Wellington Parliament riot: Former top police negotiator points blame at Speaker Trevor Mallard for aggravating anti-mandate protesters

A former top police negotiator has pointed blame at Speaker Trevor Mallard for aggravating the Parliament protesters in the early days of the demonstration.

The weekend of February 12 marked the beginning of when the protest at Parliament against vaccine mandates and other COVID-19 restrictions took a major turn. 

After 120 arrests and several days camping out on the forecourt, as the weekend came around, House Speaker Trevor Mallard turned the sprinklers on the demonstrators and blasted music all weekend in an attempt to drive them off the grounds. 

The protesters responded by digging trenches in Parliament's lawn to redirect the sprinklers. They also blasted their own music in a show of defiance. The protest grew significantly, with about 800 vehicles at its peak and more arrests. 

Former top police negotiator Lance Burdett told AM on Thursday setting the sprinklers on the protesters was "an error" because at that point they just wanted to be heard. 

"Initially I think turning the sprinklers on and playing music was a bit of an error. That was an error because if you push on people today, they push back twice as hard," Burdett told AM. 

"You've got those outliers with that abhorrent behaviour you're always going to see in those groups, but there was a core group of very solid people who were there just to say 'we're here and you're not listening, please listen'."

Burdett said it was out of the police's control because Parliamentary Services own the building and the police were just there to provide support and maintain law and order. 

"They wouldn't have had any influence and rightly or wrongly they haven't made any statement about that, '' Burdett said. 

"It would be something I suggest that they never do because, also with the police were the advanced negotiation team, of which I was a part of years ago. They know that if you do those sorts of things towards people it would cause an affront. 

"Lessons were learned there."

Former top police negotiator Lance Burdett.
Former top police negotiator Lance Burdett. Photo credit: Newshub

Opposition parties lashed out at the Speaker's response. National's Shadow House Leader Chris Bishop announced plans to lodge a notice of motion of no confidence in Parliament. 

"Actions like crowd-sourcing songs for a Spotify playlist to play to protesters and turning on the sprinklers have made people wonder what on earth Mr Mallard was doing," Bishop said at the time. 

"You can disagree with people without disrespecting them, and Mr Mallard's petulant behaviour has only inflamed an already tense situation."

Mallard's office did not respond to Newshub's request for a response.

With the protest now over following a violent standoff between police and protesters on Wednesday that resulted in 87 arrests and seven officers requiring hospital treatment, the Speaker is vowing to restore the grounds. 

"A recovery plan for the grounds has been developed which includes working with mana whenua and coordinating offers of assistance from volunteer groups," Mallard said in a statement. 

"Due to assessments of the grounds' condition that must take place before that work can begin, and for health, safety, and sanitary reasons, I ask that all members of the public please stay away till advised otherwise."

Parliament's $500,000 playground was set ablaze.
Parliament's $500,000 playground was set ablaze. Photo credit: Twitter

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who refused to engage with the "illegal" 23-day protest, condemned the demonstrators over their "desecration of Parliament's grounds". 

Parliament's $500,000 playground was set ablaze as well as tents. The forecourt, once boasting a healthy green lawn, is now dug up and covered in trash and hay, which the protesters laid down after the ground was soaked during the sprinkler debacle. 

"One day, it will be our job to try and understand how a group of people could succumb to such wild and dangerous mis- and disinformation," Ardern said on Wednesday. 

"We have a difficult journey in front of us, to address the underlying cause of what we have seen here today."

Burdett said while he would expect the Prime Minister to keep her distance from the protest, a member of the Government should have met with the protesters early on at a location away from Parliament to at least hear them out. 

"Now, I would expect the Prime Minister not to talk. I would hope that our Prime Minister is busy doing other important things," he told AM. 

"But somebody senior from the group could have gone down and spoken with them. Not in that environment though - you've got to take people away from the scene because the scene is the hotspot. 

"Yes, there's disparate groups. The outliers won't want to go to that meeting so you'll get some good people going. Listen to what it is they have to say, just like accepting a petition at Parliament, away from the scene. 

"And then the Government might have said, well you know what, we are starting to look at reducing some of those mandates now anyway."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo credit: Newshub

However, members of the Government were facing threats at the time. Placards showed Ardern compared to the late Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and a message written in chalk in front of the convoy's camping site said read 'hang em' high'.

Ardern said there was a long road ahead to understanding how COVID-19 conspiracy theories took off in New Zealand. 

"Alongside that 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. 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," Ardern said. 

"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."