23 of demonstrations against COVID-19 restrictions. Photo credit: Getty Images

Ardern told Newshub Nation on Saturday that Peters' visit to the protest camp "does demonstrate the strong distance that sits between us on these issues". 

Ardern led a debate in Parliament on Thursday where politicians were able to express their views on what had transpired outside. 

"My message today is simple, Mr Speaker. It is to condemn what happened here. Acts of violence cannot stand," Ardern said in her speech. 

"It is to reinforce that this will always be a place where differences can be expressed, and where that will be welcomed. But that should always be done with dignity, and respect for the place upon which we stand.

"Everyone has sacrificed something in the last two years. But it has not been for nothing, it has been for each other. We just need to keep going a little longer."

ACT leader David Seymour, in his speech, suggested the Prime Minister take some responsibility for what happened. 

"We have to ask why so many people felt that society had abandoned them, that they had so little to lose, that they would occupy Parliament and central Wellington for three weeks in a protest that everybody agrees is different from anything we've seen before. 

"The Government's answer to that question came out last night in what I regarded as a disappointing speech from the Prime Minister. 

"As far as she's concerned, everything is fine, the COVID response is fine - it's all because of conspiracy theories driven by foreign websites. Well, you know what? That sounds like a conspiracy theory in itself."